Renewable energy transforms lives in the Global South. CEES partner EnAct is thrilled to be hosting ‘Distributed Renewables for People and The Planet’ in partnership with the Global SDG7 Hubs and The Energy Talk. An overview and link below to Episode 1 on aligning ‘practical solutions and policy action’.
Access to energy: an evolving target in need of transformative solutions
“About 15 years ago, India announced it had reached its goal to electrify all villages,” says Gauri Singh. “But that probably meant one or two establishments were connected to the grid. Then they aimed for 10% of households within every village but clearly that is not inclusive. And it didn’t take into account that many habitations are just a few households in remote areas.”
At the time, Ms. Singh was well into her career as a senior bureaucrat in the Indian government, working primarily in the areas of improving livelihoods, empowering women and making the case for access to water as a basic human right.
In parallel, Harish Hande, Founder of SELCO Foundation, was one of the few people working on solar-based solutions who started by asking ‘what do people really need?’ In remote areas, being able to charge mobile phones without walking several miles to the next village was transformative. In urban slums, a traditional drum-making community would only invest if SELCO engineers created a ‘solar cart’ they could pack up and move quickly if/when city officials showed up with razing orders.
Both Ms. Singh and Mr. Hande are now keenly aware of the huge potential for off-grid solar – and a wider range of technologies that support ‘distributed energy’ – to achieve SDG7 goals more quickly, for less cost and in a more democratic way than grid connections.
“It needs to be understood that providing decentralised energy doesn’t mean anymore that you are providing an inferior form,” says Ms. Singh. Now Deputy Director General at the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), Ms. Singh is pushing energy ministers from across the Global South to take large-scale action on SDG7.
In a first episode of a new podcast series “Distributed Energy for People and the Planet”, co-produced by The Energy Talk, the Global SDG7 Hubs and The Energy Action Project (EnAct), both Ms. Singh and Mr. Hande emphasise the need to integrate practical solutions and policy action.
Aligning power solutions and power players
Climate change is already having devastating effects on India’s small-hold farmers – where almost 50% of the population ekes out part of their living on approximately 2 acres of land. Recent heat stress is linked to 30% of chicks dying and milk production in cows plummeting by a similar share.
Across the Global South, these climate-driven problems create a perfect opportunity to generate systemic solutions that counter both poverty and livelihood insecurity while helping communities engage in climate change mitigation.
To boost productivity and incomes, SELCO Foundation has aggressively been developing highly efficient technologies that can operate on off-grid solar systems. Across the agriculture value chain, for example, solar power is driving seed planters, irrigation pumps, millet graders, threshers and cold storage systems. This suite of technologies supports the build-up of local markets and economies.
As Mr. Hande knows from decades of experience, getting such solutions to millions of farmers is a far more complex challenge, which policy can help or hinder. In fact, a paradox exists.
“When you have no policies, your ability to innovate is very high,” says Mr. Hande. But a breakdown often occurs in that many innovators do not become ‘implementers’, and eventually policy gets in the way by seeking standardisation where customisation is needed. Both groups need to collaborate closely, he says, in part to be sure innovators don’t complain when policy is ineffective.
Such an approach is about to transform rural and remote health care in the northeastern state of Meghalaya. Having seen the potential of highly efficient technologies SELCO Foundation developed for diagnostics, safe deliveries and cooling for vaccines, etc., Ms. Singh (while still working for the Indian government) approved a project with SELCO Foundation to upgrade health facilities in her State with solar energy. The success of this project prompted other State Government officials to approve similar programs in their own States. Today, SELCO Foundation, along with National and State level Health Government Departments, has a target to electrify and equip 25 000 health clinics with solar energy by 2026.
The combination of solar power and energy efficient equipment transforms the health services remote clinics can provide. Photo: SELCO Foundation.
“Often, health centres are located at some distance from a village, which means they don’t have access to a grid,” says Ms. Singh. “You cannot attract health providers to facilities where they can’t provide services. [Solutions like] these will remain very important applications of decentralised energy.”
Redefining access to energy: what it takes and what it enables
“The parameter of having access to energy does not mean development is taking place,” says Mr. Hande. “If I look at 100 years ago, when there was no electricity, people were still middle class and rich. Today, even if people have 100% electricity, they are poor. So electricity access is not the answer: the critical issue is understanding what people want to do with those electrons.”
Based on her experience working closely with communities, Ms. Singh raises two related points. First, development agencies and governments must stop going into communities with pre-determined solutions, which implies the false assumption that these people somehow lack capacity to express their own needs and participate in developing solutions that meet them. And second, that it is men who carry out the vast majority of labour in rural areas. In fact, as more men migrate to urban areas in search of paid work, women typically work the land and manage household energy. As such, technologies need to be designed for them.
Across the Global South, Ms. Singh sees greater commitment by energy ministers to achieve SDG7 targets. But decades of experience in planning and policy making for large-scale grid systems has not prepared them for integrating the ‘new kid on the block’ named decentralised (or distributed) energy. Scaling up off-grid electricity supply holds enormous potential to reduce pressure on existing grids and even to lower (or at least delay) the need to build more grids. But these systems will also disrupt the way grid operators need to balance demand and supply, and potentially affect revenue streams for utility companies.
“At present, there is no clear sense of who ‘owns’ the decentralised energy policy space, and so it is being dealt with in bits and pieces,” says Ms. Singh. “In fact, several ministries might need to be involved – agriculture, women’s empowerment, the health department, etc. But if nobody owns it, decentralised energy policy won’t come together as a structured, strategic way forward.”
In turn, Mr. Hande sees gaps in the practical side.
“A big gap in education [of energy engineers] is the focus on sizing solar panels and systems without ever talking about the ‘art’ of placing them effectively, or the ‘art’ of community mobilisation or market linkages,” says Mr. Hande.
A key reason for establishing the Global SDG7 Hubs, says Mr. Hande, is to create a network of innovators, implementers and policy makers who can share ideas and experiences. And to identify and map out, across countries and sectors ‘who can move the needle by two degrees, by four degrees, by eight degrees.’
“I think what we should focus on is not ‘the right to energy’ per se, but rather the right to inclusive livelihoods, inclusive healthcare, inclusive education, and so on,” says Mr. Hande. “Across all of those rights, energy – and SDG7 – automatically becomes a critical part of that equation, but it is not THE solution.”
Listen to the full episode here on The Energy Talk – and tune in every second week for a new episode.
 UN Sustainable Development Goal No. 7 (SDG7): universal access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy.