Decentralized Renewable Energy:  A Wish List for Multi-Actors
Photo: Engineering for Change / Flickr

Decentralized Renewable Energy: A Wish List for Multi-Actors

Posted by Dipti Vaghela on Monday, May 18 2015


Dipti Vaghela

The nexus between energy poverty and climate change are now momentously driving the aims of international development.  Hundreds of international leaders are meeting this week at the United Nation's Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) Forum to forge next steps.  In this context, decentralized renewable energy (DRE) solutions can bring sustainable electricity access to un-electrified and impoverished communities, while replacing the use of environment degrading sources of electricity. 

When I first began interfacing with policy and research, my field-based background in DRE solutions pushed me to reflect on how practice related to the other DRE realities.  My Switzer Leadership Grant with International Rivers brought in yet another dimension of DRE work: advocacy.  During the grant I introspected on my journey and on the complementing roles of research, policy, advocacy, and practice for the success of DRE solutions.  Moreover, I constantly witness and often fill the gap in situations that require a conduit between these realms of DRE work.  Perceiving a greater impact potential with multi-actor synergy, here is my wish list for DRE efforts.

Wish #1:  Locally-Rooted Applied Research

When I graduated from college in 2000, there were few engineering departments linked to international development or sustainability issues.  The current scenario is drastically different with a multitude of emerging academic programs, centers, and research focusing on technology for poverty alleviation and sustainability.  Examples such as UC Berkeley's Blum Center and Purdue's Global Engineering Program inspire students to go beyond publications, offering research time and funding for developing solutions on the ground. 

While the 'real' world communities living in poverty help enhance student journeys, the progress of academia does not necessarily benefit the real world.  It is important for sincere and well-endowed academic programs to seek out partnerships with local change-makers that have long been committed to serving their community but are severely under-resourced.  For instance, local biomass and micro hydro practitioners in Myanmar for decades have been providing community-based electrification.  Because they have had no funding or technical assistance, the results have not been optimally sustainable. Assisting these locally-rooted efforts would be more efficient and beneficial to rural Myanmar than introducing new DRE efforts anchored in external actors.

Can applied research in academia form co-learning partnerships with proven local field practitioners of DRE, where real needs on the ground become core research questions and local change-makers can leverage well-intended academic efforts to bring greater benefits to their region?

Wish #2:  Practical Policy 

Energy planning has taken center stage in government policy globally.  Yet in most emerging economies DRE policy has not transpired into intended results.  Funds remain unspent; if they have been spent, the DRE solutions are dropped into communities without proper capacity building and hence short-lived.  However, there are a handful of DRE programs that have been proven in longevity and scalability, albeit taking decades to manifest.  Examples include micro hydro in Nepal, solar PV in Bangladesh, and multiple DRE technologies in Sri Lanka -- all of which were built by international finance institutions who efficiently worked with national and local governments to enrich the capacity of the local private sector.  When DRE programs impart skills, resources, and institutional frameworks for local actors to firsthand implement and innovate the technology, the program takes a life of its own and scales to large numbers of successful projects.

Unfortunately, compared to the great need and demand for DRE, examples that support local practitioners are too few and are not being studied in order to develop more efficient programs in other contexts, e.g. Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, African regions, and large pockets of seemingly-electrified countries like India.  Can policy-influencing actors -- especially within the SE4ALL framework -- learn from existing scaled DRE programs and connect with local practitioners to avoid repeating DRE policy failures and instead incorporate proven elements for scaled and sustainable implementation?

Wish #3:  Advocacy with Awareness

Civil society organizations and environmental advocacy groups have recently cranked up their promotion of DRE solutions, e.g. Sierra Club's energy access campaign.  As a DRE practitioner challenged in explaining rural contexts to mainstream audiences, I am glad that advocacy groups are demystifying and generating excitement for DRE solutions.  However, because advocacy groups do not typically implement projects on the ground, they do not always have a complete analysis of the field situation.  They can easily invest their resources in topics that do not reflect priorities on the ground.

For instance, currently DRE advocacy largely promotes solar PV entrepreneurs.  Solar PV takes less time and requires little rapport with locals to install, making it easier for West-based actors to implement.  More than local actors, these expats have the appropriate communication skills and networks to secure the attention of West-based financiers and advocacy groups.  For example, take a look at how many of the Power Africa partners are African!  Because there is great advocacy and funding for external actors, few questions are asked about how these efforts will be different from earlier solar PV policy failures that lacked private sector accountability.

Further, technologies that have indigenously progressed, such as micro hydro and biomass electrification, are more difficult for West-based actors to implement without long-cultivated relationships with local actors, and therefore receiving far less attention from advocacy groups.  Finally, policy makers will argue that advocacy groups take idealistic stances on energy access, without considering the complexities involved for a government to address the full spectrum of power demand, namely rural communities, urban centers, and national industry.

Can DRE advocacy actors develop greater awareness of information that may not be readily available thru the typical advocacy channels, and engage with an open ear to DRE practitioners, researchers, and policy makers?

Wish #4:  Enlightened Private Sector

Until recently, DRE social entrepreneurs were a rare breed.  Academic programs have nurtured talented graduates capable of interfacing both with potential donors and international clients.   From Angaza Design to Mera Gao Power, social venture teams are leading DRE deployment in developing economies.  Many focus on innovative pay-as-you-go solar PV services for low power applications such as lighting, mobile phone charging, and television.  Rare are ventures that address the higher electrical loads required to reduce physical drudgery such as head loading water or hours of hand milling that comes with rural poverty, e.g. Sun Lit Futures.  Even rarer are ventures that facilitate the rural community to be more than just a customer -- where the community or its members are trained to become the social entrepreneur providing electrification services, e.g. THRIVE Solar Energy and Village Infrastructure.

Can the recent and great support extended to DRE social ventures go beyond solar PV and address holistic energy poverty in ways that allow impoverished communities to become the DRE entrepreneur?

Wish #5:  Empowered Local Change Agents

Because DRE success heavily depends on local contextual aspects, local change agents are at the heart of all long-lived DRE projects (whether implemented by West-based or local groups).  These agents can be community members or staff of local organizations that have long worked in the area.  DRE implementation activities, such as facilitating rural households to talk about their energy needs, ability to pay for and properly use the energy products or services can only be done via actors that are trusted by the community.  Issues that arise at the local level cannot be solved by external actors -- academic researchers, outside entrepreneurs, non-local activists, and policy makers, unfamiliar with practical issues and local mindsets.  They can only be solved by the people within the local system, who also understand the significance of external knowledge and support.

Yet, these rare, highly committed, local change agents do not receive enough inspiration and support to keep moving forward.  They often remain in the dark about innovative DRE research, high-level policies, and advocacy campaigns.  What type of research, policy, advocacy, and private sector support can empower local agents of DRE?

Vision:  Sustainable DRE thru Multi-Actor Learning Networks

Being a member of the Switzer Fellowship Network has encouraged a reflective approach to bridging gaps among DRE actors.  Seeing value in diversity, the Switzer Foundation facilitates an exchange platform for students and professionals working on various environmental issues in different contexts.  Similar efforts would help to connect different DRE actors -- researchers, policy makers, activities, entrepreneurs, and local change agents.  Together identifying DRE needs, failures, and sustainable solutions for scalability would be more efficient than working in parallel. 

Applying this vision to my focus area, I coordinate a practitioners' network for implementers of community-scale hydropower projects called the Hydro Empowerment Network.  While the network focuses on peer-to-peer exchanges, it also helps interlink local practitioners to policy makers, academia, and advocacy groups.  Our efforts are in the early stages, yet we have seen the positive impact of a collective practitioner voice reaching out to decision-making actors.  Similarly, once the pro-DRE sector has converged, it can then develop constructive dialogue with dominating sectors that focus on centralized and environmentally-degrading energy solutions, in order to collectively discover how DRE could be incentivized for their priorities.

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