The Energy Talk

Distributed Energy For People & The Planet Ep. 1: Practical Solutions, Political Action

Episode Summary

In the first episode of the Distributed Energy For People & The Planet series, we are joined by Harish Hande- founder of SELCO Foundation, and Gauri Singh- Deputy Director-General of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) to discuss the important role that policy and innovation plays in ensuring equitable outcomes in the push towards SDG7 (Sustainable Development Goal 7 is one of 17 Sustainable Development Goals established by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015. It aims to "Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all."). This series is hosted by Marilyn Smith of the Energy Action Project (EnAct)

Episode Notes

In the first episode of the Distributed Energy For People & The Planet series, we are joined by Harish Hande: founder of SELCO Foundation, and Gauri Singh: Deputy Director-General of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) to discuss the important role that policy and innovation plays in ensuring equitable outcomes in the push towards SDG7 (Sustainable Development Goal 7 is one of 17 Sustainable Development Goals established by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015. It aims to "Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.").

New episodes for this series will be published bi-weekly, hosted by Marilyn Smith of the Energy Action Project (EnAct), and co-produced by the Global SDG7 Hubs.

Guest Bios: 

Harish Hande is the founder of SELCO Foundation and is based out of India. Harish is globally recognized as a pioneer in designing distributed energy solutions as a means to truly empower communities, by enabling livelihoods and health. His approach of creating ‘enabling ecosystems’ is also being replicated through a network of entrepreneurs and organizations across the Global South. 

Gauri Singh is the Deputy Director-General of the International Renewable Energy Agency. Ms. Singh brings more than 30 years of experience in policy, advocacy, and project implementation within the field of renewable energy and sustainable development from India and the international system.

Learn more about SELCO Foundation | IRENA | EnAct | Global SDG7 Hubs

Connect with: Marilyn on Linkedin | The Energy Talk | Global SDG7 Hubs | EnAct
Follow on Twitter: Harish Hande | Gauri Singh  | The Energy Talk | Global SDG7 Hubs | EnAct | Marilyn Smith

Follow on Instagram: The Energy Talk | Global SDG7 Hubs | EnAct 

Subscribe to our newsletter

Episode Transcription

Olu: Hello and welcome to the Energy Talk podcast. My name is Olubunmi Olajide and it feels so good to be able to say that again. It's been quite a while since our last episode, and we are back with a brand new season for The Energy Talk.

It's my pleasure today to introduce a new series, which will be hosted by Marilyn Smith of the Energy Action Project and co-produced by the global SDG seven Hubs, a flagship program on that village empowerment across eight episodes. The Energy Talk will speak to leaders across areas of Technology, Policy financing, and Creating enabling ecosystems to probe the interlinked areas of clean energy, climate resilience, and people's well-being while celebrating solutions. This series also investigates ongoing challenges.

Now access to more than reliable energy is a critical underlying condition for development and at the same time, the way we consume energy can also be deeply impactful to the fate of humanity on this planet in a bit to achieve our energy development targets today, a great deal of focus and investment is directed towards strategies that ensures a supply of electricity and does not question its need and consumption pattern to ensure energy access from this perspective is truly empowering. A range of entities across the global South are joining forces to develop and deploy highly efficient, distributed energy-driven systems from the demand side of the equation.

Now I'm passing it off to Marilyn to talk more about the series and hope you, enjoy.

Marilyn (Intro): In 2015, access to energy made it to the global political agenda by being included in the UN Sustainable Development Goals. By 2030, SDG7 aims to achieve three goals: deliver universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services; boost substantially the share of renewables in the global energy mix; and double the rate of improvement in energy efficiency. 

From the get-go, a gaping disconnect was evident, particularly in relation to electrification. Existing energy systems are designed to deliver supply where demand already exists and have a strong incentive to increase supply in order to grow.      

But for millions of communities living in remote regions or under-resourced areas, electricity via traditional grids would never be a means to address the real challenge – a total lack of access to modern energy services. 

Around the globe, grassroots thinkers have come up with simple but holistic solutions that operate independently as ‘off-grid’ systems. A second key difference is that these approaches aim to ensure affordable and appropriate energy solves local developmental challenges.

To set the stage for this podcast series, we’ve brought together two people who have been working on energy access since before it became an SDG. 

Harish Hande, founder of SELCO Foundation and based out of India, is globally recognized as a pioneer in designing distributed energy solutions as a means to truly empower communities, by enabling livelihoods and health. His approach of creating ‘enabling ecosystems’ is also being replicated through a network of entrepreneurs and organizations across the Global South. 

Gauri Singh has used her role as a bureaucrat within the Indian government to transform policy and coordinate large-scale projects on access to energy and water, poverty alleviation, women’s empowerment and sustainable development. Now, as Deputy Director-General of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), she is well-placed to influence governments around the world.    

Gauri and Harish, given each of your wealth of experience, I’d like to start by hearing your perspectives on how the idea of ‘access to energy’ has evolved during the time you’ve been directly engaged. 


Gauri [00:22:09] So, you know, I was just thinking, even for a country like India that's gone through a very long path to get electricity to all the households, what really started off was, you know, about about 15 years back is the announcement that all the villages have been connected. But. Well, when you looked at what that villages meant was that you had maybe one or two, um, you know, establishments within the village that got electricity. And that was, you know, that was how it was said that electricity has, electricity access has happened. Then the next thing was that, okay, this is not fine, Let's try and at least connect 10% of the households. And then that was also not seen as being inclusive. And you know, many, of course, many people got left out and then the thrust came to let's get all the households connected. But again, even in India, you have habitations, you have habitations which are smaller habitations, where people of few families have come together and set up the farms and all that. We don't think that, uh, you know, in the very near future you will find the electricity lines going.

Harish [00:01:39] I think just a parameter of saying that do people have access to energy does not mean development is taking place. So 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 the question is the definition having access to electricity itself does not mean that. 

Harish [00:01:09] secondly, what has happened is that it's not about access to energy. The issue is what do people do with the energy that they get is the critical issue. And the innovations have not happened in the livelihood space for for example, in the in the in the silk-weaving machine, the new motors that are required for agriculture, for small scale farmers. Those are missing pieces that is actually leading to even if you had access to energy, what do you do with that those electrons? 

Marilyn: In recent years, more frequent and severe weather events – and corresponding massive power outages – have made westerners much more conscious of how energy production and use drives climate change. And how this link might affect their daily lives. But most of us are completely unaware of impacts that are already undermining social and climate justice. Harish, what do you see ‘on the ground’?  


Harish [00:19:31] One of the biggest crises for climate is livelihoods and a sense that the poor are facing the brunt and livelihoods and majority of livelihoods in India is in the agri space, in the animal husbandry space and in resilient micro-business like the barber shops, like the of shops, the local shops. 

Harish [00:16:46] from animal husbandry, in many parts of India, because of heat stress, a lot of the poultry farms are still small scale farmers lost 30% of the chicks. Or in many places in their dairy value chain, the milk production of the cows went down by 30% because of the heat stress. Now we don't realise that the the impact of climate that is happening on the poor. [maybe move next part to end of this segment] If we are not able to come up with better solutions today and that's why we said let's focus on Agri and especially for people who are owning less than two acres of land. Because as, as as we go in future generations, we don't want this one and a half two acre farmers to lose out on the centralisation that is happening. 

Gauri [00:14:06] I've I've worked very closely with communities. And one of the first lessons that I learned is that when you go to a community with solutions already in your mind, then the assumption that you are really making is that, well, they are where they are because, you know, they don't have to do a bandwidth or, you know, they're not able to think through what they need to be doing in terms of it's the livelihoods of what they want to do with their lives. Which I think is such a wrong assumption, because you you suddenly realise that if if women, if communities are able to survive and are still staying happy in the circumstances they are, then they must be doing something right and they must be obviously having, you know, a sense of how to survive in those circumstances. So I think it's it's really a more about the opportunity that they haven't been provided and that that particular thing is, you know, I think, you know, it's about partnering with them, as Harish has said, which are so critical because that's when solutions. 

Harish [00:00:43] So from our perspective, the Marilyn, the the the one for us, the biggest barriers is one is the articulation of the problem statements are absolutely top down, unfortunately. Well, many a time while we say that we involve the community, but the question is it's lost in translation. So the solutions that come out of those problem statements do not fit the expectations and the needs of the poor. 


Marilyn: Let’s dive further into this question of why the energy needs of small-scale farmers  – including the fact that 85% of all farms in India are less than 2 hectares.   

Harish [00:16:xx] And so we thought, let's focus on small scale, less than five acre spaces and how do you come up with [00:17:33]the breeders, [0.1s] seed planters, millet graders, better efficiency of water utilisation from millets, for example. And then work with FPOs -  farmer producing organisations - who are able to aggregate. And people say only large farmers can aggregate - NO - if you have the FPO, the concept of farmer producing organisations who have for example, we work with an organic FPO [00:17:57]call south east India, [2.1s] here nearby who are 387 organic farmers all together, and that the power of aggregation. So we look at the farmer level, what other different ways of energy intervention can happen, whether it's pumping of water or gradation of millets to cold storage for th FPO itself to keep the grains that they have bought from the farmers to the built environment for the market linkages that the FPO has created. So thinking agriculture from a value chain perspective, from a supply side, from an end-user centric changes the way SDG-7 should be looked at especially in the decentralised level. 

Gauri [00:21:24] So, no, I. I think you know what Harish is saying about value chains is so critical, because I think SDG seven, which started off much more about access to electricity being defined in the in the, in the very, you know, um, uh in a very narrow sense of being able to provide just light lighting to, um, to homes. I think has now the understanding has not expanded too much beyond that because it's what electricity can do for their livelihoods and it's what electricity can do for education and health and many other sectors. 

Harish [00:19:XX] I think as DG you seven should we look as an enabler for other SDGs, eight or SDG 3 that is health. And then you bifurcate SDG 7 into multiple like a SDGs like for agriculture, for a for these. And then each under the agriculture space you should break up into what you call its value chains, rice value chains, millet value chains, etc. etc. And you ask can actually energy play a role? And same in the animal husbandry it should become like poultry, piggery or deity, etc., from hydroponics to milking machine to storage of milk to sweet-making shop machines can have an energy intervention per se.

Marilyn: Gauri, you have worked very closely with the small-scale farming community in different parts of India, including large projects to roll out solutions. What else do most of us ‘not get’ about people who eke out a livelihood on 2 hectares of land?


Gauri [00:08:23] Then even on the farming equipment. I think one of the one of the issues that we've seen over and over again is the is the idea that it is the men using these implements. And so they're designed in the way that um, that a very un you know, they're not so user friendly for the women who are the ones who are doing most of the farming activity. And I think you know, it's, it's, it's, it's very strange. But you know what can I talk about the market when the Agriculture Ministry and the departments themselves look at the farming community as being mostly male. And, you know, you've seen in many countries in Africa and other places that with migration happening to the cities or the ones that get left behind are mostly women, women who have to do sustenance farming. And if the equipment is not efficient, if it's not energy efficient, and if it's not user friendly, then you know, it's we will know starting we will be looking at and I think something that's inefficient with the renewable energy options, which I think is is really not the way forward. 

Harish [00:10:15] Exactly. The issue is when we even the innovations that have happened over the years, what she rightly said about being very male-centric because many of the things are designed and as we keep telling this example, Marilyn, is that when when when a rice mill that is running on diesel stops working to stop the diesel engine, not only you need a man, but a strong man to start it. So the question is it it prevents prevents women to get into the sector because it's drudgery. Or how long can a woman pottery maker make? Because it's it's like continuous physical work or you never hear about women blacksmithy coming up to somebody, a lot of them would be talented to actually make that happen. Or silk-weaving in many ways, right? 

Harish [00:11:01] This is where I think because the innovations were not directed towards gender centricity and then we say all women can do it. And that's a very false narrative. So suddenly you have you had a solar-powered rice mill or a solar-powered factory making or a solar powered hammer mill. We find suddenly women blacksmith is growing. 

Marilyn: For anyone who has travelled to India, the ubiquitous roti – a smoky-flavoured flat bread served at almost every meal – serves as a reality check that millions of women still cook over open fires. In addition to the terrible health impacts, the labour involved in makes women ‘time poor’. While SELCO Foundation was not typically active in ‘clean cooking solutions’, that also changed recently. Can you tell us more, Harish?   

Harish [00:11:21] And actually Gauri-ji would be very interested to to know when we started the whole concept of innovating on roti-rollling machine, which is a bread making machine in India, which made it basically that women used to do these rotis by hand or the breads by hand. They would do it separately, takes around, but sliced bread, it takes one minute, 45 seconds and maximum they would do able to do 200 per day to sell to local restaurants. Right. Then what we did was we basically innovated with another partner who was already doing a little bit of a machine made rolling machine, which is a small one, they could actually go up to a thousand. So we may have modified it to run on solar in thousand and there are now women who have now come to us and who have bought who bought not only bought the first machine, the second machine and the third machine to do 3000. Now there are women who have recently we installed a conveyor solar powered conveyor belt-led roti-making to make 10,000 rotis on a daily basis. 

The person who has annual income was more than not more than ₹20,000, now she makes ₹10,000 on a daily basis, ten thousand. And she said the three machines are, I cannot keep four or five machines in the room. Why don't you make the conveyor belt loading making for soap? So we just installed 3 to 4 conveyor belts. It could not imagine to do 10,000 all. How did they come to know what the markets are? Right? How did she jump from 500 rotis to 10 000 rotis? 

Marilyn: What did SELCO Foundation learn from this experience? 

Harish [00:12:54] A lot of times we assume and do an analysis that it can't be done, can't be done. We micromanage the solution so much that we kill the innovation from the other side, as if, as if they don't know that. If we are able to do our partnerships and the confidence level, we would not ever have imagined that we would be doing solar-powered conveyor belts today. So this is an all women-led absolutely women-led. So that's what I think the power of innovation. And if you truly think inclusive innovation, you open up like for example in COVID, as Gauri-ji knows when a lot of the sex workers and transgenders were getting out of business, we created trans kitchens and people and suddenly they didn't go back to their professions after the COVID. The decentralised energy, thanks to COVID, led to respectable livelihoods for a lot of them in many ways. So that's the power of decentralised energy. It's not about solar panels. It gives a completely different meaning to social inclusion. 


Marilyn: We’ve talked about agriculture and gender aspects of energy for low-income communities – and touched on some health impacts of lack of access to modern energy services. I’d like to turn the conversation towards energy and healthcare in the Global South, where as many as one in four health centres currently has no electricity. What specific challenges and solutions arise in this sector. 

Gauri [00:24:25] And then if you're if you're looking at a health centre in in a village, typically a health centre which should be in the centre of the village, but often because of the availability of land, it might actually be at quite a distance away from the village. And when when you're looking at circumstances like that and you expect that the service provider will stay for the night and also be able to attend to patients or mothers, you know, pregnant women will come there. That's something that will not happen because the if the primary health centres are further down from the village too, it's very isolated. And then if it doesn't have electricity, then it then there's no way, oh, health providers want to stay there. So, you know, these, these will remain as very important applications of decentralised energy and need to be understood that it's providing decentralised energy now, doesn't anymore mean that you're providing and inferior form.

Harish [00:25:55] Those are those are places where I mean in the sense of simple things like, like a placement of health centres equal to like when floods happen it should be the, the place where a pregnant lady can confidently walk in and which we don't design for those things. 

Harish [00:26:25] Even the place today, Marilyn, same thing in cold storage systems which which leads to intervention so that the waste issues just don't happen at the village level of vegetables. There's an art of placing where the cold storage should be placed. So the transaction cost of the poor to travel to the cold storage and the transaction cost of even taking it out and delivering it to the market. Sometimes people keep the flowers, which are very nice for four days, but if the flowers then after that are transported, 40 degree centigrade is dead. So, so so people look at it's an art of where the placement of the oh should be done and that's, that's, that's not taught in schools., right? It's about solar panels and cold storage and that's needed and we directly dump into Excel sheet without teaching that it's the art of placement, the art of community mobilisation, the art of market linkages. Then SDG7 becomes one part of the equation, it's not the solution. 


Marilyn: Gauri, if access to modern energy services is going to enable achievement of several of the SDGs, what does the policy sector need to do differently? 

Gauri [00:03:18] I think for most of the ministries of energy in a number of countries, I've seen that there is a kind of a sense that, you know, that the ministry is only about grid electricity because that's how modern electricity has to has to reach people. But there is no clarity as to who would deal with the decentralised energy options that are available. And often, you know, it might be women empowerment that's dealing with it, it might be agriculture ministry that's dealing with it in bits and pieces. But because that really clear intent to also include decentralised options for electricity and decentralised renewable options for electricity being very much a part of the policy framework, you you'll find that it often gets, you know, it just becomes something that nobody owns. So the policy space is pretty much wide open because no one owns that space. And you do see some bits and pieces coming from very different ministries and departments, but doesn't come together as a very structured and a strategic way forward.

Marilyn: How can what happens in the policy space help or hinder the roll-out of technical solutions and/or build-up of enabling ecosystems? 

Harish [00:06:16] So, so the best place to start is, for example, that when you have no policies, your ability to innovate is very high and hand. And then and then the exciting part is that are you able do some of us need to play the role of the implementers? Implementers, unfortunately, do not play a role of forcing themselves to be part of the policy deciding, and then they complain. So I would say that the role that we played very, very strongly in in many years and that we that's what we play today is that how are we bringing a practitioners perspective onto the table so the policies are framed in a way that the others, other technical partners and implementer partners do not go through the problems that we might actually work through. And so that's where we play the game

Harish [00:27:40] I think what we have to map out when we do a certain solution is who are the 5 to 10 needle movers in a sense that at the grassroots level, if we are able to move, who is going to move the needle by two degrees? I'LL step out. Who are going to move it by four degrees, Step out, who are moving by eight degrees? Who are moving by ten degrees. If that mapping is done on day one or day two or day three, when you're designing the program, then you have a target that in three years. So, for example, if I were to look at the health sector solar powered, I have to make sure that the local doctor and the local DHO, the department is actually convinced that this can happen. And then I need to look at the district administration who are looking at this, say that can you look at another hospitals? Now, who is the boss of District Hospital? Is this is the National Health and the State Mission Health Commission. He or she would say, Oh, these guys have done that. Can I do it in all districts? Now the state had actually started looking at can I actually do for every health centre? Then the central ministry looks at all this state has actually done it, can I actually do it for other states or I can take it from district state? 

Gauri [00:02:26] In the policy space, what we see in countries is that while there is a lot of focus on grid electricity, but, you know, the the way the habitations are generally in in most of the countries that if I'm looking at the LDCs and sub-Saharan Africa, you have kind of a aggregation of habitation around a few towns and then a very dispersed kind of a population which which doesn't really make sense if your policy focuses just on grid electricity, because the grid will never reach those areas which are very sparsely populated, because it doesn't make economic sense to be able to do that. 

Marilyn: Harish, these are the areas where SELCO Foundation has been very successful to a certain degree. Going forward, what is the opportunity to leverage collaboration with organizations such as IRENA to accelerate success at a much bigger scale.    

Harish [00:20:27] These are innovations that need to work and that's why we embark on organisations like IRENA, which has a wonderful connect to Ministry of Energy of different countries, where if a one and Ministry of Finance for instance through the agri space. And so if IRENA and us work together, we basically help the grassroots level innovators and entrepreneurs while along with IRENA we we actually influence the Ministry of Energy and Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Finance to come up with a large scale, implementation driven policies that will lead to countries opening up because IRENA is in a better position to influence the countries at the large level. And we are in a position to actually influence the innovators and entrepreneurs to create the appropriate ecosystem. 

Harish [00:28:47] You know, you know the interesting part here in the health, when we started with this work in State of Meghalaya, which is now going to 100% electrification, the first question they asked is, have you done it in another state? Okay. And do you have a letter from the other state and Gauri-ji was the head of health in the state of Madhya Pradesh and she had given a letter to us and saying that, why don't you look at we simply took her letter to the state of Meghalaya or you already have it from the state of Madhya Pradesh, and that, too, from a very senior bureaucrat. Let us go ahead. That was the power. As long as you are able to map out who the needle movers are and who the champions are. Right? Like, for example, it's not IRENA or sorry, I mean, this ottoman, it's Gauri-ji is a champion. You are an expert sending a champion. We need to map out who the champions are because every organisation has a face and policy changes just because of faces, irrespective of what people say. It's like it's all we are doing it because you are here, we are, right? It's not because some other entity is here. And that's where I think that  policy changes. That mapping of policy changes is equally important. 


Marilyn: I’d like to take that idea one step further, Harish. We so often say ‘policy’ and think ‘government’. But achieving the SDGs requires engagement across a much broader range of sector. Who else needs to be on the policy map?

Harish [00:05:35] So we also think that how do we influence policy in policy does not mean always to government policy. It could be a policy of a local bank. It is a local policy of the local government. Many a time many of the enterprises and the funders actually confuse policy needs at the central level. [00:05:52]And without that, the integrity that [1.4s] [miss opportunities] even if a decentralised option is done with a local financial institution, that actually can help in small scale financing to be unlocked. Then the larger bank can actually take over. So policy itself sometimes is like even if today, Marilyn, I say if all the policies were absolutely fantastic, but there are no implementers to implement it, it actually means nothing, right? 

Gauri [00:07:26] It has to be, first of all, a political will and then a clear intent in terms of a framework that allows, whether it's the ministry to do some things or a public sector doing something or it's a bank or others. But I also would definitely agree with the point that the the kind of innovations that we have seen come in this space are really far and few in between. Because this, again, has not been considered as a market worth investing in and at the scales that would would allow for innovations to happen. Which is very strange because, you know, the the market may not be there. I mean, I'm not really talking about the Indian market, which of course is very large. But even then you don't see innovations that have happened. 

Marilyn: Harish, any last thoughts in response?

Harish [00:31:58] I think what we should focus on, Marilyn, is not the right to energy is a right to inclusive, inclusive livelihoods and right to inclusive health and right to inclusive education. And automatically energy becomes part of that equation. So the question is want to make right do energy inclusive. I can have X number of I can have a number of wire lines. 

So I think the understanding level of what needs to be done and, number two, the policies for innovation that needs to be done from the grassroot level, where risk capital is needed is completely absent. And that is where I would focus on. 

Marilyn: In the coming weeks, we will continue to bring together innovators from technology, policy, financing, advocacy and other areas to keep investigating how distributed renewables can support development that is both inclusive of people – especially those living in under-resourced regions – and sustainable for the planet. With a new episode every two weeks, we’ll further explore how design of energy systems can boost productivity and income in agriculture and animal husbandry, improve both health and access to health care, and meet growing cooling needs in hot climates. Find us here, every second week on The Energy Talk, under the series “Distributed energy for people and the planet.”  

For The Energy Action Project (EnAct), I’m Marilyn Smith.