Resources Research

Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

By lanternlight in rural Asia

with one comment

The Shivalaya Bazaar, Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India

One of the magazines of the CR Media group of Singapore interviewed me about energy needs in rural Asia. My responses to some thoughtful questions have been published, although I don’t have a link yet to any of the material online. Until then, here’s a selection of questions and replies.

Do you have a case study or know of an innovative instance when an Asian country has broken the mould successfully in generating energy for its citizens in a way that is remarkable?

When you travel in rural South Asia you see that in almost every unelectrified village there is a flourishing local trade in kerosene and kerosene lanterns for lighting, car batteries and battery-charging stations for small TV sets, dry cell batteries for radios, diesel fuel and diesel generator sets for shops and small businesses and appliances. It’s common to spot people carrying jerricans or bottles of kerosene from the local shop, or a battery strapped to the back of a bicycle, being taken to the nearest charging station several kilometres away. People want the benefits that electricity can bring and will go out of their way, and spend relatively large amounts of their income, to get it. That represents the opportunity of providing power for energy appliances at the household level (LED lamps, cookstoves, solar- and human-powered products) and of community-level power generation systems (village bio-gasification, solar and small-scale hydro and wind power).

Household income and electricity access in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

Household income and electricity access in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

In areas such as western China, the South American rainforest or the Himalayan foothills, the cost of a rural connection can be seven times that in the cities. Solar power has spread rapidly among off-grid communities in developing countries, only sometimes subsidised. A typical solar home system today in South Asia provides light, power for TVs, radios and CD players, and most important charges mobile phones. At US$ 400-500, such a system is not cheap for rural Asia, especially when households are struggling with rising food and transport costs. But targeted subsidies and cheap micro-credit has made this energy option more affordable.

How can Asian countries cooperate to bring a new energy reality into Asia and balance development with conservation?

Let’s see what some authoritative forecasts say. The Sustainable World Energy Outlook 2010 from Greenpeace makes projections of renewable energy generation capacity in 2020: India 146 GW, developing Asia 133 GW, China 456 GW. These are enormous quantities that are being forecast and illustrate what has begun to be called the continental shift eastwards of generation and power. India dwarfs developing Asia the way China dwarfs India – the conventional economies today reflect this difference in scale. It’s important to keep in mind, while talking about energy, that Asia’s committed investment and planned expansion is centred to a very great degree around fossil fuel.

Factory and high-tension power lines, Mumbai, India

Certainly there are models of regional cooperation in other areas from where lessons can be drawn, the Mekong basin water sharing is a prominent example. But cooperation in energy is a difficult matter as it is such an essential factor of national GDP, which has become the paramount indicator for East and South Asia. Conversely, it is because the renewables sector is still relatively so small in Asia that technical cooperation is flourishing – markets are distributed and small, technologies must be simple and low-cost to be attractive, and business margins are small, all of which encourage cooperation rather than competition.

What could be immediately done to help alleviate energy shortage in South Asia for the masses, at a low cost? Do you have a case study of this?

Let’s look at Husk Power Systems which uses biomass gasification technology to convert rice husk into gas. Burning this gas runs generators which produce relatively clean electricity at affordable rates. Rice husk is found throughout northern, central and southern India and is a plentiful fuel. While Husk Power says that the rice husk would otherwise be “left to rot in fields” that isn’t quite true, as crop biomass is used in many ways in rural South Asia, but the point here is that this entrepreneurial small company has successfully converted this into energy for use locally.

Household income and access to modern fuels in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

Household income and access to modern fuels in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

I think it’s important that access to energy be seen for its importance in achieving human development goals. Individuals in governments do see this as clearly as you and I, but disagreements over responsibility and zones of influence get in the way. Responsible private enterprise is one answer. If you look at micro-enterprise funders, like Acumen, they recognise that access to electricity is also about healthcare, water and housing, refrigerated vaccines, irrigation pumps and also lighting in homes so that children can study.

What issues (externalities etc) do Asian governments do not factor in when they go for new sources of energy?

The poverty factor has for years obscured many other considerations. Providing energy, infrastructure and jobs has been the focus of central and provincial governments, and in the process issues such as environmental degradation and social justice have often been overlooked. That has been the pattern behind investment in large, national centrally-funded and directed power generation plans and in many ways it continues to shape centralised approaches to renewable energy policy.

Developing Asia is still mired in the legacy bureaucracies that have dominated (and continue to) social sector programmes, which for decades have been the cornerstone of national ‘development’. Energy is still seen as a good to be allocated by the government, even if the government does not produce it. And it still takes precedence over other considerations – ecosystem health, sustainable natural resource management – because of this approach. If India has a huge programme to generate hydroelectricity from the rivers in the Himalaya, there is now ample evidence to show both the alterations to river ecosystems downstream and the drastic impacts of submergence of river valleys, let alone the enormous carbon footprint of constructing a dam and the associated hydropower systems. Yet this is seen as using a ‘renewable’ source of energy.

One Response

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  1. Hi,

    I came across your article while doing research and would love to use the charts regarding income v energy usage on foundation website.

    Please email me back, so it can be discussed in further details.

    Thank you,

    Monica

    Monica

    May 4, 2011 at 04:57


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