India/ UK Newton Workshop – Clean Energy for Rural Applications

By By Jenny Baker (SPECIFIC PV Team)

In September I attended an India – UK Newton workshop on providing clean energy for rural applications organised between IISER Pune  and Edinburgh University.  What really made the workshop stand out was it was not just engineers and scientists crossing geographical divides but that social scientists were also be involved in the workshop, bring different experiences to bear.

Village visit

To set the context of the workshop the group split and visited villages with different facilities and requirements. Interestingly nearly all villages have electricity wires going to them but not all are connected.   A single phase supply is used domestically with a three phase supply (for milling and pumping) only available a couple of hours a day, often at night.

An LPG scheme sponsored by the India Government was evident everywhere we visited but people were still using wood for cooking since LPG refilling was expensive and required multiple dedicated trips by motorcycle.  This impressed the importance of not just capital schemes but methods of sustaining the new technology.

Formal Talks

Day two began with talks from expert speakers, some of whom had spent their lives trying to improve the lives of people in rural India.  Professor Robin Wallace from Edinburgh presented an engineer’s view point of the some of the opportunities and challenges of implementing tidal in rural deltas.  But what was clear that social science had a large role to play in any projects.  Dr. Priyadarshini Karve CEO of Samuchit Enviro Tech, who has spent her life researching the implementation of woodstoves in rural India, presented some of the challenges of reducing wood usage for cooking, to improve health and prevent deforestation. More importantly she acted as a mentor throughout the process patiently answering our questions and at later stages providing advice and contacts.

There has been a huge amount of work done by NGOs, volunteers and government on improving access to clean energy in rural areas and the key message was that problems are complex and inter related with the need to have social scientists study the communities before new technologies are implemented as well as afterwards to understand if the interventions were successful and if so why and how can that be replicated elsewhere.

Incubator Project

On day three we were encouraged to group into different teams looking at different needs we had identified.  A team has been set up with collaborators from across the UK ( St. Andrews, UCL, Swansea)  and across India (IIT Mandi, CSIR-NIIST ,SRM University – locations indicted by red dots on the map).  The team is investigating failed interventions and determining whether the problems were social, policy or technical and how future interventions can be more successful. Side collaborations are also on going, such as investigating cheap (£1 per kg) carbon ink from India for use in the carbon perovskite modules!

Lessons learnt

  • As engineers we all know that technologies are used by people but it is important to give the social side the importance it deserves. The key is to involve social scientists from project inception and benefit not just from their practical experience but from the different communication and working methods. One of the project attendees Dr. Shikha Lakhanpal had spent months travelling among and talking to people in rural villages to really understand the key issues,  demonstrating the dedication, patience and tenacity needed to fully understand these issues.
  • Technology is important but field testing must continue through to final failure and then recycling / repurposing or disposal in the worst case. This must be fed back to inform other projects.
  • Batteries are often a technological weak link. Maintenance, recycling and replacement schedule must be built into the scheme until batteries with longer lifetime are available.
  • Ownership and education (especially when fully funded by grants) is often the social weak link. People aspirations are often contradictory and it can be hard to predict what will be accepted and what won’t be.
  • Migration of newly skilled labour to the cities and contingency of this must be considered in order to ensure the project has longevity.