Report from D-Lab's Energy Research Group: Providing a framework for energy access in India

The D-Lab's Energy Research Group is working with community-based organizations to build local capacity to address energy access in Africa, Central America, and India. In India alone, approximately 300 million people lack reliable electricity access and modern energy services. Low population densities and unaffordable energy services are a few of the obstacles that stand in the way of improving rural energy access. Following is an account of recent work by the group in India.  

Energy Assessment in India

Earlier this year, I took a five-week trip to India, to conduct an energy needs assessment in partnership with People’s Science Institute (PSI). This work is part of the D-Lab Energy Group's mission to support the development of energy access programs driven by community-based organizations in off-grid regions.  

The goal of these assessments is to provide a framework for local organizations to identify opportunities where increased access to improved energy-related products and technologies can benefit communities. The assessment was conducted in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh.

The first week, I worked with the PSI team in Dehradun the capital of Uttarakhand. The week was spent on training PSI staff (Hriday, Vishal, Chetan, Bhupendra, Sharad) and two PSI interns (Sunitha and Rupam) on D-Lab's Energy Assessment Toolkit, including our newly created data collection and analysis tools. During this process we were joined by Brennan Lake, Program Director for the Technology Exchange Lab (TEL). We first piloted our process in a region called Thana Kasoga in Himachal Pradesh, which was a four-hour drive from Dehradun. The pilot helped us better tailor the assessment to the realities in the field as well as helped with general group dynamics. This was followed by a seven-hour journey through multiple modes of public/private transportation to the Rudraprayag district in Uttarakhand. Each of the two villages where we conducted the assessment, Ransi and Burwa, have a population of around 5,000 people who live in a mountainous terrain. On the first day, we began by visiting the village head of Ransi to gain permission to conduct field research in the area. We found that the village head had a wealth of knowledge about the energy situation and government and NGO programs in the region. Additionally, we were helped by Kunti Didi from the community who became our point-person for mapping the stakeholders in the area and identifying individuals at local businesses and civil society organizations for in-depth interviews. 

Kunti Didi directed us to individuals to interview about household energy issues. The PSI staff were both very interested to learn about D-Lab’s process and how various pieces of information gathered in the assessment could contribute to shaping possible programs that PSI later implement. Bhupendra, who is from the region, speaks the local language of Garhwali and could easily communicate with the local community members. The rest of the team conducted the interviews in Hindi and enlisted the services of Bhupendra ji whenever translation was required. Once we completed data collection in Ransi, we moved to Burwa where the same process was repeated. Freezing temperatures kept interfering with our daily plans but lot of warm cups of Himalayan tea and maggi noodles kept the team motivated. The major focus during the two weeks in data collection was to identify current energy access and expenditures, aspirational energy needs, supply chain mapping, and stakeholder analysis in the region.

During the fourth week, while the data collection team travelled to the Bundelkhand in Madhya Pradesh to repeat the assessment done in Rudraprayag, I returned to Dehradun to have meetings with development organizations and other stakeholders in the region. 

Results from the assessment in Rudraprayag

For the fifth week of my trip, the assessment team returned to Dehradun to analyze the data and to start formulating ideas of potential programs that PSI could pilot in each region.

The data from Rudraprayag revealed alarming rates of forest-wood being used for household heating and cooking. A majority of the women in Ransi and Burwa spent between four to six hours a day collecting forest-wood and this activity was one of their most time consuming tasks. Furthermore, most homes in this region lacked proper ventilation and used wood stoves or a basic three stone firewood stove for cooking which was not only inefficient but also contributed significantly to indoor air pollution. 

Improved household heating and insulation techniques were of prime importance. Our plan moving forward is to run a hands-on heating themed design workshop following D-Lab's Creative Capacity Building (CCB) curriculum – which includes one week of design instruction and hands-on prototyping. The participants would be community members from Rudraprayag, staff from PSI and students from surrounding universities in Uttarakhand. This is planned take place in January 2018, during the coldest part of the winter and when the need for indoor heating and subsequent air pollution are at a peak. The goal of CCB is to catalyze the community to use design principles and develop solutions to the problems they face. In addition to the CCB workshop, we are also looking into a “design-with” approach for the heating challenges faced by the community, by having local community members, staff from PSI, and students from D-Lab’s class, working together to co-create low-cost affordable solutions to this indoor heating challenge. 

Results from the assessment in Bundelkhand

Bundelkhand has a very different landscape compared to Rudraprayag. While Rudraprayag was at an elevation of 2500 meters, Aloni and Saraikhera in Bundelkhand are at 100 meters above mean sea level. The day temperatures year round varied from approximately 25 degrees Celcius to 45 degrees Celsius. Our assessment results revealed candles and kerosene lanterns as the primary source of lighting. A few solar lanterns were present in the households, but were no longer functioning properly. Through discussions with community members who had purchased the solar lanterns, it was clear that the solar lanterns were of low quality and stopped working within days of their purchase. Higher quality solar lanterns could benefit the community and are currently not available in the neighboring markets. Wood and three-stone fires are overwhelmingly the most common form of cooking, with some permanent mud stoves in use. Most cooking is done indoors, so there are significant health issues related to cooking. 

Smallholder farmers in this region use diesel pumps for their daily water pumping needs. On average, each farmer spent Indian rupees 100/hour (about USD 1.5) on pump rental cost and diesel cost. There was significant awareness among the farmers on the benefits of solar pumps mainly based on campaigns run by the government in the region. Based on the results of this assessment, PSI is currently conducting a study to identify the crops grown in the region and the water-requirements for the crops and the farmers. D-Lab and TEL are working on creating a solar water pump tool that will guide organizations like PSI in selecting appropriate solar water pumps. Additionally, we are talking to solar water pump aggregators and manufacturers around Madhya Pradesh who are focusing their sales operations in the regions around Bundelkhand along with suitable finance mechanisms. This presents an opportunity for PSI to develop programs and increase access to solar powered water pumps. 

Looking forward

Finally, with input from the PSI team, I learned a lot about refining the assessment process, particularly how to better streamline the data analysis tools and better communicate program goals to the local assessment team. PSI is currently seeking funds to support the implementation projects that have come out of this assessment. We are also looking to replicate this process with other community based organizations in India. Soon we will be developing instructional videos on our Energy Assessment Toolkit with the aim of reaching a greater number community based organizations that are looking to develop energy access programs in the communities where they work. 

For more information, contact Anish Paul Antony.