Around 3 billion people worldwide use traditional biomass and coal as their main sources of fuel at home, and 1.4 billion people have no access to electricity. To remedy this, the UN launched a call for universal access to modern energy in 2012, with a target year of 2030. Prof. Shyama V. Ramani sends this update from an international workshop on the issue.
The Milan Expo 2015 is showcasing technology from more than 140 countries to help ensure “healthy, safe and sufficient food for everyone, while respecting the planet and its equilibrium”. On 17 June, I was among the speakers at a workshop on renewable energy and innovation towards sustainable energy for all.
This particular event was organised by WAME, a non-profit that stands for ‘World Access to Modern Energy’, i.e. access to electricity and a clean, efficient and safe way of cooking food and heating the home instead of burning biomass. The founder of WAME, Prof. Pippo Ranci, convened the workshop to explore the latest options for the generation of energy from renewable sources for rural areas in developing countries. The aim was to spark discussions on knowledge, technology and innovations vis-à-vis this challenge, and speakers included policymakers, academics (including myself) as well as heads of firms, NGOs and public agencies.
There was agreement on a number of major points. European leadership in renewables, like solar energy, has been built upon government subsidies, but these have been cut drastically in recent years, leading to job losses in this sector. Continuous innovation is key to the maintenance of competitive positions and for this government support for R&D is necessary. But we have to go beyond competition to also cooperation.
Governance & access
Professor Claude Henry pointed out: “Great ambitions have rarely been fulfilled – but when they have, they have come at a great cost. Our present situation with climate change and increasing environmental degradation amidst global inequities is a clear example. We are burdened with two curses, which we have to work to remove: (i) the inability to change our lifestyles and behaviour; and (ii) the inability to cooperate as large groups. These twin curses are leading current generations to squander their inherited ‘nature capital’.”
A search for solutions could lie in shifting the focus from only ‘technology and innovation’ to including ‘governance and access’. The search to promote universal access may generate not only technological innovations but also innovations in governance. There are now many innovators, ranging from large firms to social enterprises experimenting with multi-stakeholder platforms to promote access. Dr. Chris Case, a technologist (and, for once, not an economist!) pointed out that renewables like solar energy can make the Gandhian dream come true – so long as we work together. In this lexicon, ‘mass production’ is no longer understood as ‘production by the masses’ but ‘production for the masses’.
The last point brings us to the BoP or Base of the Pyramid income population and their lack of access to energy. Today, about 1.3 billion have no access to electricity. Further, nearly 38% of the human population (roughly 2.6 billion) relies on biomass for cooking. Since women are mainly responsible for this activity, this means they are forced to search or buy the biomass which takes time and money and burdens them more.
Finally, smoke from rudimentary cooking stoves using biomass fuel triggers respiratory problems and the WHO points out that about 4 million people die prematurely every year from illnesses attributable to household air pollution. So why should we change this reality? What should be kept in mind at a micro or macro level to bring about change? To know my answers, see the slides below!
Flickr / Italian Embassy