By lanternlight in rural Asia

December 18, 2010

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

How do ‘developing’ countries prioritise energy goals? How should they in the face of climate change? These countries, with per capita energy consumption and CO2 emissions which average one-sixth those of the ‘industrialised’ world, are not primarily responsible for climate deterioration, but on the other hand they are the most vulnerable to climate change impacts because, says the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) they have fewer resources to adapt – socially, technologically and financially.

The answers are not difficult to find. Quite apart from the outcomes of climate change summits such as the just-concluded UN Climate Change Conference in Cancun, for the majority of the populations in these countries climate change issue is not a priority concern compared with problems of poverty, natural resource management, energy and livelihood needs. In 2008, the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimatesd that world energy consumption will increase by 45% in 2030 from its 2006 level, and that a ‘developing’ country like India will account for 13.5% of that growth. India’s high energy demand is driven by its current high growth path, one supported by industry, its economic and social planners and by its urban middle classes. However, India like many ‘developing’ countries of the South, has a large populace deprived of modern energy services; 45% of its rural households and 8% of its urban households do not have access to electricity and 90% rural households and 33% of urban households do not use clean cooking fuel.

Image RemovedA group of nomadic shepherds walking to join their main group in the state of Maharashtra, western India. The per head fossil fuel energy use of this group is a fraction of that of the middle-class urban resident.

Yet national approaches to providing energy access to those who lack it is, from a poor person’s perspective, fractured and incoherent. National energy planning still assumes that the formal energy sector is the primary provider of energy and the principal means of ending energy poverty. In South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, the energy provided by rural electrification programmes is rarely sufficient or affordable for cooking, the most energy-consuming household activity. This leaves millions of households preparing their evening meal in a smoke-filled kitchen over a wood or dung-burning stove. Women in particular spend many hours in drudgery, gathering fuel, cooking over inefficient stoves and cleaning soot-laden pots, clothes, walls and ceilings. The opportunities lost to women who spend so many hours labouring for energy each week have been reported in studies worldwide. These studies suggest that 2-8 hours per day per family could be spent on more fulfilling activities with improved cooking facilities.

Moreover, indoor smoke from solid fuel is the cause of approximately 21% of deaths caused by lower respiratory infection worldwide, 35% of deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and about 3% of deaths from lung cancer, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Of these, about 64% occur in low-income countries, especially in South-East Asia and Africa, said WHO in 2009. Other health issues associated with indoor air pollution for which further evidence is emerging include increased cases of active tuberculosis, pulmonary disease, increased adverse pregnancy outcomes, low birthweight, and non-life threatening ailments such as cataract and eye infections.

Energy poverty is also a major impediment to achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In September 2010 the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon launched the target of universal energy access by 2030. He described the importance of energy access in poverty reduction and the role of energy services in meeting the MDGs: “Universal energy access is a key priority on the global development agenda. It is a foundation for all the MDGs. … Without energy services, the poor are cut off from basic amenities. They are forced to live and work in unhealthy, polluted conditions. Furthermore, energy poverty directly affects the viability of forests, soils and rangelands. In short, it is an obstacle to the MDGs.”

Image RemovedDelivering cylinders of liquefied petroluem gas (LPG) in Mumbai, India. The inflation rate for such fuel for the last three years has made this fuel option prohibitive for rural households.

With new energy supply and infrastructure being cornered by industry and manufacturing, the services sector, cities and towns and the transport sector, the addition of new megawattage tends to disproportionately benefit the urban middle classes at the expense of the rural poor. This is an imbalance which becomes visible in the impact of many energy-consumption subsidies. Although intended to make energy services more affordable and accessible for the poor, studies have repeatedly shown them to be an inefficient and often ineffective means of doing so. The cost of these subsidies falls on the entire economy, but benefits are conditional upon the purchase of subsidised goods and thus tend to accrue disproportionately to middle and higher-income groups. Poor households may be unable to afford even subsidised energy or related services, or may have no physical access to them (for example, rural communities lacking a public transport network or a connection to an electricity grid). In general, subsidies for liquid fuels are particularly difficult to target, given the ease with which such fuels can be sold on the black market.

In December 2010, one of the magazines of the CR Media group of Singapore interviewed me about energy needs and energy equity in rural Asia. My responses to some thoughtful questions have been published, although the publisher hasn’t provided a link to the material online. Here is 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).

Image RemovedA hamlet in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India. Homes in such settlements use a combination of dried dung, fuelwood, charcoal and kerosene for cooking.

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.

Image RemovedThe cityscape of Mumbai, India. The country’s urban economy demands, and gets, new fuel supply and infrastructure at the expense of the rural poor, for whom even two extra light-bulbs can make a difference.

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.

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 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.

Rahul Goswami

Rahul Goswami has worked on a food and agriculture programme (livelihoods and rural economies) of the Government of India since 2009, is a trainer in the Asia-Pacific region for UNESCO's 2003 Intangible Cultural Heritage Convention, and lives in Goa, India.

Tags: Building Community, Coal, Consumption & Demand, Education, Electricity, Energy Infrastructure, Energy Policy, Fossil Fuels, Natural Gas, Women