Archive for October, 2013

World Energy Congress: The energy industry’s view of 2050 – no controls on demand and 500 million still without electricity

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013 by

I’m attending the World Energy Congress in Daegu, Korea this week and I thought it might be interesting to blog on the key themes of this meeting.

The World Energy Congress happens every 3 years and is organised by the World Energy Council (WEC), a network of 3000 member organisations located in 90 countries. Principally members come from the private sector, government or international institutions, although there is some representation from academic institutions. The conference is huge, with more than 5000 delegates and a large trade exhibition running alongside it.

The meeting has a different theme every day. Monday’s was ‘Vision and scenarios for the future’ and to mark this WEC launched a report titled: World Energy Scenarios: Composing energy futures to 2050 that shows 2 different scenarios for the development of the energy sector between now and 2050. The scenarios are artfully named after two styles of music – “Jazz”, where there is little forced direction and reliance is principally on markets to deliver change and “Symphony”, where there is more regulation and direction provided by governments. The scenarios are supposed to represent the two extremes within which actual future energy policy paths are likely to fall. From a development perspective a major problem with both scenarios is that neither eliminates energy poverty by 2050 and so  lack ambition when compared to the UN Sustainable Energy for All goal of universal access by 2030. The Jazz scenario does the best – with markets left to their own devices reducing the level of people without electricity in the world from 1.2 billion today to 300 million by 2050. Surprisingly WEC’s more regulated Symphony scenario does worse, leaving 500 million people still without electricity by 2050 – possibly because the government regulation envisaged by the scenario’s authors was focussed on green issues and carbon rather than on energy poverty. I say possibly because the other alarming outcome from both scenarios is a massive predicted rise is global annual energy consumption from 373 EJ in 2010 to between 491 (Symphony) and 629 EJ (Jazz) in 2050.

These two scenarios are supposed to represent extreme alternatives with an expectation that actual development will fall somewhere in-between. But scenarios are only as good as their underlying assumptions and in this case it appears those assumptions are “business as usual” for the energy industry, plus or minus a bit of green regulation.  It is disappointing that WEC hasn’t been more radical in its scenario building and had at least one of its scenarios representing what it would take to achieve universal access by 2030.

The cost of energy

Monday, October 14th, 2013 by

The cost of energy – our planet, 30% of human life, hunger?

That’s not a very fair question.

In the UK some people are genuinely struggling to pay their energy bills and worrying about the monopolistic power of the huge energy companies.

What we need is appropriate or intermediate technologies. Technology that’s human scale, controlled and owned locally. We need decentralised energy.

Or is that right? In the short term, decentralised energy would probably increase bills. In the longer term, as oil prices continue to rise, decentralised energy prices may well fall and ultimately become most competitive. The prices of the ‘kit’ will fall too, as demand grows. (I remember buying my first huge, slow PC for £2,000 – now I have a lap top I bought with Tesco vouchers!)

As a world we need an energy policy that recognises some people need energy but they are poor – this may require different tariffs, safeguards or subsidies. We need any subsidy to be carefully targeted – but for vulnerable people they will remain, most likely, necessary. We need a way of managing resources that makes sure everyone has enough for their basic wellbeing.

I remember listening to Marks & Spencer talking about how they planned to work with suppliers to equip plants with renewable decentralised (off-grid) energy – the motives were not environmental or philanthropic, they were commercial. This approach was seen as:

  1. delivering greater energy security
  2. protecting the business against price hikes.

If local energy supply is something M&S is considering, isn’t it something we as a world should consider also?

Certainly for Practical Action and the communities we work with in the developing world, decentralised energy can be transformational – health clinics able to operate at night, school children able to study in the evening, business opportunities opened.

Too often we feel trapped inside the box of the present. The trick – one that Practical Action is great – at is to start to build a better future now.

Looking for activities for Gifted and Talented pupils?

Friday, October 11th, 2013 by

If so, there are a lot of Gifted and Talended co-ordinators who would say you should try our STEM challenges.

Yesterday my colleague Bren and I exhibited at the Optimus Education Gifted and Talented conference at the Oval in London #gifted13.  This was a new experience for us so we weren’t quite sure what to expect.

Optimus Gifted and Talented conference 2013

We were delighted that so many of the 300 teachers who attended came along to our stand to find out what we had to offer…and how  impressed they were with what they found:-)  They recognised that our challenges enable pupils to really stretch themselves and demonstrate what they are capable of in a global context that is likely to be new to them.

Some teachers had already heard of our work through the grapevine.
One teacher said I heard someone say they had done tPractical Action at the Optimus Gifted and Talented conference 2013 he squashed tomato challenge and it was phenomenal!’  Others came across us for the first time.  This included one teacher who like us had travelled down from Rugby!  Our Beat the Flood challenge and competition was a real hit, with teachers liking the hands on, enquiry aspect of the challenge as well as the idea of potentially winning £250 for their school. We are looking forward to seeing those competition entries come flooding in (groan!).

One thing we both noticed was how at this conference many teachers were not just thinking about working with small groups of pupils but how they could use our challenges for a whole year group; as the basis for a transition day, or as a  whole school activity.   One teacher said to me:

‘ Beat the Flood  will be perfect for a whole school activity day we are having in three weeks time.  I can’t thank you enough…  you have just saved me sooooooo much work!

As always teachers were impressed with the quality of material we produced, and amazed that it is freely available.  In turn we were impressed with the enthusiasm and passion shown by  teachers to improve the experiences of pupils in their schools.

How I became …“Cage Man”

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013 by

A few months ago I signed up to do the Royal Parks half marathon in London. I have two young puppies so I’d been doing a bit of jogging with them, and I thought a half-marathon sounded like a bit of fun to help me burn off some excess weight.

Ewan 'cage man'

Ewan ‘cage man’

However, after signing up and setting up a fundraising page I started to wonder how I was going to meet my target. As I was running for Practical Action, I decided to try and follow in their footsteps and use an appropriate technology to help me with the race – ideally a technology that the poor in a developing country use to help get themselves out of poverty.

After receiving a host of suggestions from Practical Action staff from around the world, including a donkey plough, duck rice and a compost toilet, I decided on a fish cage developed in Bangladesh to help poor farmers obtain a sustainable supply of fish at a very low cost.

I built the cage out bamboo and netting, with straps over my shoulders to keep it in place. Apart from restricting my vision and arm movements, it didn’t seem to be too bad to wear – although I did get some funny looks carrying it on the tube on my way to the starting line on Sunday morning!

Practical Action half marathon team

Practical Action half marathon team

The Royal Parks Half Marathon has an amazing route from Hyde Park to the Houses of Parliament, on to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, before heading back around the parks again. The support for the runners was fantastic, with crowds all along the route, shouting and cheering support, particularly for anyone dressed up in a costume.

After a while I started to hear shouts from the crowd, from “yeah, man in a cage!”, to “whatever…”, “run, fish cage, run” and, above all others, “cage man!!” As the run went on and the cage, and the distance, started to weigh me down, the continuous encouragement from the spectators, as well as the other runners, really spurred me on.

The low point was towards the end of the race, when, with my energy levels starting to flag, I was overtaken by a giant testicle! However, spurred on by the cheers from my fellow runners, I made it to the end.

All round it was a great experience and I’d encourage anyone to give a half-marathon a go, particularly dressed as an appropriate technology!

Can the World Bank help smallholder farmers in Africa with yet more data?

Monday, October 7th, 2013 by

I’ll be at the Annual Meetings of the World Bank in Washington this week to talk to the team who are developing a new initiative called Benchmarking the Business of Agriculture (BBA).

The World Bank is… well, a bank… and consequently it is ‘heavy’ on economists and statisticians who for the most part prefer to deal in quantifiable measurements. With this new initiative they are hoping to set up a process that gathers information and data that can leverage positive policy change in developing countries.

The point of this is to better enable the emergence of a stronger commercial agricultural sector.  They want to encourage the emergence of a stronger family farming sector through improvements in key areas such as access to finance, markets, inputs (seeds and fertilisers) land, water, rural energy and infrastructure. So far so good but is this enough to enable smallholders to develop their farming ‘enterprises’ in a sustainable way? What is missing?

Framework for an enabling environment

Vegetables grown using improved cultivation and water harvesting techniques

Vegetables grown using improved cultivation and water harvesting techniques

Practical Action has been developing a framework with others* in the Africa Smallholder Farmers Group (ASFG). It is based on a thorough review of what experts and researchers are saying is critical to enable smallholders that want to  respond to the new opportunities in growing domestic markets. An important voice in the framework is our African partners’ perspectives, those who actually see and experience the effects of a ‘disabling environment’ for smallholders.

We’re hoping that this week, as we go to meet the teams and donors (DFID, Gates, USAid and the Danish government), we can share some of these perspectives. In a panel discussion I’ll be raising our concerns that the initiative has some gaps that threaten its logic.

The BBA hope that by fixing the regulatory and policy environment around smallholders it will create better conditions for smallholders to develop their farming enterprises. They will have better access to inputs, they will have stronger market links and they will enjoy better roads and bridges, which mean the costs of doing business will be lower. The growing urban populations get reliable supplies of food at reasonable prices and more money flows into the rural economy, to farmers and traders, rather than out of the country to foreign producers. Everyone wins.

It sounds plausible, attractive even, but our concern is that the vast majority of small-scale farmers, who form the backbone of agricultural systems (they contribute over 90% of Africa’s agricultural production; More than ⅔ of Africans depend on small or micro-scale farming as their primary source of livelihood and in sub-Saharan Africa, women grow 80-90% of the food), will not be in a position to benefit from this new, improved enabling environment.

We know that they need other critically important inputs which are currently not included. For example the BBA currently doesn’t include any indicators around the extension, knowledge and research that are so badly needed in farming systems. If policy makers in the agricultural ministries are getting data on almost everything but the actual position of smallholders the danger is that they will not focus their attention there. And if they leave that out then we believe it risks undermining the aims of the BBA to “improve food security, create livelihoods and raise incomes”.

The next blog will report on the meetings we have this week and expand more on our second area of concern: that the BBA doesn’t do enough on sustainability.

*Christian Aid, CAFOD, Self Help and Garden Africa

Crocheting with alpaca wool

Friday, October 4th, 2013 by

I’ve never been able to knit or crochet – my mum, my gran, my long-suffering Home Economics teacher Mrs Wootton – they all tried, and failed, to pass on the basics, so I could only stare in envy and admiration as Rabelina, an alpaca farmer I met in Peru, effortlessly turned a ball of the softest wool I’d ever felt into a hat while we chatted.

Before her involvement with Practical Action, she lived in a one-room hut with her youngest children. There was no toilet, electricity, kitchen or shower, her children were constantly sick, and she got hacking lung infections from inhaling cooking smoke. She made her living from hand-spinning alpaca wool into thread, and in those days, the hardest part was washing the wool as it was a struggle to heat enough water.

Practical Action chose her for training in basic animal care, and also helped her to build a stove, solar panel and shower. She said the biggest benefit was that she could clean and spin better quality wool, which sells for a higher price. If you want to know more about the project, see

I’m sorry, Mrs Wootton. I was a total waste of space in your classroom. But maybe meeting Rabelina will inspire me to have just one more go.

Meeting Godfrey Dongaronga

Thursday, October 3rd, 2013 by

Last week Practical Action and ZERO hosted a workshop in Harare on the UN’s Sustainable Energy For All initiative. I had some reservations about spending three sunny days in a conference room but my attitude to the workshop changed when I sat down next to Phyllis Kachere, a senior editor from the Herald (a national newspaper in Zimbabwe). It got more exciting as the formal introductions started and it became clear that major radio, print and TV journalists from Zimbabwe were present.

Journalists visiting a farm that produces bio-gas from pig waste.

Journalists visiting a farm that produces bio-gas from pig waste.

Sustainable Energy For All is a concept that most people in the room had never thought about, with many admitting that they had patchy knowledge at best of what renewable energy is. But by the end the journalists had not only taken charge of the event but expressed feelings of responsibility for spreading the message. They were even happy to spend an afternoon at a smelly local pig farm, learning about how to turn waste into electricity.

As a result of the workshop sustainable energy stories have already started to pop up in the Zimbabwean national media. This shows a real appetite for influencing the agenda and pushing for sustainable energy for all.

Godfrey Dongaronga

Godfrey Dongaronga

This is fantastic but the highlight of the event for me was meeting Godfrey Dongaronga, an intern at Zero. On the second day of the workshop, we got talking about what had motivated each of us to work for our respective development charities. Godfrey was clearly eager to tell me his story and with a big grin on his face he explained how he had personally seen what Practical Action does on the ground and that it had changed his life.  He told me that he had lived in energy poverty until his village, Chipendeke, was host to a successful Practical Action micro-hydro project.

Godfrey told me that having energy had not only enabled him to meet basic needs such as schooling and health care, but it had inspired him to study natural resource management at university and had led him to apply for the internship at Zero. He said he couldn’t imagine how his life would have turned out if he hadn’t lived with the benefits of energy access.

Godfrey was very keen for me to share his experience and continue to advocate for energy access in rural areas. As I was leaving the conference he slipped me a note to make sure I hadn’t missed anything:

“I am Dongaronga Godfrey, a student from Bindura University of Science Education, currently studying BES/Natural Resources Management. I would like to testify that Chipendeke hydro power project has benefited quite a number of people in different ways.

I the first beneficiary, I was able to read my school work, use the health facilities and gain from growth and development.

The electricity from Chipendeke project relieved people, especially women and children from toxic and hazardous smoke. In Zimbabwe women and children are dying of those toxic smoke. Agriculture is also one of the activities that has been upgraded in Chipendeke just to mention a few”.