Blogs tagged as Energy

  • Access to energy in post-disaster situations


    August 6th, 2015

    During the aftermath of massive disasters like an earthquake, life becomes chaotic. Lack of access to energy becomes one of the alarming problems immediately after the disaster as well as in the long term. Instantly after the disaster, mobile networks, phone lines, water as well as electricity supply gets cut off making people more desperate and vulnerable. Not having electricity has its own series of consequences. Without electricity it is impossible to lift/pump water resulting in problems related to health and sanitation. Having no electricity also means having no power on the mobile phones, blocking off the very vital communication. It also means not being able to watch television or listen to radio for any news or information that could be life-saving.

    As a result of the April quake, apart from other areas, the energy sector in Nepal suffered a significant damage, putting the already energy poor country more at crisis. According to Post Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA) prepared by the Ministry of Energy, “Nepal’s energy sector has sustained loss worth NPR 18.75 billion following the April 25 earthquake and continued aftershocks.” According to the report, 600,000 households were directly affected with loss of access to electricity. The impact is either due to damage to electricity facilities, on-grid and off-grid, or loss of houses.The PDNA report has stated that various hydropower facilities with a combined capacity 115 MW out of the total installed capacity of 787 MW in the country (on-grid as well as off-grid) have been severely damaged, while facilities with a combined capacity of 60 MW have been partially damaged. The PDNA report also indicated that this will further challenge the government’s goal of universal access to modern energy services by 2030 in Nepal.

    In most of the places in Kathmandu Valley, electricity came back after hours or days or a week at the most after the quake. People appreciated Nepal Electricity Authority’s effort to act promptly and do their best to repair the damaged lines and get electricity supply back to people at the earliest. But same was not the case for many of the remote villages not connected in the national grid for electricity supply but dependent on small Micro Hydro Plants. A significant number of Nepal’s Micro Hydro Plants too were damaged, putting the people of the affected areas in darkness. In Kavre District alone, six  Micro Hydro Plants were totally damaged. Micro Hydro plants of the epicentre district Gorkha too suffered substantial damage at places including Barpark, Gyachhok, Lapark, and Muchhok among others. The Muchhok Village Development Committee (VDC) used to get the electricity supply from Jhyalla khola Micro Hydro Plant which got damaged and will take a considerable amount of time before it gets working again.

    Kamala Charging her mobile phone

    Kamala Charging her mobile phone

    It has been more than two months now, the people of Muchowk have been living without electricity. “We have gone back to the old dark times. We light traditional oil lamps during the night time. But not being able to charge our mobile phones is a real problem,” says Kamala Gurung (23) who is a health professional in a local health post. “There is a backup system at the health post for the functioning of major equipment but not enough power for anything else. I have to report the status of the health post here to the district headquarters, but I have been facing problem to do so as there is no power in my mobile phone. During emergencies, I have to walk or send someone to a place with a diesel generator to charge my phone. It takes two hours to walk to that place and costs NPR 30 to fully charge a phone at a time. Life is surely difficult without electricity,” adds Kamala.

    Without access to their basic energy source – electricity, many others in the community faced difficulties similar to that of Kamala. There is a team of Nepal Army security personnel camping at the premises of VDC building after the earthquake. They had been involved in rescue and relief efforts immediately after the earthquake and are still helping out the communities as per the need. This team too face challenges due to lack to electricity.

    One of the officers shares, “We use many battery operated equipment but still many of other things needs to be charged. We send all the required devices and mobile phones that need charging to be charged at a place about two hours away from here.”

    Recently,  Practical Action installed a solar powered charging system in the VDC office building at Muchowk. The 100 watt system was specifically designed for the community by experts at the organisation with assistance from a private solar company Surya Power Pvt. Ltd.

    Army personnel using solar powered mobile charger

    Army personnel using solar powered mobile charger

    “It has been very easy for us after the installation of this system. We can easily charge our phones as well as emergency lights now. This has made carrying out our work much easier”,  the officer adds. The system can charge 15 mobile phones and light 5 led bulbs for 4 to 5 hours.

    “I don’t have to walk two hours just to get my phone charged and that saves a lot of my time. I can now easily communicate with the district headquarters and report about the situation in our health post”, says Kamala.

    The charging system is open to the community, who take turns to charge their devices. “People take turns to do the charging and give priority to people involved in emergency services like health and security,” says the VDC secretary of Muchowk, Bheshnath Acharya, who was busy distributing NPR 15,000 (£94) to help the earthquake survivors build temporary shelters.

    “The charging system is definitely a great help. This will help the community stay in communication with each other with is very crucial during the time of crisis like this,” he opined. “Though it is a great help in a difficult time like this, we still face energy crisis until the micro-hydro plant gets repaired, and it seems like it will be quite some time before that.”

    Without access to energy it is not possible for the poor communities to build back their lives and re-start their livelihoods. Apart from addressing people’s other needs during the post-disaster situation, it is also necessary to give priority to energy access which is vital to help sustain their livelihoods.

    (The post was originally published in the Spotlight Magazine, Nepal)

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  • Hard work pays off for Himalaya community

    It was not an easy job for the communities benefiting from the Himalaya Micro Hydro Scheme, in Zimbabwe’s Manicaland province, but their sweat will soon yield results.

    The Himalaya project started in 2011 under the Rural Sustainable Energy Development in Zimbabwe (RUSED) project which is being implemented by Practical Action and Oxfam. On 8th April 2015 the project was officially opened by the Minister of Energy and Power Development in Zimbabwe, Dr.Samuel Undenge. This has indeed marked a new era for the community of Himalaya situated 35 km from the city of Mutare in Manicaland province in Zimbabwe.Commissioning

     “I have been waiting for this day since day one, and today it has been made possible. I am so happy with all the progress that has been made so far. Our hard work has finally paid off. This official commissioning is a blessing from the government of Zimbabwe we can now start working on producing results,” said an ecstatic Constance Mawocha, a 54 year old Himalaya resident.

    Access to electricity by rural Zimbabwean small-scale agricultural communities is very low as electricity is largely confined to the energy-intensive sub-sectors of commercial and industrial enterprises as well as high-income urban households. The only power utility company, Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA) has suffered immensely under the current global economic recession and the Zimbabwean economic meltdown since 2000 and is struggling to deliver on its mandate. It has thus not been able to provide a constant electricity supply to urban areas let alone scale up the rural electrification programme, which has managed to supply less than 25% of rural communities with electricity.

    IMG-20150430-WA0012For the Himalaya community having access to electricity was a fantasy. The area is located in a mountainous area and is very far from the national grid. Having seen the predicament of most rural communities in Zimbabwe, two international development organisations, Practical Action and Oxfam with funding from European Commission saw the potential for addressing the energy poverty using the abundant water resources and feasible terrains through facilitating the establishment of hydro- electricity mini grids.

    This Himalaya micro hydro system generates 80kw and 150kw of electricity at full capacity. The electricity generated at this scheme will be used to power an irrigation scheme, a grinding mill, a saw mill to process timber, and an energy centre which houses a hair salon, lantern charging kiosk and refrigeration just to mention a few.

    Grace's dreams being fulfilled“As women we have been empowered, I can’t wait to buy my electric machine and start sewing clothes for sale. I enjoy farming and the coming of electricity has made our farming very easy, from the training that we have had I am now taking farming as a business and this will come to reality with the electricity in use. Also I have 6 children and 8 grandchildren that I live with meaning I have to frequently visit the grinding meal so that I put food on the table for these little kids. Before this was so difficult for we had to travel quite long distance to get our maize pounded. But now I walk less than 500m to get my mealie meal and I am so grateful.”  Grace Muyambo 45.

    The coming of electricity also meant diversified possibilities for value addition in agriculture and agro-processing.

    “We used to lose a lot of fruits and vegetables whenever there was a glut due to absence of refrigeration facilities but now the shelf lives will improve for usually perishable goods. Besides that, the social life of families is going to improve since we will be connected to the global village through the Television and internet.” said Eutias Chirara secretary of the Himalaya Micro Hydro Association.

    The people of Himalaya may well celebrate, this was not an easy job. Men and women worked so hard to achieve the progress to date. Women assisted by carrying stones, river sand, cement, and digging of irrigation canals. Men were responsible for carrying heavy penstock pipes , laying the electricity grid and all other hard work.

    ”I almost gave up because the work was so hard, but as  a community we had told ourselves that the project belonged to us and we had to contribute in any way we could so that we see the results. Here we are today, we are so happy to have reached this day and celebrate with the whole of Zimbabwe,” said Eutias Chirara secretary of the Himalaya Micro Hydro Scheme.

    Once the project is completed communities in Himalaya will be able to use of the energy, to improve their livelihoods and therefore ability to pay and sustain the scheme through various enterprises.

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  • Marvellous Microbes

    Having been to the amazing biogas plant at Gaibandha a while ago I decided ‘Marvellous Microbes’ would be a good title for the science video I am going to be producing for school pupils.  The video will be one of three illustrating that access to technologies like biogas is important part of technology justice. 

    We could learn a lot from the engineers in Bangladesh, who have made good use of a by-product (the biogas) from a waste collection system designed primarily to reduce the hazard caused by kitchen waste being dumped in the street.  The system is well managed, it is a definite benefit to the community and the staff are incredibly dedicated. Within the process itself the microbes are the star of the show!  Microbes break down the kitchen waste from 1,000 households producing two really useful products, fertiliser and biogas.  The biogas is used by 25 household to cook food and the fertiliser is in the form of slurry, some of which is then used to make compost.

    If you are interested in more details please read on. The process goes like this!

    1. Household recruiters, Biogas plant , GiahbandaFirst of all you need buy in from the community, so a team of three lovely ladies go from door to door encouraging households to get involved in the scheme and pay a small fee to have their kitchen scraps collected. They told me that mostly people do this because they understand it is better for the community as a whole to not have waste dumped in the street, and the only other option is to walk quite a distance to larger bins.   In this site just over 1,000 households have joined in. Like me (!) these ladies have their targets to reach and are constantly signing up more. The plant itself could manage waste from about 2,000 households in total so there is a way to go.
    2. Kitchen waste is collected every day by vendors.  One vendor I spoke to has worked here for 4 years. He much prefers working here as he can look through the waste and if he finds anything that can be reused he can take it and sell it,  this could be something like a small plate. By doing this he can increase his income by about 50% .  He told me that most precious thing he found was a locket which he didn’t sell but gave to his daughter.
    3. Kitchen waste is also sorted by ladies at the landfill site. They spend up to 5 hours a day separating it out from general waste. Not a job many people would like but they said they were happy because they have work and the are given safety equipment.

    Vendor working at biogas plant Giahbandha Waste pickers at landfill site Giahbandha

    1. The kitchen scraps collected in these two different  ways are  then put into the digester and mixed with water where the marvellous microbes get to work. Conditions for these anaerobic digesters are perfect, The right pH, temperature, moisture and oxygen levels mean that in 15-20 days the kitchen scraps have changed to fertiliser that can be used as slurry and converted into compost, plus lovely biogas. Slurry is used in the plant itself and surrounding fields, in fact I was told the biogas plant is known as the ‘green garden’ because the plants in it grow so well. The compost is sold on to generate a small income for the plant.

    Putting kitche waste into the biogas digester BiogasDigester

    1. Biogas is piped out of the plant to 25 lucky households. They receive the biogas gas three times a day. Women who are lucky enough to get biogas for cooking  much prefer it to the more traditional stoves because it is cleaner, and also food doesn’t have to be watched to the same degree,  reducing  drudgery as it allows the women time to do other things whilst the food is cooking. The plant has the capacity to provide biogas for up to 50 households, the limiting factor being the cost of  building the pipes.

    Biogas stove, giahbanda, Bangaldesh Biogas plant Giahbanda, Bangladesh

    I came away feeling …what a great idea, basically a win win situation.

    To find out more about Practical Action’s work on biogas go to   www.practicalaction.org/biogas-fuel

    For a technical brief on biogas to use with pupils go to  practicalacton.org/technical-briefs-schools-energy

    …And watch out for that Marvellous Microbes video coming soon on Youtube!

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  • As the costs of renewables plummet, are we about to see Technology Justice in the energy sector?


    September 12th, 2014

    Introduction

    IRENA (the International Renewable Energy Agency) has just published a really fascinating report – REthinking energy 2014. It’s the first of a series exploring the changes that are transforming the way we produce and use energy and should be on the reading list of anyone interested in renewables.

    The report kicks off by reconfirming that business as usual in the energy sector will not keep us below the CO2 levels necessary to avoid severe climate change, but that doubling the share of renewables in the global energy mix (one of the 3 UN Sustainable Energy for All targets for 2030) would.

    That’s not exactly news, but the report then goes on to provide some fairly extraordinary statistics concerning just how rapidly advances are taking place right now in renewable energy. For this blog I thought I’d just pick three really interesting facts, although there are plenty more on offer in the report.

    FACT 1: The cost of renewable energy is plummeting

    Solar photovoltaic (PV) prices have fallen by 80% since 2008. Moreover they are expected to keep dropping, as the diagram below (from p 35 of the report) shows:

    IRENA (2014) Rethinking Energy: Towards a new power system, p 35

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     
    In a number of countries, including Italy, Germany and Spain commercial solar power has already reached grid parity – the point at which the price of electricity from renewables equals the price of power from the traditional grid.

    The cost of onshore wind electricity has also fallen – 18% since 2009, making it the cheapest source of new electricity in “a wide range of markets”.

    The pace of technology development revealed by the IRENA report is staggering. The efficiency of solar PV modules in converting sunlight into electricity has improved by around 3%-4.5% per year for every one of the last 10 years. But that statistic is dwarfed by the one concerning energy storage – in some senses the holy grail of the renewable energy sector. Better storage would allow us to smooth out the peaks and troughs of electricity generated from wind or sunlight and better match supply with demand. Until recently pumped storage (a method where water is pumped up to a reservoir when excess electricity is available and then sent back down through turbines to generate electricity at times of peak demand) has been the only viable large scale energy storage solution. But large scale battery technology is developing rapidly and IRENA expects this to transform the market for energy storage from approximately USD 200 million last year to USD 19 billion by 2017 (a nearly 100 fold increase in just 4 years!).

    FACT 2: Financing renewables is getting cheaper, and easier

    The report notes that “government financial support has traditionally been critical for promoting renewables” (a comment that chimes with my blog last week). But it seems that private finance is increasingly ready to play a part with “early-mover private developers” attracting USD 11 billion in 2013, up 200% in 12 months.

    Total investment in renewable energy rose more than 5 fold from US$ 40 billion in 2004 to US$ 214 billion in 2013 (excluding large hydropower – which accounted for a further US$35 billion in 2013). This is still less than half of the estimated annual investment of US$550 billion needed to achieve the 2030 goal of doubling the share of renewables in the global energy mix however.

    IRENA highlights the important role governments have to play here. In the more developed markets they need to be sending clear signals that energy will be a larger part of their national energy mix, so reducing uncertainty and attracting more investors, whilst in emerging markets, according to IRENA, they will still need to provide public finance to develop domestic structures to support the deployment of renewables.

    FACT 3: New renewables now outpace new fossils and nuclear.

    IRENA (2014) Rethinking energy: Towards a new power system, p 25

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     
    Falling costs and rising availability of finance means, as the diagram here shows (from page 25 of the report) , renewables now add more new generating capacity each year than do fossil fuel and nuclear power, combined. 

    Are we about to see Technology Justice in the energy sector?

    To be fair, with 1.3 billion still without electricity and 2.6 billion still cooking on open fires the prospect of technology justice in the energy sector still looks a good way off. But there are some really interesting positive trends developing that are starting to move us in the right direction.

    Renewables are beginning to be the technology of choice for new generating capacity, which has to be good news, albeit the rate of increase in renewables still needs to accelerate to avoid catastrophic climate change goals.

    But renewables are also showing how technology could be democratised. IRENA notes that “as the share of renewable energy grows… the nature and role of power producers are undergoing change. A sector once dominated by large utilities is becoming more decentralised, diverse and distributed. In Germany, almost half of all renewable energy is now in the hands of households and farmers, and only 12% of renewable assets are owned directly by utilities”.

    It also notes that “in many emerging markets, renewables are already the most economic power source for off-grid and mini-grid systems” and, conveniently, that “decentralised mini-grids are seen as a way to improve grid reliability, by localising generation and reducing the risk of transmission faults – particularly during natural calamities.” IRENA compares the opportunity for developing countries to sidestep national grids and move to a flexible system of interconnected mini grids to the opportunity those same countries have already taken to leapfrog fixed line telephone technology in favour of mobiles.

    Innovation is not confined to technology alone though. The report cites examples from Denmark and elsewhere to show how crowdfunding is growing quickly as a source of finance for renewable power infrastructure. “Specifically, in conjunction with decentralised technology, crowdfunding allows individuals and local communities to be the driving force behind the global energy transformation and to simultaneously benefit from the change.”

    IRENA concludes that “these and other trends require a different way of thinking about energy, shifting from a system dominated by a few centralised utilities, to a diverse, distributed system, where consumers are also producers, with far more control over how and when they use energy”.

    Sounds an awful lot like Technology Justice to me!

     

     

     

     

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  • A step too many?

    As someone who hasn’t been near lycra or a gym for many years the idea of paying good money to pound away on a cross trainer is totally alien. And yet for many thousands, their Saturday morning would not be complete without an hour in the gym treading sweatily away, shedding, hopefully, the pounds.

    woman on treadle pump For thousands of farmers across Asia and Africa, they have their own cross trainers – the treadle pump.   For them it’s not about losing the pounds but gaining the taka, the rupee or shilling. The treadle pump, developed in the 1980s, has been a life saver for many poor farmers, enabling them to pump water from underground, providing irrigation in areas far from a river, or in drought prone regions. The only power needed is a pair of strong legs.

    This is a fantastic invention which Practical Action has been including for many years in its work with poor farmers, helping them to improve their produce and increase their production and incomes. But it’s not for everyone (like me and the gym!). In some areas, the water has to be drawn up from significant depths – because the treadle pump provides vacuum suction to raise the water, the deeper the depth, the less the flow of water, the longer the time spent on the treadle pump, or it’s not possible to use the treadle pump at all. So what is normally a benefit, can become a burden, often to women and children who are the ones who generally operate the treadle pumps.

    solar powered pumpWith funding from the European Commission, our energy team in Zimbabwe is introducing solar powered irrigation to farming areas which are remote from the national electricity grid and unlikely to ever be connected. Even if they were, the cost of the electricity would be prohibitive and possibly unreliable. However, using the abundant, free resource of the sun for solar voltaic panels to power pumps, water can be drawn from significantly deeper depths than a treadle pump. Instead of spending up to 6-7 hours continuous pumping to irrigate 0.5 hectares of land per day, women can be using this valuable time to set up small enterprises, and children can attend school, and the farmers can be sure of a sustainable and reliable supply of water for their crops. A definite step in the right direction.

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  • The only boss that I have – “The DONOR”


    July 30th, 2014

    Is your boss not satisfied with our work? What do you expect then? A pink slip? – It makes sense and is perfectly logical!  After all, you are hired to meet the expectations of the organisation.  However, as a fundraising professional, I have realised that– at the end of the day, there is the only one boss – “The DONOR”!.

    I recently participated in a week-long certificate course in fundraising and communications in New Delhi, India. I have always been keen on tapping funds from institutions, trusts, foundations and corporate houses. I was quite determined that my efforts/interactions/discussions during the training will mainly be in this line.

    Donor representatives visiting a project in Bangladesh

    Donor representatives visiting a project in Bangladesh

    On the very first day, the resource person somehow tried to give us an impression – “fundraising is all about individuals”. I had a reservation, and I was rather convinced that funding has to do a lot more than an individual. As the days passed, we discussed differently on direct mails, cold calls, donor acquisition and retention, and so on.  At times, I felt that it was a complete waste of time; the whole discussion each day ended with a conclusion – “It is actually about an individual”.

    During a practical session on telefacing, a pretty lady was on the phone talking to a stranger. She talked for about four minutes including her introduction, the cause for the call and the conclusion. I had an impression that the person on the other side gave her an appointment for the meeting. She put down the phone with a cheerful smile on her face. At the end, it is the impression you leave on a stranger. I thought about it over the night and was convinced that fundraising is not possible in isolation. First, it was a cold call that ended up with an appointment, which could turn into a request for a concept note and subsequently a full proposal. No matter how big or small the amount we are proposing, this is exactly the way it works. So, is it all about an individual?

    I wrote a case for support, a capacity statement, appeals and many more. I featured Practical Action’s energy and DRR works, because then I could showcase my project to be the most urgent of all. The question was again, why the projects should be considered urgent to receive funding? I remember many projects I have been involved in which were not as urgent as the others, but they were funded. The answer is – the case I proposed was actually URGENT for somebody at the donor organisation. I again took my stand, it is not about “Somebody” who decides; It is about the whole organisation! But remember, evaluation committee in each donor organisation is comprised of a group of individuals. We need to win their heart, soul and mind! It is them who make decision on whether or not to support our project – be it a 2000 worth activity or a multi-million multifaceted project. So, am I convinced that it is all about an individual?  Somehow, yes!

    Each evening, I analysed what I am doing, and what is my job. I assure quality of donor reports, communicate with them, accompany them to the project sites and make sure they are HAPPY! I swallow all the guidelines on donor call for proposals, and make sure that our proposals meet their needs and criteria. I follow my donors on Twitter, regularly check their sites and update myself on recent happenings. I greet them on their special days, I participate in events/functions mainly because I could talk to them. Every second, I am trying to be nice with them, become conscious on what I communicate, and gently/visibly/widely acknowledge them in every possible activity. What for? Because, I want them to be happy with my organisation and its works. And always, a donor is an individual – to impress whom, we put all our efforts. Having realised all these, what do you think? I strongly believe – “Fundraising is all about an individual”, and a donor in whatever form, ultimately is an individual!

    I don’t want to get fired and become unwanted;  each moment I have this strong desire to please  my boss;  Yes, the only boss that I have – “The DONOR”!

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  • Energy for the poorest – going beyond the reach of markets.


    July 24th, 2014

    I was lucky enough to be part of a panel discussion today marking the European launch of the UN Decade for Sustainable Energy for All. The event was hosted by the Scottish Government in Glasgow as a cultural side event to the Commonwealth Games.

    Scotland is an interesting place to host such a discussion. It’s a country with some fairly remote, small and difficult to serve communities in the highlands and islands, for whom a connection to the national grid would be prohibitively expensive – mirroring some of the problems faced by rural communities in the developing world.

    One such example is the Isle of Eigg, off the west coast of Scotland, which only got 24 hour electricity in 2008. You can read more about this on their great website: islands going green but, in short, universal access to energy on Eigg was achieved through the efforts of the Eigg Heritage Trust via a community-owned company Eigg Electric. Their scheme is a hybrid one in that it delivers power via a mini grid attached to 3 renewable sources (hydro power, wind and solar) plus a diesel back-up generator. It was financed from a mixture of sources including the European Regional Development Fund, the Big Lottery, HIE Lochaber, the Highlands and Islands Community Energy Company, the Scottish Households Renewables Initiative, the Energy Saving Trust, the Highland Council, the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust and the residents of the Isle of Eigg themselves.

    Technicians George and Lisungu working on the MEGA project in Malawi

    At 184kw of total renewable generating capacity, 11 km of grid, and a few hundred consumers the Eigg system is not dissimilar to the sort of mini grid projects Practical Action would work on in places like Malawi. What’s particularly interesting is that it is owned and operated by a community organisation and that its capital costs were financed (judging from the list above) at least in part from grant funds.

    Why is that interesting? Because at the moment there is a largely unchallenged assumption in many circles that the additional energy infrastructure needed to ensure universal access by 2030 will be funded through the actions of markets responding to unmet demand. All we need to do, the narrative goes, is get regulation right, remove market barriers, perhaps do a bit of capacity building and then stand back!

    That assumption does hold true to an extent, in certain circumstances – witness the progress made in Bangladesh with over 4 million solar home systems installed since 2004. But even in this great success story, if you dig a little deeper, you find the assumption holds true only for a certain segment of the ‘market’. As a recent World Bank study shows, people who install solar home systems in Bangladesh have, on average, twice the landholding and three times the non-land assets of those who do not. In other words the poorest and most marginalised are still being left behind (not surprising when a solar home system costs around $450).

    In terms of up front capital costs, the gap between what people can afford and what systems actually cost gets much bigger when you move from solar lamps or solar home systems to mini grids with the capacity to power more than just a few lamps. Which was why, I guess, the people of the Isle of Eigg’s energy needs were not resolved by a market responding to unmet need, but through the actions of their community organisation and the availability of grant financing.

    The Isle of Eigg is not a unique example in the ‘developed’ world of how remote rural communities have eventually got access to electricity. In the US difficult to reach rural communities were connected to electricity in the 1930s and 1940s through the actions of farmers’ cooperatives and subsidised funding from the government. Indeed 11% of all electricity sold in the US today is still provided by those cooperatives, helping to connect the 16 million rural citizens living in places where it remains too difficult for commercial utilities to generate sufficient return to invest (see the NRECA website for further details).

    We need to remember this experience when we make assumptions about how the goal of achieving universal energy access will be financed. Markets, the private sector and private finance will make a huge contribution to this process. But for the poorest and most difficult to reach, history in the ‘developed’ world shows that markets alone will not bridge the affordability gap.

    In her contribution to the discussion at the launch of the UN Decade of Sustainable Energy for All today Lynne Featherstone, the UK Under-Secretary of State for International Development, emphasised a principle of ‘leaving no one behind’ as we pursue development. My main point in the same discussion was that, if we are to achieve that with respect to energy, if we are truly to ensure energy for all, then we cannot just leave everything to the market. There will still be an important role for civil society organisations and public finance.

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  • The beginning of the end for oil?


    July 14th, 2014

    Jeremy Leggett, ‘social entrepreneur’ and founder of SolarAid and SunnyMoney, alerted me to a recent article in the Daily Telegraph newspaper here in the UK. The full article can be see here but, in short, the piece suggests that the oil industry is the new great ‘sub prime’ investment of the current economic cycle, replacing the US housing market which, you will remember, triggered a global recession in 2008. Investment is pouring into exploration in oil shales and deep fields in the Arctic and elsewhere, but these investments are not yet returning any cash and, indeed, require higher oil prices to deliver a real profit.

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    Solar powered water pump in Kenya

    Whilst gambling on higher oil prices might have seemed a fairly safe bet a few years ago, there are now two potentially significant threats to making money out of oil. Firstly, if a global deal is eventually done to maintain atmospheric carbon levels at 450 ppm then, according to the International Energy Agency, two thirds of the oil reserves that oil companies currently have on their books will have to stay in the ground, unburnt, as ‘stranded’ (i.e. unusable) assets. This means the book value of the oil industry is vastly overstated and we can expect to see a mass withdrawal of funds, or a demand for profits to be paid out as dividends rather than re-invested in more drilling, as this eventually becomes clear to the big institutional investors.

    Secondly, the article notes that “staggering gains in solar power – and soon battery storage as well – threatens to undercut the oil industry with lightning speed”. The author (the Daily Telegraph’s International Business Editor Ambrose Evans-Pritchard) goes on to note that photovoltaic energy already competes with fossil fuels in much of Asia without subsidy and that “once the crossover point is reached……it must surely turn into a stampede”, predicting that the energy landscape “will already look radically different in the early 2020’s”.

    For this sort of article to be penned by the business editor of the Telegraph, a newspaper associated with the British establishment and business, is, as Jeremy remarks, truly momentous. The world’s current addiction to a fossil fuel based economy represents a massive inter-generational technology injustice – with the choice to use carbon emitting technologies by this generation having potentially profound negative consequences for future ones.

    One can only hope that the Telegraph’s analysis is correct in this instance and that we are, indeed, seeing the beginning of the end of the age of oil.

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  • Sweat, determination and hard work

    A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work – Colin Powell

    Visiting some of the communities that Practical Action work with has inspired me to reflect on Live Below the Line, so here are my musings. A reflection of Live Below the Line and Practical Action’s work in Mutare, Zimbabwe.

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    This week thousands of people across the UK have risen to the challenge and are taking on Live Below the Line, an anti-poverty campaign challenging participants to have a strict budget of just £5 for 5 days. I was apprehensive when I took on the challenge a few weeks ago, and it certainly lived up to the billing. It is a true challenge, but I didn’t find it difficult in the ways that I thought I would.

    I thought I would struggle eating plain, boring food for 5 days and I knew that a lack of caffeine would have an effect. But the thing I found most difficult was how much time it took to prepare food throughout the week. Each evening, we would prepare dinner and then breakfast and lunch for the following day, spending a couple of hours in the kitchen, creating a meal from basic ingredients. This was made more difficult as our energy levels were running low at that time of day. The food we made was actually pretty good and I ate 39p pizzas for most of the week. For me, being so used to a convenient lifestyle is what makes Live Below the Line so challenging.

    Yesterday, I had a fantastic day but learned that actually, during my Live Below the Line week, my life was still quite convenient.

    I was walking in the hills around Mutare, Zimbabwe as we visited a micro-hydro scheme that is being installed to bring power to a community.

    The beauty of the project is that it is community led and we saw the entire community getting involved, from a group women singing whilst they dug sand out of the river bed to a group of men who were building a business centre that will be powered by the micro-hydro system. This is hard work… really hard, but they are excited about how they are shaping their community and their future.

    Later that day, I realised that not only are these people working so hard to transform their community, but they also have a very different definition of hard work. They are doing manual labour to develop their community, but this is on top of the fact that they grow their own food and process their crop. Walking in the hills above the village (viewing the source of the micro-hydro system) we met someone walking the other way. I was breathing hard after the climb and the lady walking in the other direction was carrying a large bag of maize on an 8km walk across difficult terrain to the mill to have it processed into flour.

    When I did Live Below the Line, I found it hard work and lots of effort, yet the ingredients were bought from a supermarket less than a mile from my home, and if that was too much effort I could have had them delivered to my door.

    What really struck me about my day in Mutare, is that this is not a community of people who are waiting for a fairy godmother to make their dreams come true. This is a community that are excited to put in the sweat, determination and hard work hard needed to transform their community and shape their future, to lift themselves out of poverty, for good.

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  • EU needs to take action on climate change now!


    March 20th, 2014

    Our world leaders are working towards action on climate change – not a grand top down plan but a bottom up approach whereby all countries will set out their intended national contributions on the basis of what’s fair and equitable. The contributions are then pulled together to form the agreement. The intention is that this treaty will be agreed and signed at a meeting in Paris at the end of 2015.

    Should we be worried about this? I think so – let me explain why

    1. My action’s bigger than your action!

    Have you noticed that governments have a tendency to talk up commitments but somehow when it comes to delivery everything is smaller or somehow more difficult?  One current example –where there has been confusion at least over funding – is the Green Climate Fund.  It’s a UNFCCC flagship programme intended by 2020 to provide by $100 billion a year to assist developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate change.  It started operations this year after three years of planning but so far has been mired in debate about the level of finance to be provided by governments and what can be provided by the private sector.  Currently  only a fraction of this sum has been pledged so far, mostly to cover start-up costs’ according to Climate Finance and Markets 

    Kenyan women march against climate change2.  Maths – will the sum of the parts be enough?

    Today 49 less developed countries (LDCs) are calling for the process towards the Paris meeting to be speeded up. They worry that looking at all the commitments as a whole it just won’t be enough to deliver a maximum 2 degree average temperature rise, protect vulnerable countries like Bangladesh and/or that the timetable will be so elongated that by the time all of the pledges are in there won’t be sufficient time to work out if what’s proposed is enough.

    3. What about the poorest and most marginalized people?

    Keeping average global temperature rises to 2 degrees will now require urgent and transformational action. However even if we do managed to contain warming the impacts on poor people often living in the poorest and most marginal areas will still be significant. Their voices and needs are not sufficiently heard and represented in the climate change processes. Read our East Africa director, Grace Mukasa’s blog where she talks about the current unreported drought in Kenya.

    4. Why now?

    Today and tomorrow we could see the EU lead the way – leaders are coming together for a crucial EU Council meeting where they could decide Europe’s climate and energy targets until 2030. They could set ambitious targets supported by binding actions, they could lead the world on climate change action and by their decisions prompt other countries to be ambitious, to make declarations early and to adopt legally binding frameworks.

    Paris is still the best hope for global action on climate change. Now is the time to work hard and push for action. But even if we get a deal in Paris we are still likely to exceed the 2 degree rise. So climate adaptation must go up the agenda on the UN and all the countries attending the talks. Practical Action will be pushing for this at the next UN climate talks in Peru in December.

    Take action https://twitter.com/TheCCoalition/status/446611628130189312

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