First Valorisation Meeting Report

Introduction

The first valorisation meeting was held in New Delhi on 28 January 2016.

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Dr. Johanna Hoffken introducing the meeting

The valorisation meeting opened with a brief introduction of TERI University by prof. Amit Kumar, dean of the Department of Energy and Environment. He stressed that, while there have been many mini grid projects in India, upscaling remains a major issue, as is household penetration. While many villages have been electrified over the last years, this does not mean that all (or even most) households in those villages have reliable access to energy services. This makes micro and mini grids relevant even with the presence of the central grid.

Prof. Geert Verbong and Dr. Johanna Höffken (TU/e) introduced the MVI programme and the importance of involving stakeholders in the development and implementation of new technologies for both practical success and ethical acceptability. To facilitate this, presentations and photos of today as well as this report will be made available on the project’s website. They also gave a short overview of the project, its aim to develop a smart grid prototype for electrification of rural Indian villages and its different work packages.

 

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Schematic overview of the project’s structure

 

 Work Packages

In this session work packages one to four were presented. Marcel van Heist (RS) presented work package two, implementation and commercialization. Rural Spark has been active in providing energy solutions for rural India through social innovations: one of their main developments has been an energy router with twenty rather than two or three ports, making it possible for local entrepreneurs to charge many lights at once and rent them out locally. Currently they mainly operate in the Gaya region in Bihar: in the next two years (2016 and 2017), they aim to diversify and upscale in Bihar to more customers. Rural Spark will also start a new project in Puducherry aimed at the economically stronger rural population. Their main aims are to be innovative, economically viable, sustainable and scalable in their operations. Their research addresses technical questions (concerning hardware, AC or DC, voltage, safety, storage and how to connect different sources) as well as social questions (concerning data management, energy trading and load balancing, promoting ownership and setting up a system that can stand on its own without further interventions by the project or Rural Spark). Rural Spark wants a stronger focus on research and development (R&D) which emphasises on social innovations rather than just technical innovations. An important point here was their acknowledgement that electrification is not limited to providing lighting services. There is a need to move beyond these. The Puducherry test plots will focus on this transition to electricity services beyond light.

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Marcel van Heist presenting work package two

 

Menno Kardolus (PRE) presented work package one, developing a smart grid prototype. PRE specialises in power electronics and does certification and prototyping according to specifications (in this case from RS), production and licensing will be outsourced. RS then again will work on the integration of the product in the market. PRE has experience with rural electrification technologies such as the WakaWaka lamp. Challenges for them include the difficulty of finding good examples of household-level solar inverters in India (that can convert power from solar panels to be usable for electrical devices) and making solar panels usable in case a household also has a central grid connection, e.g. if the central grid has a blackout.

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Menno Kardolus presenting work package one

 

Ankit Kumar (TU/e) presented work package three, societal and institutional factors. He explained that the main aim of the work package is to understand the societal and institutional factors that affect the viability of smart grid implementation and use. This work package operates at three different levels – village, state and national. Further, the methods and tools used for research under this work package were discussed. It was outlined that the work package aims to gain specific insights into the role of culture, everyday life, routines and practices to inform the development and subsequent modifications in the smart grid prototypes. In response some members of the valorisation panel remarked that political challenges were of specific importance in Bihar and that the learning from the project will also be relevant for the expansion of the national grid network.

 

Auke Pols (TU/e) presented work package four, ethical aspects. He looked at three main areas where ethical issues can arise. The first is ethical choices and values in design. According to philosophers of technology, there is no ‘division of labour’ where politicians and customers make the ethical choices and engineers design ‘just’ the instruments. Rather, engineers have to make many ethical choices during the design process, concerning the formulation of goals and criteria and the choice of indicators; the choice of alternatives; value trade-offs (e.g. privacy vs. ease of use); risks and unintended effects and (implicit) societal and political visions. The second is methods of stakeholder involvement: classical methods involve informed consent and deliberation, but as Rural Spark’s Hidden Design method works differently, conditions for ethical acceptability will be different as well. The third is the evaluation of policy documents and the effects they have on the ground.

Ethical concerns raised by the panel members concern gender issues and (mistaken) assumptions about the relation between electrification and gender equality; whether the capability approach would be a good indicator for progress in wellbeing through electrification; differences in values in different contexts as well as in different social strata (most notably the old castes); and the current financial crisis of the power sector in India.

 

World Cafe

After lunch the meeting proceeded in world café format. In this format, each of the work packages one to four was assigned a table chaired by its respective presenter. Participants sat at a table for fifteen minutes, discussing the topic and coming up with questions, comments and ideas. Afterwards they moved to another table of their choice until each participant had visited each table. The following is a list of questions and insights generated by this session:

Work Package 1

A wide variety of aspects related to technology of micro / smart grids was discussed. Political and social aspects were also touched upon. Examples include:

  1. There is a state wise policy regarding energy. Moreover, if we want to involve ourselves in energy distribution over the network, we will need to become an official “distributor”, which is difficult. We will get an introduction at the MNRE to see if our product fits some of the government schemes.
  2. Within villages there are some larger energy users who could be of interest for the energy network. Local computer centres and agricultural machines like pumps and mills for example.
  3. Demand side management is an important topic. This involves educating the users so they realise what the impact is of connecting large loads. There are many options to on the one hand make the user more aware of how to keep the network stable. On the other hand there are also ways to automate this. Having a group of essential and non-essential loads would be an option.
  4. Some of the risks of implementing a micro grid were also mentioned. Technical solutions can make these risks smaller. Some of them were payment solutions and many involve getting more insights from and towards the user. Either by collecting information or by giving the users access to more information or for example local knowledge on repairs.

Work Package 2

Several ideas were suggested to facilitate entry in a new area, such as:

  1. Partner with “enablers” who share interest in rural electrifications (who need people to have electricity for their products).
  2. Target customers who really need electricity; gas stations, telephone pole providers, etc.
  3. Add services; water cleaning, irrigation, etc.
  4. Every region is different; find a partner who knows the local culture
  5. The ‘grid company’ or ‘grid provider’ has difficulty reaching the remote areas, they can be a customer, we build the infrastructure and extra source and we can sell the energy to them. For grid companies extension is very expensive, they lose more than 40% to supply the rural areas.
  6. Focus on enabling ‘money generating activities’ for our customers
  7. Instead of competing against the diesel-entrepreneurs who sell diesel generated energy, we could target them.

With regard to research and design, the following questions were asked:

  1. What are the real needs, and in what order: light, profit creation, entertainment…?
  2. ‘BoP’ models “worked” when applying ‘high volume, low margin’ methods, can we do the same with energy? Can we design it in such a way that we can apply this model?
  3. Why are people (not) taking a grid connection, what really drives them?
  4. The context’s dynamics, what is happening socially, are people actually equal, what kinds of competitors are dealing energy and how will our product influence these dynamics?
  5. Electricity is perceived as something that ‘should be’ cheap, as the central grid offers it cheaply. How to deal with this in the business?
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Results of world cafe for work package 2

The following general remarks were brought up:

  1. Social enterprise; “you can only be social when you earn money to begin with”; focus on earning money first and being social second?
  2. For the grid it is expensive to reach remote areas and offer the low prices expected. These types of solar projects are more expensive and might change the price perception of electricity, which in term makes it possible for the grid to expand into those areas anyway and sell electricity at a higher cost. How to deal with that business risk?
  3. A grid-connected LES could exploit his grid connection and sell energy in his village; he then has an interest to prevent the grid from growing as it will diminish his market.

Work Package 3

Three key ideas that came up here were:

  1. The importance of cultural context.
    • Relationships between various social groups, especially castes.
      • Power centres and politics created by these social groups.
    • Gender dynamics within communities and households.
    • Focus on subcultures within Bihar. A project successful in one district may need to be modified to suit the subtle cultural differences in other districts
  2. The need to move beyond preconceived ideas of what people need and want and thus how the energy systems should be configured.
    • There is a need to focus our understanding on ‘priorities’. Whose priorities do energy projects focus on – the communities’, project designers’ or the funding agencies’?
  3. Should enterprises get into social power relations or equity issues?
    • Do they need to operate within these power relations or disrupt them?
    • Do some energy projects end up exacerbating these power relations?
    • Should they just develop a successful business case and proceed with it?
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Results of world cafe for work package 3

Work Package 4

With regard to politics and business, the following issues were brought up:

  1. There currently is no policy coordinating central grid extension and decentralised developments. This leads to double work and inefficiency, power plays and investor risk. How can we deal with this? Can we influence (state or national) policy on this matter, and if so, how? Panel members disagree on the effectiveness of the central grid. Some claim that is works quite well at low cost, others argue that it is frequently developed around election time but poorly maintained afterwards. By the time it breaks down the decentralised grids will have been outcompeted, however, and the villagers are left high and dry.
  2. How can we minimise business risk for decentralised solutions, given recent (and mostly unpredictable) central grid extensions?

With regard to stakeholder involvement and social aspects, the following issues were brought up:

  1. What gender issues are raised by rural electrification? How should we deal with them? And which indicators should we use to determine whether (and if so, how) rural electrification actually contributes to gender equality?
  2. Strategies that work in marketing and thus help businesses often do so by playing into existing social structures – and thereby potentially strengthening stereotypes. How to find a balance between strategies that work within the system and strategies that (attempt to) change it?
  3. Even though many project members are ‘outsiders’, we should be careful to avoid an ‘us vs. them’ mentality and try to view ourselves as a community struggling with common problems. Trust is very important for business and research continuity.
  4. How do you find out which voices are not heard, which parties do not interact with the new technology, and why?

With regard to local practices, the following issues were brought up:

  1. Who gets to determine what is a genuinely ethical issue in which context, as well as what is acceptable and what not? Who should resolve value conflicts, both within the technology as well as within the communities?
  2. What valuing practices exist within the villages? How do people value electricity? How should it be valued, and what does this mean for e.g. practical arrangements regarding payment for services? How should people be educated in the importance of payment and how to use electricity? What is people’s conception of the good life, and where does electricity fit in? How can they make money / create value with electricity?
  3. For upper-class and Western consumers, electricity is something we rarely engage with: We flip the switch and energy comes out. Yet the rural poor are asked to engage with energy a great deal, cleaning solar panels, minding charging lamps, etc. Should we aim for models that increase or decrease conscious engagement?

Feedback Session

In the next session members of the valorisation panel gave general feedback on the project. Recommendations and suggestions included:

  1. Remain self-critical. Most people in the meeting assume that electricity can and will change lives for the better, especially those of women, but this is an assumption that should be evaluated as well. Not only successes, but especially failures have to be documented for the benefit of future projects.
  2. The project should think carefully about indicators for success: what do we consider important, and why? What are good indicators for e.g. capacity building and gender equality?
  3. The idea of flexible or modular design is very important, partly because high-tech systems have a short life cycle and should thus be designed for repair and replacement; partly so that the technology can be easily dismantled and installed elsewhere if arrival of the central grid makes it obsolete.
  4. Ideally the valorisation panel should be extended with user views: now we are talking about users, while we should rather talk with
  5. A threat to the project might be that we have not done a proper feasibility study before starting in Bihar. We could still do this to find the ‘best’ sites for extension. It is questioned whether Puducherry is a good next site for Rural Spark to move to as circumstances there are quite different than in Bihar, so they will have to reinvent the wheel to quite some extent. Part of the feasibility study is finding a market, and for that, you have to be clear on whether you sell products, services or commodities.
  6. The panel would like to hear more specifications of the project: short- and long-term goals, benchmarks, organisation of communication processes between work packages, etc. A functioning smart grid is not necessarily socially or ethically acceptable. Cooperation between academics and practitioners is a strong point of the project, but at the same time we should recognise the limits of what we can do and not be too ambitious.
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Feedback from valorisation panel members

The valorisation meeting ended with a general discussion on possibilities and problems for upscaling. Remarks made include:

  1. Upscaling to all of India is too ambitious: most states are already larger than many EU countries. If you stay in one state, you only have that state’s electricity policy and particular culture to deal with. Considerations: states with good physical infrastructure offer less business opportunities. ‘If you can make it in Bihar, you can make it everywhere’: here, financing is difficult and people have high expectations (and will thus be disappointed if they are not lived up to).
  2. Upscaling can be considered in many different ways. It can be regarding electricity capacity, numbers of customers, number of services provided, etc. While the government has most reach by far, businesses can create niches by providing consistent, reliable supply and high-quality service and maintenance.
  3. Upscaling requires investment. Will Rural Spark take loans or other financial risks? (SELCO, by comparison, has only NGOs as investors). Or should the customers take the loans / micro-credit and run the risks? Is crowdsourcing an option?
  4. Discussing upscaling is all nice and well, but very hard to do without a concrete technology to upscale. The project shouldn’t spend too much time debating upscaling strategies before a concrete technology is designed and made to actually work.

 List of Participants

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Bottom (from left to right): Ankit, Johanna, Priya, Smita, Menno, Suman, Evan, Geert, Amit. Top (from left to right): Shirish, Auke, Ashis, Shantanu, Jelle, Willem, Marcel, Alex.

No. Name Affiliation
1 Naqui Anwer TERI University
2 Priya Dagar Dutch embassy
3 Alekhya Datta TERI
4 Shantanu Dixit Prayas
5 Shirish Garud TERI
6 Marcel van Heist Rural Spark
7 Willem Helwegen Rural Spark
8 Johanna Höffken TU/e
9 Menno Kardolus PRE
10 Amit Kumar TERI University
11 Ankit Kumar TU/e
12 Ashis Kumar Sahu CLEAN
13 Suman Lahiri EBTC
14 Evan Mertens Rural Spark
15 Jelle Nijdam Dutch embassy
16 Auke Pols TU/e
17 Basudev Prasad TERI University
18 Smita Rakesh Ashden India Renewable Energy Collective
19 Geert Verbong TU/e
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