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Rural energy access: A global challenge

Image credit: Amanda Woodman-Hardy

Energy affects all Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
A statement made at the beginning of a rural energy access session at the Global Challenges Symposium on 12 April 2018.  To give some context for those who aren't aware, the SDGs are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity (see UNDP). As the goals are interconnected – tackling affordable and clean energy will mean also tackling the issues associated with the other goals.
During the session led by Dr Sam Williamson, held in Bristol and co-organised by the University of Bristol's Cabot Institute for the Environment, four issues were discussed with Nepal as a case study:
  1. How does a lack of energy access impact rural lives?
  2. How can technology enable access to modern sustainable energy?
  3. What are the key economic and policy interventions to ensure successful rural energy access projects?
  4. What is the social impact of having access to energy in rural communities?
I felt incredibly lucky to be in the same room as the invited guests from Nepal: Biraj Gautum (Chief Executive Officer at PEEDA); Giri Raj Lamichhane (Head Teacher of Dhawa School, Central Nepal); Sushila Lamichhane Adhikari (Regional Director, Learning Planet, Central Nepal); Muhan Maskey (Policy and Institutional Strengthening Expert, Renewable Energy for Rural Livelihoods Programme, Alternative Energy Promotion Centre, Government of Nepal); and Ramesh Maskey (Associate Dean, School of Engineering, Kathmandu University).  Listening to them speak, it was clear that the Nepalese have come through such adversity (including the 2015 earthquakes - more on this below) and have survived without access to energy like we know it in the Western world.  They are incredibly resilient and wonderful people. I was certainly in awe of them. Here I summarise their thoughts and hopefully provide you with a new knowledge of real rural lives affected by a lack of access to energy.

1. How does a lack of energy access impact rural lives?

Hearing from Sushila it was clear that a lack of energy access affects rural lives in ways I could not have imagined - cooking is not possible unless using indoor stoves which cause lots of pollution and health issues especially in women and children.  The burning of firewood, cow dung and kerosene on these stoves is used for lighting and cooking.  Can you imagine breathing in the fumes from kerosene whilst sat cooking indoors?  What is also true is that it is mainly women and children who are affected by indoor air pollution and as a result suffer many negative health effects.  It is clear that more research needs to be done to customise the cooking technology for Nepal and other areas so that it moves away from indoor stoves.  Interestingly, a member of the audience from Ghana mentioned that the electricity there can be so unreliable that people don't always want to invest in electric cookers, they'd rather go out and collect firewood for their stoves.  Unfortunately rural Nepalese villages cannot get electricity when they need it for cooking or lighting so many are in a similar situation. 

Things we take for granted in the UK - like using our mobile phones, using social media and getting search engines to answer our burning questions in life (#firstworldproblems!) - are limited in Nepal.  Access to communications like the internet and to the news is one of the most valuable things to come out of having access to energy. 

Apparently the government of Nepal say giving access is one part of the energy problem, the other part of the problem is transformational access.  I.e. not just providing access to power but making sure it is provided everywhere, that it is clean and sustainable and that there is a support network in place to maintain it.  There is a lot of work to be done globally to address this issue.

I didn't get chance to interact much with my mum when I was growing up as she was out early in the morning collecting firewood so wasn't there when I woke up and was busy cooking in the evening. 
One of the things you forget about lack of energy access is how it affects the social side of people's lives.  The quote above was given by Biraj (as seen in the picture above, stood up).  It is common for women to spend four hours collecting firewood for their stoves so they are on when the children wake. I can't even imagine getting up four hours early every single day to do this, let alone spend an hour collecting 20 litres of water and hiking it up a steep mountain every time I need water for cooking, washing and drinking.  After hearing this I am in awe of rural Nepalese women.  They are superhuman to me, pushing the boundaries of what a woman does for her family.  I am embarrassed that I have so many luxuries in my life resulting from having access to energy, whenever I require it.  I just need a plug and a socket.  It is time for us in the Western world to help support areas without access to energy, we have a duty to families the world over.

2. How can technology enable access to modern sustainable energy?

The market is very small in Nepal for research and development in new energy technology. It is cheaper to get technology from China. There is a real lack of finance, knowledge and government support which means that rural Nepalese have not been able to fully exploit the natural resources available to them for sustainable energy e.g. through installing hydro-power. There is also the problem that to the average rural person in Nepal, lifting water which can be used for drinking, cooking, washing and chores, is a more important focus for development than energy access.  It seems a catch-22, having energy access would actually improve water lifting from source up to areas of need in the Nepalese mountains, since a lot of water pumps require energy to run.

Another great challenge is to make Nepalese energy technology for rural areas easy to maintain and robust.  Remote areas are often hard to get to and it could be a long time before anyone could come and fix any issues and obviously the cost of doing so may be prohibitive.  Therefore technology needs to be simple and locals need to be trained in maintenance.  It was also suggested in the room that tech should be developed so that it can be fixed remotely if needed. It is also important for researchers to check new energy technology is actually working after they have developed and installed it in rural areas.

3. What are the key economic and policy interventions to ensure successful rural energy access projects?

It was good to hear during this session that the energy grid in Nepal is starting to approach the rural areas of Nepal which means that it is possible for the micro-hydro-power that currently exists in rural areas to be injected into the grid and payouts can be made to rural people who own them. However a lack of available funds means the rural Nepalese cannot build micro-hydro-power plants. Most micro-hydro-power plants are instead run by the government, whole communities or private individuals and there is a policy imbalance between government-owned power and community-owned power in Nepal.

These energy inequalities seemed to be echoed by a delegate from Ghana who said that some wealthy people in Ghana are able to get enough power from solar power to not have to rely on the governments unreliable electricity. They can sell their energy back to the grid and get richer in the process, causing further inequality in energy access.

4. What is the social impact of having access to energy in rural communities?

As mentioned earlier, there is a big social impact of not having access to energy in rural areas of Nepal. By having access it means that cooking is easier and not having to collect fire wood means time is freed for maintaining gardens to produce your own food. Three to four hours a day can be saved from not having to collect firewood which can improve women's social lives and involvement in their communities.

As is the case in most societies, you will always get people who are resistent to change. In Nepal it was said that there may be some Nepali men who may not want women to have extra time available to them (from not collecting firewood) and may want them to stick to traditional roles instead.

Having access to energy can revolutionise rural lives without destroying traditional roles.  A Somali delegate said that energy is expensive but available in rural Somalia. Mobile phone access means nomads can find for e.g. the price of a goat and where the nearest one is so they don't waste time and physical energy trekking to find one. Phones can be charged in the cities. There is also micro-insurance available in Somalia (I had not heard of it either!) being used by nomads with mobile phones to protect for example, against the impact of drought on food availability. A novel idea, being used currently and shown to work.  It is a system which could be copied and replicated in other rural areas lacking energy access.  It was clear that there is a lot of scope for African nations and Nepal to learn best practice from each other in regards to rural access to energy.

The 2015 earthquakes - and energy

It was asked of the Nepalese visitors, what role did energy play in the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal?  Their answers were grim...villages were flattened, there was no power supply, no place to cook, and it was difficult to contact relatives who were far away and may have also been affected by the quakes. Micro-hydro-power plants were destroyed and the national grid was down. There was a governmental dilemma as to what to do - whether to revive micro-hydro-power plants or extend the national grid? As it happened the national grid was a first priority and it is being rebuilt with a view to extend it.

Throughout all of this adversity, the resilience and positivity of the Nepalese visitors really shone through when they said that all the families, communities and pets came together in one space (shelter) regardless of wealth or who they were and that this was a great experience to come out of the earthquake. The earthquake also forced Nepal to become more self-sufficient in energy post-recovery and they are installing more renewables as a result.

Damaged house in Chaurikharka - by Sumita Roy Dutta - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Academics can research and write about rural energy access issues, but attending this Symposium showed that there is much we can learn from people who are actually living day in day out with these issues.  We need to collaborate and bring minds and experiences together to solve the issues around the Sustainable Development Goals.  I am happy to say that the Symposium was a great step in doing this and we hope that there will be many relationships and research interests developed from this Symposium that can apply for funding from the Global Challenges Research Fund to further research, and to improve and save lives globally.  Watch this space!

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This blog was written by Cabot Institute Coordinator Amanda Woodman-Hardy @Enviro_Mand.  You can find out more about the Global Challenges Symposium on the official website.  You can read more about reliable and sustainable micro-hydro-power in Nepal in a blog by Caboteer Joe Butchers.

Read other blogs from Caboteers working in Nepal:
Three history lessons to help reduce damage from earthquakes
World Water Day: How can research and technology reduce water use in agriculture?
Micro Hydro manufacturing in Nepal: A visit to Nepal Yantra Shala Energy
My work experience: Designing a renewable energy turbine in Nepal
Rural energy access: A global challenge
Reliable and sustainable micro-hydropower in Nepal
How Bristol geologists are contributing to international development
Cooking with electricity in Nepal


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