I often complain about the organization of academic conferences, but SE4ALL beats the usual suspects. There is no lunch service and no coffee breaks, and most of the meetings are held in the ugly rooms of the United Nations basement. Somehow I thought these professional conferences for international policymakers would be glorious. Ivory tower 6 : 0 United Nations.
Having cleared that underbrush, I do have some positive things to say about the substance. The highlight the day was Practical Action’s presentation on Poor People’s Energy Outlook 2014. Not only does the report do a great job at describing the problem of energy poverty and providing a roadmap for concrete action, but the presentations by Aaron Leopold and Simon Trace were fantastic.
I’ve always had a soft spot for appropriate technology, and these guys demonstrate that they can contribute a lot to that elusive quest for sustainable development. Their approach is both pragmatic and ambitious. They begin with the notion that energy services — electricity, cooking, mechanical power, community energy, productive uses — are the cornerstone of energy access. They then provide simple and practical tools for measurement at different levels, from household to national policy. They also make a compelling case for why decentralized energy will play a much larger play tomorrow than yesterday — more on that in a future blog post. Highly recommended! I truly hope I’ll have an opportunity to work with their team at some point.
Another great presentation was by SEWA from India. Founded in 1972, SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association) is basically a trade union and a cooperative for self-employed women. They have an impressive membership of two million and provide a variety of services from occupational training to microfinance and solar power. Their team, along with three members from Gujarat, told us about their experiences — both good and bad, without holding back — with solar power. The session ended with a song in Gujarati! That’s simply awesome, if I may add.
While the meeting showed that the energy poverty community is moving from naive hype of decentralized renewables to a constructive agenda of criticism and expansion, some problems remained. Most importantly, political economy was almost completely ignored in the discussion. That’s maybe not surprising in the consensual and technocratic environment of the United Nations, but it’s a major problem for eradicating energy poverty. If we want to understand why governments are not designing better policies for grid extension, LPG provision, and decentralized energy provision, we must look at electoral politics and interest groups. There’s just no way around it.
Some of the usual myths about off-grid energy also remained. While most participants — including the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, of all organizations — now recognize that efforts to distribute clean cookstoves are largely failing, the myth about micro-grids being mostly about productive loads of power for agricultural or small-scale industrial activity remained. It was good to hear entrepreneurs and investors explaining to bureaucrats and civil society folks that there are very few micro-grids out there that provide large loads of power, notwithstanding some old government systems that are now rotting away. This doesn’t mean that productive loads cannot prove commercially viable in the future, but let’s be realistic and base our discussions and policies on real data and field experience.
More to follow tomorrow! Notwithstanding the brutal logistics, I’m looking forward to another productive day.