Life without Energy
Employer: Quicksand | Client: SPACE10 | Role: Project Lead (Research + Strategy)
What could be the impact of democratizing access to off-grid clean energy?
Today, about 860 million people, mostly poor and predominantly located in rural areas live without electricity around the world. 674 million people will continue living without access to electricity in 2030 if the rate of electrification doesn’t rise significantly faster than population growth. Even those who do live with electricity are often underserved, only having access to an unreliable or inadequate grid connection.
The three month project was aimed at capturing the stories of those living on the edge of the grid and gathering initial insights on the relevance of solar as a means of last-mile energy provision. The work was compiled into a publicly shared report which can be found on the Space10 Journal website (and embedded here), and was presented in person and online.
The report created for Space10 on life in energy-constrained homes.
Last mile provision challenges
Most of the communities and households without any electricity access are often either too remote and hard to reach by the central grid or cannot afford the connection. The team decided to visit four different countries, each with drastically different energy situations, while trying to identify locations that might be representative of their respective regional challenges:
1 | Kenya: An aggressive off-grid solar market trying to keep up with the needs of a fast-growing and often isolated population.
2 | India: Communities with high grid penetration but inconsistent and unreliable electrification.
3 | Indonesia: An archipelago where the government is slowly but painstakingly shifting from fossil fuels to solar mini-grids.
4 | Peru: Remote populations that are provided a limited range of options that do not meet their needs.
The promise of solar
The underlying hypothesis in the project was that solar would play a key role in helping achieve the 2030 universal electrification target. Some of the more optimistic estimates expecting up to 60% of the people becoming electrified between 2017 and 2030 to do so through decentralized systems, equally distributed between mini-grids and off-grid photovoltaic solutions.
Through in-home interviews, community visits, and discussions with local providers, the team was able to capture unique anecdotes and consolidate high-level insights around energy needs.
The four locations were chosen to capture the regional nuances of energy access limitations.
What role can off-grid solar solutions play in reaching universal electrification by 2030?
Many of the households visited within the reach of the grid that did not have electricity were simply unable to afford it. Needs like building stronger homes, affording their children's education fees, or buying food to put on the table often had to be prioritized. That being said, many homes without any electricity had cellphones which they'd charge at a neighbor's home or send into the city when someone was going to the market and pay to charge it at a shop.
Households without electricity often had feature phones which they'd charge at their neighbors' or in the closest city.
Energy needs in low-income households were often met with less sustainable alternatives like firewood for cooking and batteries for electronics like radios. Firewood was appealing because it was freely available to most households and batteries offered easy opt-in and opt-out solutions even if expensive. Oil lamps remained trusted backups as they were easy to fix or assemble from scratch.
Energy comes from many other sources like combustibles or batteries.
For those who were able to afford access to energy, either in a limited fashion through home solar products (picoPV or SHSs) or grid connections, the first devices invested in (varies across geographies and the quality of electrification) were bulbs, fans, and TVs.
Light can extend active (or productive) hours: women in Peru mentioned using lights to weave at night as a way of relaxing and making a little extra cash. Many of these areas being tropical or sub-tropical fans and cooling devices was a big concern as well.
Lastly, the TV became a key sign of the quality of the electrification: it is a very appealing product but the home needs enough capacity to run a TV and if the connection is inconsistent the TV might fry and become too expensive to repair. We saw many more TVs in Kenya and Indonesia than anywhere else.
The availabilty and use of TVs became an interesting indicator of the quality of the energy access.
As mentioned above, the electricity's ability to impact livelihoods was hard to ignore. Other than lights being used to keep shops open at night, we also saw farmers in India pooling funds to afford solar water pumps for their fields, or shopkeepers in Indonesia running TVs to stay busy when store activity is low. The one appliance we heard of several times but only saw in homes where families had had electricity all their life were fridges.
Fridges can keep refreshments like home-made ice-creams for children, but also store sodas and other goods to sell to customers. There are signs of solar-friendly fridges emerging in certain markets, but like the 12V TVs meant to be SHS-friendly, these are still fairly hard to come by.
Productive uses of energy can often be a driver for electricity adoption in the home.
The Solar Trade-off
All in all we found solar can work as a temporary solution (even if temporary means decades), and greatly impact households' lives by providing affordable access to electricity, reducing exposure to toxins, and increasing productive hours. It might even be chosen over a grid connection in areas where the grid is so poorly installed that it puts children or cattle at risk and because it can run during storms without shutting down.
However, its ability to provide a lifestyle that is desired, a lifestyle "like in the city" (a phrase that came up many times), solar's capacity remains far too limited as of now. Even communities with solar mini-grids, as seen in Indonesia, struggle to meet the needs of multiple households especially during peak hours when families are relaxing in front of the TV.
Solar is a promising, reliable and adaptable source of energy but needs further innovation to become relevant in the long term.
The experience was invaluable. Being able to take on such a fast-paced project and try it across four countries around the globe with such a limited team (4 researchers, one per location working with a local partner) was a very rewarding challenge and gave us the chance to attend several speaking events. The topic, energy access but also the foundational understanding of what makes a home, has since influenced more recent projects. However, the power imbalance and extractive nature of the work were hard to ignore.
For this project I had the chance to visit Peru with the help of our local contact Marlene Vega, an anthropologist based in Lima. The research took place in and around Tarapotto near the jungle. We visited a breadth of homes from rural communities to homeowners who had lived in the city all their life. Thanks to Marlene we had ample time to introduce ourselves and the project to the village elders and outline our involvement: that we were not there to offer any solutions but rather to document current uses of energy and life at home.
This was a valuable and necessary step to build rapport and familiarize myself with the context while avoiding possible misconceptions during interviews. We also used a consent form, and made sure we had the consent of participants for anything we filmed or photographed. We had decided in advance how to thank the participants for their time: in India we gave sweets, in Peru and Kenya money, and Indonesia umbrellas — in each location this was decided with the local fixer.
Were those steps enough? Although we took the necessary measures to check the boxes of research ethics 101, like informed consent when it comes to sharing images online (we tried our best to convey they'd be shared on social media and offer the option of refusing), was it a fair trade or deal?
Lack of energy access is only a symptom of broader institutional shortcomings and I got the chance to document and speak of it in the hope that the energy access community be "invigorated" and inspired to innovate further. This begs the question of how we can rethink the role of design consultants when faced with such glaring power inequalities over the course of short evaluative projects.
Please reach out if you've had similar experiences or found solutions to better navigate these situations (from very small acts like printing some of the photos of respondents so they can have them at home, to challenging the premise of projects of this nature, or allocating project funds to support local infrastructural efforts).
Report readout in Space10's Delhi office.
Several objects collected in local markets were displayed at the readout event.
Small thank you gift for the Peru respondents.
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