Foreign Policy Blogs

The Globalization of Solar Panels: Solar Mamas at work

Some cities are now betting on the proliferation of sustainable and local sources of energy. The idea was born in the forgotten network (inaccessible cities, suburbs, rural villages) and then is organized as such, that it questions today’s centralized national production of the world’s leading power source.

Cities are not only going through an energy transition but are shifting to an urbanization of energy. On the one hand, there is the growing integration of energy in urban policies, and on the other hand, there’s the growing importance of discourses, actions, and conflicts around energy that are expressed in cities which influence energy changes. Rather than empowering actors or even urban energy interests, we are witnessing the growing consideration of these interests in energy governance at the national level. This consideration has significant implications: it positions cities, especially larger ones, as possible interlocutors in a multilevel set of actors, it values ​​their role of incubation or training of energy changes. The urban energy interests are allowing for the demands, disputes and resistance voiced by urban consumers into the energy system debate. The current evolution therefore translate less into a desire for substitution than  the establishment of a long-term coexistence between various socio-technical systems. This coexistence presents considerable challenges. In addition, by combining heterogeneous systems, whose dynamics of development/decline may vary according to places and times, it makes possible a voluntary and often fortuitous diversification of energy devices along local scales, including the urban environment. This diversification is not an end in itself.

First stage: Bangalore, the tropical capital of Karnataka in southern India. This ancient garden city of flowers has become a major hub of advanced technology. The Bollywoodian Silicon Valley is the daughter of Western delocalized policies and the liberalization of the economy. It hosts the three giants of the country’s IT, but also Texas Instruments, Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Amazon, Dell, IBM and seven hundred other research and development centers. Start-ups come running: no VAT and low-cost, highly-skilled English-speaking labor. In ten years, the population of Bangalore has grown from three to ten million. A large majority have worked on the construction sites of Electronic City and survive in the surrounding shantytowns.

Power outages are common, especially in Mumbai and Calcutta. India, which is heavily  engaged in its energy transition, already owns the largest solar power plant in Asia with plans to reach a capacity of 100 GW by 2022, the equivalent of 120 nuclear reactors. But its payout policy is growing social inequalities that are already impressive. One-third of India’s population lives below the poverty line. One-third of all Indians do not yet have access to the national electricity grid. The excluded represent 328 million inhabitants -equal to the population of the United States. Half of them are not yet 25 years old. These neglected from the network live either in the megalopolis (on fragile, flooded and contaminated lands), or in small cities or unconnected mountain villages.

Perhaps we are witnessing a real paradigm shift: from a vertical distribution of energy to a horizontal and decentralized distribution. Instead of huge production sites (coal-fired power plants, nuclear power stations), which are inevitably associated with complex networks designed to carry electricity to consumers who sometimes live several hundred kilometers away, short circuits are gradually being favored — less expensive, and more autonomous.

In this context, the issues of individual production – self-production – as well as those of self-consumption are numerous. It can be seen as a form of democratization, since part of the production are directly controlled by the citizens. It also participates in the decentralization of networks, with a view to increasing local resilience and improving the autonomy of each individuals.

In the dry dust of Rajasthan, in Tilonia, is where the Solar Mamas work. They are beautiful and proud in their yellow and pink saris. They bring the light to the heart of their homes and share the knowledge they have acquired here at Barefoot College, created by Sanjit Bunker Roy on the principles ofGandhi’s spirit of service and beliefs on sustainability, which are still alive and respected. This center of popular education teaches how to become autonomous in all domains: health, habitat, and energy. Everything works with solar: lighting, computers, water pumps, ventilators, dental offices and even a small hospital. Solar Mamas are learning to build a solar power plant in sixmonths. They communicate by gesture and simple schemas where each piece is identified by a different color. The students of Barefoot College graduate and are recognized in their society. They then, go on to  train other women, in the logic of pollination. They have already brought electricity to five hundred thousand people in 72 countries. The university has opened five centers in Africa – Burkina Faso, Liberia, Senegal, South Sudan and Tanzania. The benefits are direct:

– a reduction in the family budget devoted to the purchase of kerosene for lamps which could now can be invested in education;

– a source of lighting in the evening to improve income and to allow children to do their homework;

– a way of cooking cleaner (solar ovens) which reduces the requirement for hard labor by young girls;

– a revaluation of women in the community, as they become engineers and provide energy;

– the opening of evening schools (500 Barefoot Colleges in India which have already trained more than 3000 teachers).

Many villages in India, Bangladesh and Myanmar are now opting for off-grid renewable energy solutions. Thousands of homes are thus equipped with solar by combining microcredits, public aid and NGOs. Harish Hande, founder of the social enterprise Selco, has already facilitated the installation of solar power stations in one slum of Bangalore with micro-credit. In poor villages, SELCO negotiates with rural banks and farmers’ cooperatives. SELCO’s innovation touches every point in the clean energy supply chain, including human-centered and locally-driven product design, financing, and servicing.

Back in New York and the beautiful silhouette of Manhattan, Brooklyn enhances its landscape of rooftop terraces. It is easy to fall in love with solar gardens, a booming practice based on crowdsourcing energy. The idea is no longer to distribute energy from a large national network, but to build local production poles by combining several renewable sources. Welcome to the collective economy: each pole distributes its surplus production to neighboring territories.

In 2008, the U.S. Department of Energy published a report (not widely communicated) on this growing practice. It concludes that thousands of these poles can each make their territory self-sufficient in electricity and heating, forcing the national network to rethink their strategy. The latter would then become, if necessary a secondary source of supply. The system is presented as the only way to achieve a clean energy transition in the United States. Is the country ready for this third industrial revolution announced by Rifkin at the beginning of the third millennium? It is the time to imagine hundreds of millions of people producing their own green energy in their homes, offices, and factories, and sharing it with each other in an ‘energy internet’ just like we now create and share information online. For some, this may sound like pure science fiction.

In New York, the micro grids of Brooklyn represents a new landscape shared by producers, consumers, and sellers. The roofs are vegetable gardens and fragments of American archetypal meadows. Today’s ultra-connected hipsters have evolved under the caret shape of photovoltaic shadows. Do they know that they are the sons of the Solar Mamas?

 

Author

Patricia Schouker
Patricia Schouker

Patricia is an energy analyst based in Washington D.C. and an Associate Member of New College at Oxford University and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Payne Institute at the Colorado School of Mines.

She has extensive experience in global energy market studies, energy security and political risk with a special focus on Europe, the United States and Russia. Patricia was recently selected as one of the top 40 most influential individuals in the energy sector by Right Relevance Inc., in San Francisco California and a top 50 female influencer in blockchain and cyber security by Onalytica in London.

Patricia worked at Le Figaro Newspaper in Paris and was a parliamentary assistant and attaché at The French National Assembly. While working for a petrochemical company, she wrote her thesis on U.S Foreign Policy towards Terrorism after 9/11 focusing on the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As a member of Chatham House, she has led several research projects in the areas of energy security and emerging threats in critical energy infrastructure as well as policy and risk assessments of European and Russian oil and gas systems.

She has collaborated with various academic institutions, think tanks, embassies and the European institutions on European energy market, the geopolitics of energy and investment patterns.

She has published for the National Interest, Pipeline Oil and Gas Magazine in Dubai, Oxford Politics and International Relations Departments as well as the Foreign Policy Association in NY. She is a frequent contributor to international media on energy security and international economic issues.

Patricia studied law, international relations and security in Paris, London, Geneva and Washington D.C. She completed a course certificate on sustainability and environmental management at Harvard University.

Follow her on Twitter: @Patricia_Energy

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