How is energy an enabler for social change?

This is what energy poverty looks like: If 1.5 billion people have a light bulb and a washing machine, 4 billion have only the light bulb, and about 1.5 billion have neither.

The analogy comes from the late Swedish statistician and development activist Hans Rosling.

“It translates into a theft of time,” says University of Waterloo sustainable energy expert Jatin Nathwani. “When young girls set out for eight hours a day collecting twigs for cooking, they have less opportunity for education and advancement. In other words, energy is an enabler.”

Nathwani is the Ontario Research Chair in Public Policy for Sustainable Energy, funded by an endowment from the government of Ontario, and he has a hugely ambitious goal: bring affordable, low carbon energy to those who lack it.

In 2015, Nathwani launched an international research group called Affordable Energy for Humanity (AE4H), a formal collaboration between the University of Waterloo and Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany. AE4H is designed to plug into the collective expertise of more than 100 researchers from 27 institutions in 12 countries.

The group has two guiding principles—the energy solutions they come up with must be green and they must be affordable. And when they say affordable, they mean it. The cost of basic energy services must be less than 10 per cent of disposable income.

“It’s a tough target if you are living on $2 a day,” says Nathwani. “It means the energy cost can’t exceed 20 cents. But we have to meet this target because we can’t leave people in the dark.”

Even small amounts of energy can have a huge impact on human development, he says. For people living with no access to electricity, the first few hundred watts can power life-changing tasks: turning on lights for reading and working at night, charging mobile phones to communicate with family or running small refrigerators.

In addition, going green by switching to renewable energy can also improve economic well-being. Nathwani points to research showing that communities in Africa who were able to switch from kerosene to solar powered electric lighting were able to save an average of $70 US per year. The most common uses of these savings were education for their children, agricultural improvements, and better food.

Leap-frogging large, centralized power plants

The AE4H team is concentrating much of its brain power on “off-grid” energy solutions. While centralized large-scale power plants connected to the grid provide relatively low cost energy to people living in cities, it’s not a good bet for poor, remote communities. Governments and development agencies have tried to extend the grid for decades, but it’s just too expensive, says Nathwani.

In much the same way that cell phones made the cost of building telephone landlines in developing counties unnecessary, he says off-grid energy sources such as solar, wind, bioenergy, hydro, and geothermal can eliminate the need for big power plants.

“Micro-power, distributed generation, cost-effective (energy) storage, and a wide range of smart energy technologies can provide an opportunity for some regions to ‘leap frog’ the technologies of the central grid,” says Nathwani.

Along with off-grid power, he and his team are looking into how communications technologies can help energy systems run smoothly. Cell phone apps for paying energy bills are particularly important because they help overcome the financial risks energy providers run up against in poor regions. These apps let customers prepay for the energy they use, providing a guarantee of payment for services delivered. These same communications technologies also let energy providers manage their systems from a distance, including real time monitoring of demand.

“I’m not the first one to speak out and say affordable energy is important,” says Nathwani. “But there are things we can do now that we couldn’t 10 years ago. We’re not talking pie-in-the-sky things.”

Jatin Nathwani was recently featured on TVO Current Affairs.

Jatin Nathwani

University of Waterloo

Environment & SustainabilityNatural Resources

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