Energy technology innovation in South Asia: Implications for gender equality and social inclusion

Asia’s energy transition is being driven by rising energy demand and the commitment to cut back CO₂and greenhouse gas emissions. Electricity generation is at the center of this transition. Developing Asia has much to gain from this energy transition. Climate change is a threat to the whole planet, but parts of developing Asia are locations of some of the most dramatic and damaging early manifestations of climate change. The transition will also mitigate other issues, such as air pollution and traffic congestion, and benefit the preservation of natural assets, agricultural production and food security. This transition has important implications for gender equality and social inclusion (GESI). 

The traditional electricity grid is an astonishing engineering achievement but there are emerging problems with it. Not in the least in its classical energy sources configuration it’s a major contributor to global warming, experiencing more difficult contingency restoration problems, especially as renewable generation increases and is socially inequitable, not available to everyone as minimum demand and energy thresholds have to be met to make an economically viable case to connect distant demand.

Access to electricity is a factor in rising life expectancy, particularly female life expectancy, and falling maternal and infant mortality. There is a strong correlation between maternal mortality ratios and per capita energy consumption and variation in maternal mortality ratios reflects inequality in access to energy.

Access to electricity, and modern energy services in general, and its use is valuable not in itself, but for what it enables women and men “to do or achieve” (Moss and McGann 2012, drawing from A. Sen and M. Nessbaum). The history of past energy transitions highlights the critical importance of end-use — consumers and demand — and indicate that technology and the social settings co-evolve, depending on each other (Grubler 2012). Renewable energy technologies as ‘disruptive technologies’ can transform how energy is produced, distributed and consumed. Distributed systems, such as minigrids, can potentially provide solutions for inclusive energy access. This is a focus of this study.The study also focuses on how energy services can improve women’s ‘economic’ empowerment. We live in a technological culture. Drawing more women into technology design is not only an equal employment opportunity issue, but is also crucially about how the world we live in is shaped, and for whom.

The study includes a renewable energy technology audit, whichwas conducted to identify the technology types and systems being deployed, understand the type of information being collected and inform GESI integrated system design. The technology audit was limited to India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh based on government data.

The technology audit findings are that the water-energy nexus has emerged as a critical issue. Design of energy projects and power systems need to consider an integrated approach in relation to powering of water systems for agriculture and household consumption. Technology innovation is enabled by the policy and regulatory environment. This includes financial assistance and tariff incentives, as demonstrated by the net metering measures and Net Plus program in Sri Lanka and the targeted subsidy policies in Nepal. In both cases household consumers and low-income and below-poverty-line consumers were targeted beneficiaries. The Nepal case demonstrates that social criteria — including gender and social inclusion criteria — can be effectively integrated to promote technology uptake for rural electrification solutions. The findings in the Nepal case show a strong correlation between targeted financial assistance and technology uptake in poor and marginalised communities.

The collection of technology data needs to reflect the energy transition from the old grid to the new one. It needs to have a greater focus on information relevant for distributed generation, in both on and off-grid systems. This requires accurate information at the household level and for small power producers. This shift is starting to be reflected in the technology data collected by energy agencies, which now includes some household data.The Government of Nepal’s Alternative Energy Promotion Centre is a good practice case study of GESI mainstreaming in energy programs and the collection of GESI data to monitor implementation.

There are important opportunities to integrate GESI features in all the major components of India’s renewable energy program. Several of the key entry points relate to identifying and linking up with:

* Financial assistance programs for RE technologies targeting below-poverty-line and marginalised communities (due to ethnicity, caste, religion, etc);

* Employment programs promoting employment for marginalised communities and women;

* Training programs for community-based organisations;

* Corporate Social Responsibility funds and programs for community development;

* Smarter systems that rely on end-user participation such as rooftop solar PV systems and minigrids;

* Integrated infrastructure around the water-energy nexus for pumped drinking water and agricultural irrigation to improve community and women’s welfare;

* The integration of other available renewable energy technologies  — improved smoke free and non-polluting cookstoves, heaters, coolers — with communities and households in project areas.

The study proposes to use five pillars for rural electrification pathways: Technology, Cost, Environmental, Social and Institutional. The social criteria include gender equality sub-criteria that is women’s time saved and income increased with access to modern and clean energy services. The World Bank global tracking framework’s 5-tier model for transitioning towards advanced energy access is used as a guide. The study concludes that electricity access at Tier 3 or Tier 4 is necessary to achieve meaningful GESI outcomes, including changes in gender roles, linked to reducing women’s labor time on household chores, and to enable women’s economic empowerment. Tier 3 is the minimum threshold level required to provide pumped water services, access medium and high power appliances, and have electricity for at least 50% of normal working hours.Tier 4 is required to cover ‘most or extended working hours’. As the World Bank model does not reflect reliability and resilience, or scalability, some care has to be taken to interpret the results. GESI can and should be integrated into energy service modelling.

The study notes that DC powered micro grids (with appropriate appliances) are emerging as a potential option, especially for rural electrification of remote and island communities, where scale may be of less importance on the medium to long term. However, this option has not been included in the scope of the present study in relation to the technology audit or the modeling of energy systems. It has been identified as an area for further study under phase 2 of the research.

The main recommendations of the study are to design and implement, as a test case, a smart community energy system, GESI mainstreamed. The key elements for the design are:

(i)        renewable energy based

(ii)        mini-grid structure, allowing for scale through a (future) grid interconnection;

(iii)        sized for household consumption of at least level Tier 3 or higher (keeping the options open to scale, either by mini grid expansion or grid interconnection or both);

(iv)        the reduction of time dedicated to household chores and to enable the economic empowerment of the local community;

(v)        based on GESI inclusive participatory, and educationally responsible processes, and;

(vi)        integrated with local infrastructure to support maternal health, water and sanitation services.

This system should be piloted in a remote community, with low levels of household electrification, where the quality of supply and electricity consumption capacity needs to be improved to support local economic development. The project should be monitored over a period of 3 to 5 years to further refine the GESI mainstreamed model, and to demonstrate overall success of its design.

Download Dr Mohideen’s full report here.

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Dr. Reihana Mohideen

Asia Development Bank, Melbourne Energy Institute

Reports and working papers

Research Areas:
Energy systems

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