‘Profit with Purpose’: In exclusive conversation with Dr. Shalini Sarin

About the #WomenAndEnergy Interview Series 

The #WomenAndEnergy interview series is a collaboration between AEEE and South Asia Women in Energy (SAWIE), that will focus on hearing from women leaders in the energy and climate space, who through their journeys and experiences will narrate their opinions and views on some of the pressing issues in today’s time, through a gender lens.

These interviews will be broadly themed around energy efficiency, climate change, women’s representation in the climate and energy sector, India’s energy transition trajectory, and global climate change crisis and potential solutions.

We kick off this series with our interview with Dr. Shalini Sarin (Chairperson, SAWIE).

Q1. According to you, what is the biggest challenge women face in the energy sector, especially in the context of India?

The biggest challenge in the energy sector for women is to be seen beyond the household. Thus their limited participation in genartion and consumption of energy. Their voice needs to be heard on both sides. Cultural and social norms often make it difficult for women to engage fully in the economic and political spheres.

The  gender  division  of labour  results  in  women  allotting a  significant  amount  of  their  time to  household  work, childcare and  elderly  care,  and consequently having limited skills  and  time  to  engage  in  formal, paid  activities  that predominantly employ men. In some cases, women spend several hours cooking with inefficient stoves, leaving them less time to pursue other economic, family or leisure activities.

Women also tend to have  less  access to  information,  skills,  training  and labour  markets,  while  facing  greater risks of violence. This influences their  decision-making  power  and exercise  of  voice  and  agency,  and constrains their access to land and productive  resources,  technology  and information, and education and health services.

Power  hierarchies  strongly  influence women’s ability to participate in  energy  access  programmes. As an example, women are often disadvantaged in gaining access to energy by the fact that men typically make the purchasing decisions within the household. Since kerosene, diesel and other fossil fuels tend to be expensive, men are often more willing  to  purchase  or  seek  financing for technologies such as solar lighting systems that can save money and are perceived to be beneficial for the entire family than technologies such as clean cookstoves that reduce women’s drudgery and “time poverty”.

Q2. Could you please share your thoughts on decoding the energy sector with a gender lens.?

As  primary  users  of  energy  in the household, women’s direct engagement  in  renewable  energy projects is critical to ensuring that the projects have a positive impact and are widely used and accepted by their  intended  beneficiaries. Energy is not limited to household needs (cooking, home lighting , heting and refrigeration) but goes far and beyond including distributed energy generation and stored energy usage for mobility. Women are constrained to fulfilment of household  energy needs and hence a big chuck of the Energy sector remains relatively distant from their reach.

It is important to emphasise  that women are significantly impacted due to limited access to Light, resulting in issues of safety. Building an eco system of technologies, solutions and product options which use cheap, distributed and self managed Ligthing will make women self sufficient and more productive.

Q3. As a woman leader in the Indian energy space, how have things changed, or not, since you began your career? 

A lot has changed for the better from time I started my career. Firstly, Consumption patterns have changed from fire wood to gas stoves, freeing up time for the woman to engage in other activities and improving health conditions.

In the eearly days energy generation was largely limited to  Coal fired Thermal Power plants whichwere located far away from the city and transport was a huge issue. This in itself became a massive limitation for women to be involved in any tangible way with suh projects. With the entry of renewables and decentralization and focus on gender inclusion, perceptions of managers too have changed and this will only get better. Digitization and access to education and skills is the key to unlock this challenge.

Women have now been involved in a significant way in Systems engineering for solar plants, cells designing for renewables, analytics for automation and operational energy improvement, remote management of physical infra structure to manage and monitor the deployed systems. The largest number of energy auditors are women. Women are also playing a key role in electric mobility, such as design of battery and the EV platform and setup of Charging Infrastructure.

Q4. Sustainable, responsible business is the way forward. Can you please comment on how this can help with profit maximisation and be leveraged to accelerate India’s clean energy transition?

Responsible business is founded on Design for Circularity, recycling, reuse and waste management. This becomes sustainable once there is economic value and financial viability of each of these value streams.

Capacity building along the off grid renewable energy value chain is vital  for long-term operation  and sustainability of the systems, and project  proponents  often  recognise the value of engaging local capacity and investing in skills development. These skills range from the technical involving  installation,  operation  and maintenance to business-related including  accounting,  bookkeeping, product  design  and  pricing,  and business plan design.

Q5.  Investment in and commitment to clean energy has been the talk of the town, globally. What opportunities do you think this holds for start-ups in India?

Start-ups are good at building new technology that supports energy generation, consumption  build automation , create layers of analytics and logistics for waste managemt. It is well understood that Developmemt of technology is largely software based hence penny start ups can also invest and start businesses as they do not require heavy machinery, plant or equipmemt.

Logistics automation feeds into supporting operational efficiencies for renewable energy generation projects, transmission, , distributin and storage. With infratsructire setup in a distributed format such as for Smart Cities – Remote management of different systems interlinked through cloud based solutions sensors yield  Machine to machine engagement. All this is well within domain expertise of Indian startups.

Access to energy, energy efficiency and EV has a huge potential in the entire value chain, whether innovation or product features of distribution and supply chain or finanicing or end of life management. There are several Indian startups  in these areas that have germinated from very small shoe string budgets into Unicornns.

Q6. What is that one career advice that helped you reach where you are today?

Three key messages that I would like to leave for the young women are:

  1. Do not create boundaries around yourself of working within your job description, or basis your past experience or qualification. Do not hesitate to expand and experiment with yourself. The more you push the envelope, that wider is the landscape. You will keep positively surprising yourself with your abilities and effort. Do not under estimate yourself.
  2. Do not stop learning. Invest in life long learning. Learning not only keeps you ahead of others and updated but also gives you more confidence, keeps you young and gives energy and enables growth.
  3. Insulate yourself from bad news carrier. Be a good news career. Build relationships. Get a mentor and a sounding board. Build your networking skills and reach out.

Q7. What was the motivation behind Smokeless Cookstove Foundation (SCF)? How does this align with India’s environmental and climate commitments?
Smokeless Cookstove Foundation was set up based on the premise that not every house hold in India can move towards a device based clean cooking in a short span of time which comes at a cost. Hence, there needs to be an interim solution that could help them migrate towards clean cooking by introducing them to a concept of a mud based improved cookstove in a gradual manner. Since the solution also is a zero cost/ or a minimum cost solution which is made out of material that is available in one’s backyard, house hold’s orientation towards switching over to this mud chulah is a less complicated choice.
Another purpose for setting up SCF was to initiate dialogue on clean cooking and clean energy at a more intimate and grass roots level and hence we conceptualized – ‘train the community trainer’ model. Through this model, SCF team trains select members of the partner community in the methodology of making a smokeless mud chulah based on Rocket Stove Technology. These members then not only make chulahs in their homes and that in their villages, but also have an opportunity to earn additional livelihood by charging a minimum cost for installation of the chulah in a house hold. The costs could range from Rs 100 to Rs 250 per chulah depending on the paying capacity of the communities.
We piloted this concept in Mumbai’s urban forest at Aarey Colony and now we are taking this programme to the villages of Pithoragarh district in Uttarakhand where we will aim to train 8 to 10 community enablers including both men and women. Most of these enablers are part of local SHGs and NGOs working on various development initiatives and belong to different villages. Once equipped with the skill and knowledge, the programme extends further in planning house hold level intervention through these community enablers.
In addition to the above, we also conduct in depth research on subjects and gaps related to energy access in small communities looking at their overall energy requirements in relation to income generation. These are done with small number of households in a particular village or district in order to understand homogenous nature of their requirements and hence, a potential clean energy intervention at a block or a village level.

Q8. How according to you does the clean energy development sector look like in India? Do you think we have made progress through the years?
There is a lot of momentum within the clean energy sector in India in the last few years which is driven by desperate need created by pushing the planetary boundaries by human population. But this is also fueled by the huge opportunities that has opened up space for both inventions/ innovations and interesting funding and investment options within the clean energy and climate sector.
There is also a growing awareness amongst various stakeholders including Government of India, corporate sector, and civil society led by the youth to view our world with the lens of solutions based approach in order to mitigate some of the glaring problems that we are facing together as a race. Presence of some dynamic consortiums like Social Alpha, India Climate Collaborative, Sustain Plus Energy Foundation and networking, mentorship and knowledge sharing organizations like CLEAN, SAWIE are helping start-ups and individual players like me to learn from more established Clean energy practitioners. These platforms also provide opportunity to showcase the work that has been done at the grass roots level besides interesting funding and investment opportunities.

In terms of actual impact on the field, I do believe that there has been path breaking work that is being done in pockets across our country and many lives have been improved through this work both in terms of clean energy access as well as improved livelihood. Now the need of the hour is to combine and collaborate towards large scale projects which can have a multilayered and integrated approach and hence a multi-leveled outcome in terms of positive impact towards carbon emissions reductions and well-being of the user families.

 

Q9. How much potential do smokeless cookstoves hold in terms of reducing emissions, as compared to traditional cookstoves? Elaborate on its environmental impact.
In the recent past, there have many reports by various International environment and climate mitigation organizations pointing towards the urgent need of transitioning the house hold for suing clean or at least improved cooking not only from the health perspective but in terms of emissions reduction. Use of a traditional open fire cookstove has multi fold negative impact on the environment as well as health of its users. Not only does it depend heavily of fire wood for fuel but since the combustion does not happen efficiently and cleanly, it emits harmful gases like CO2 and CO amongst others into the breathing air of house hold and its environment. Needless to say, most of fire wood comes from the forests, which continually reduces matured trees on ground compounding the harmful impact.

And the size and scale of this practice worldwide has been reported to be close to 3 billion.

Hence, it is urgent need of the hour to look at ways of transitioning house holds to start using improved cookstove which will at least use less fire wood and combust cleanly to ensure less emissions of harmful carbon gases. Some of these improved technologies also offer the use of bio mass based fuel that further reduces the fire wood dependency. As mentioned earlier, scale of these interventions has to be big and sustained for a longer period in order to actually map the delta change. Carbon financing has opened up a massive new opportunity to drive clean cooking programmes that not only mobilizes the funding for house hold distribution but ensure monitoring and audit of the programme for at least a 5 year period. This allows implementation organizations to hand hold users through this period and flag off leakages in usage patterns on a real-time basis. I am excited to be part of such opportunities as it could change the face of clean cooking in India.

Q10. As a leader in the clean cooking sector, share your thoughts on decoding the larger energy sector with a gender lens in India.
While women are at the centre of clean cooking in terms of usage and behaviour, from my perspective, we need to view this huge gap more from an overall environmental and climate crisis aspect. Yes, women stand to go through most drudgery in terms of health and safety related issues which need to be addressed through awareness and education but clean cooking now needs to step into an overall clean energy access framework that include other gap areas like lighting, water, sanitation, waste management, livelihood related practices to name a few. This will help transitioning the house hold into a more carbon neutral environment as well as improve the overall well-being. Of course, as previously stated, women need to play an active and decision making roles in various levels of the clean energy value chain. But in my opinion, instead of using a gender lens as an additional layer of problem, it could be flipped around as an opportunity.

Q11. Share your thoughts on the role of startups in context of clean energy in India.
Startups have been playing an absolutely critical role in transition towards the clean energy in India and they will have even more crucial role in the coming years. Himalayan Rocket Stove, a social enterprise of which I have been a founding member, almost single handedly has brought the issue of space heating in the Himalayan region into forefront through its clean combustion heating stoves. A deep-rooted Himalayan house hold problem identified by Russell Collins, (Founder and chief product designer, HRS) many years ago was not seen as an important enough gap in clean energy access by mainstream clean cookstove sector up until HRS was set in 2017. Since its inception, HRS has made its way into over 5000 Himalayan homes and now with focus on low cost solutions couple with blended financing option, the enterprise is working on bringing clean cooking and heating solution to the low income families of that vulnerable region.

There are many such startups that are developing path breaking solutions and are under incubation and mentorship offered by organizations like Social Alpha. Last two years may have slowed down the actual market or user access for technology based solutions, but I feel that the next 2-5 years will see a dynamic movement in the role played by startup clean energy social enterprises. Many developers and innovators are finding it easier to bring their innovations to the users through the help of private incubation programmes and opportunities offered by GOI as well. But there has to be a focus on overall intervention that also involves perspective of the user from the very beginning. This is why grass roots organizations like SCF can play a big role in closing the gap between innovative solutions and its direct impact by making it easier for startups to reduce the risks in roadmap to scale.

Q12. India’s clean energy transition heavily relies on people’s awareness and willingness to opt for cleaner alternatives. Suggest 2-3 ways by which this can be done at a large scale.
With so much of focus on urgent need to change the way we live, produce, distribute, consume and dispose, the conversations are now moving to every day discussions even in rural households as the vulnerable communities are facing most brunt of climate change. What is needed is to simplify the context to their everyday living rather than create a utopian air around it.

For example, if a clean cooking intervention can easily highlight the economic benefits that house hold would see in a tangible manner, then they will be more convinced to switch over. If this intervention is a couple with addressing one or more additional gaps simultaneously (lighting, waste management, water sanitation etc.) , then the shift would be even quicker. So this could be one of the ways, transition will happen at a large scale.

Another important aspect of involving people willing to change is to use the voice of local and recognizable enablers. Community participation, village level models, generating additional income opportunities, skill and technical trainings that enable long term development; women in forefront of change, all these factors should be built into any intervention in order to enable large scale change.

In terms of funding, carbon monetization has opened up the opportunity to mobilze large scale projects since the carbon credits are linked to scale in a directly proportional manner. Many projects in African countries are being funded through such interventions in space of clean cooking as cookstoves are being registered for carbon offsets. My current work is about designing such projects where this type of funding opportunity can be mobilized for last mile clean energy access. I am not a big fan of using donation/ CSR based models for clean energy access programmes as they lack consistency and accountability after a certain time. Unless these are part of corporates own carbon offsets programmes, organisations should not rely on just donation mode for implementing large scale projects in something which is as demanding and intimate as clean energy access at a household level.

Simultaneously, data capturing has to be the backbone of any mid to large scale project intervention as data can be used in various ways to affect change at more than one level. Any programme that does not account for this aspect is likely to not deliver complete results.

Finally, a collaborative model is much-needed approach to move the needle in terms of scale and impact. No individual stakeholder can make complete difference and hence a nexus needs to be created where multiple stakeholders come together and based on their expertise and experience, roles and responsibilities are defined.

This interview was facilitated and compiled by Radhika Israni from Alliance for an Energy Efficiency.