I first came across Neel Tamhane’s work when he was featured in the documentary 2040. He was working in Bangladesh, revolutionising the distribution of solar power and helping villages to produce, consume and share or sell electricity. This democratic approach to energy production gave a new lifeline to people and communities that were under-resourced and living in poverty. I found his approach extremely inspiring and an eye opener. A transition to renewable energies should also be a transition to a localised and self organised economy. Neel is now working at SPACE10, developing energy products and services like SOLshare, a localised energy trading platform. We are very happy to have him here and help spread the message of his work.
Interview by Maria Tzika
1. I first saw your work in the documentary 2040. Could you talk a bit about SolShare and how is it going now?
SOLshare has come a long way since the documentary was shot. In 2017, SOLshare was awarded the UN DESA US $1 million UN Energy grant which will enable them to establish about 100 smart grids resulting in at least 15,000 beneficiaries across Bangladesh. This grant was also won in a partnership with one of the most experienced solar home system organizations (Grameen Shakti), which has installed over 2 million solar home systems over the last two decades.
The team also began working on a new version of the SOLbox which is more powerful and is designed to support local businesses as well as households. This enables people to power larger devices such as computers, refrigerators and even electric rickshaws potentially.
UNHCR also took note of the model and invited SOLshare to begin working in the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh earlier this year.
With the pandemic inequalities, privilege has never been more stark and the role of organisations such as SOLshare is more pronounced. SOLShare also closed a $1.46M financing round at the end of the last year.
2. Renewable energy along with regenerative farming can mitigate the catastrophic consequences of climate change and CO2 emissions. Why solar and no wind? What makes solar a better alternative to fossil fuels?
The energy future of the world is not only dependent on one technology. The advantage with solar energy is that it enables more active participation from people by bringing power into their own hands. The decentralisation and democratisation of energy systems could help nudge the conversation closer to the Paris agreement targets.
Why solar has an edge over wind right now is that it is a versatile and modular technology that can power anything from a calculator to large scale industries too. Wind on the other hand needs to be built for large scale to produce sufficient energy and create financial viability. Solar is also a resource that is more easily available in comparison to wind energy, thus it is applicable to more regions around the world.
Having said that, there are no single or simple solutions to putting the world on a sustainable path to net-zero emissions.
The carbon emissions emitted from fossil fuel based energy systems are fundamentally direct contributors to climate change but the methods of harvesting fossil fuel also contributes additionally to its lifetime carbon footprint. From an economic standpoint, fossil fuel based power generation is also immensely capital intensive and centralised which create a lot of inefficiencies in the system, while solar energy is a renewable energy source that harnesses the power of the sun which is renewable, abundant and becoming more affordable at a fast pace everyday. Combined with the advantage of versatility, low maintenance, and data driven optimisation of resource utilisation, solar offers a much better case for people and the planet.
3. You pioneer a different kind of energy generation and consumption, far from the monopolised fossil fuel industry model. Could you talk a bit about the model behind SolarVille?
SolarVille was envisioned to democratise clean energy. It is based on the principle of swarm electrification, so, like a swarm of bees find strength together, individual households with decentralised solar energy systems can be interconnected with each other to form a localised grid. A blockchain infrastructure was designed for SolarVille that enables users to transition from being passive consumers of energy to active prosumers (producer + consumer). By designing such a localised energy system, the SolarVille grid would circumvent the need to have extensive transmission and distribution capacities which are capital intensive to deploy and expensive to maintain. This fundamentally challenges the top down approach electrical utilities follow around the world, which primarily relies on fossil fuel dependent centralized electricity generation. With the advent of the fourth industrial revolution technologies like internet-of-things, machine learning and artificial intelligence, grids are bound to get smarter. As the grids get smarter, we hope the future of utilities will transform from just being energy providers to becoming energy trading platforms. This in turn could become the backbone of an efficient, reliable and clean energy future around the world.
4. There are different visions of what a regenerative city is. What is your vision of a regenerative city, especially when it comes to energy?
In our different visions for a regenerative city, systems need to be designed with circularity at the heart of the system. Concepts like nature inspired design, design for disassembly, repair and recycling open up a whole new realm of opportunity. When talking about energy specifically, enabling energy independence is the ultimate goal of a regenerative city. Leveraging off the shelf existing solutions to help improve resourcefulness such as energy efficient light and appliances, water harvesting and recycling systems, improved heating and cooling systems with insulation could help take a step towards it.
Going beyond, building affordable, sustainable and reliable clean energy solutions that generate and power local needs from homes to offices and industries to transportation can support the vision. The Schoonschip in Amsterdam is one such unique floating city that is powered by solar panels coupled with batteries to power their electrical needs and uses the water from the canal to support their heating requirements. They also have a regenerative grey water recycling system that recycles the water from the toilets and showers.
5. What is the role that the government, the business world and civil society need to play in order to achieve this vision?
Electricity has been predominantly viewed as a public utility around the world and electricity as a commodity has been largely viewed as a resource that the government is responsible for providing, especially in emerging economies. So, to be able to make the shift to a novel approach and model, it is critical that policy makers and governments support innovations like this to create a framework for the model to be replicated and deployed extensively. Governments globally have taken the lead on enabling the energy transitions. Emerging economies like China and India have set ambitious goals for renewable energy adoption too, which has been impressive, but a lot more can be done. Innovative policy mechanisms like cross-subsidization of clean energy innovations, supporting local entrepreneurs and business models can help support the growth of economies bottom-up.
6. You mention ‘Circular Societies and Circular Business Models would not only make us less vulnerable to the very scary consequences of climate emergency but also create new opportunities for jobs and economic growth.’ How does this economic growth and job creation look like in an emerging economy but also in a developed economy?
The shift away from the linear “take-make-waste” is inherently inefficient and results in a gross waste of valuable natural resources, detrimentally impacting both environmental and human health. While the circular business models rely on redesigning, reusing, repairing and repurposing products and materials to optimise resource consumption.
Circular societies and business models are primarily designed to keep products and materials in use for long periods of time. This approach opens up new avenues for making profits by providing multiple value-creation mechanisms decoupled from the consumption of finite resources. Globally, Accenture estimates that adopting circular economic models could generate as much as $4.5 trillion in additional economic output as early as 2030.
The lower dependence on virgin-material also creates an opportunity to significantly reduce lifetime costs of products. Circularity also enables companies to build stronger relationships with customers by introducing reverse logistics which can also unlock the opportunity for new jobs in remanufacturing, reverse logistics and remarketing.
7. Could you talk a little bit about the technology that exists right now that can revolutionize solar energy from generation to consumption?
Solar technology has seen significant improvements when it comes to manufacturing at scale to drive down costs. The cost of solar photovoltaics has declined by 89% over the last decade. With more emerging research on third generation solar cells, Perovskites, could significantly change the solar landscape. Perovskites are expected to be more efficient, more affordable and can be designed to work with a broader range of light spectrum. Besides solar cells, the cost of batteries have also declined by about 89% over the last decade. One of the major challenges with solar energy has been it’s intermittency, with energy storage solutions rapidly declining in cost and new sustainable configurations for specific applications being researched we are likely to see more battery based solutions reaching the market too. With technology innovation emerging from the 4th industrial revolution and the advent of the 5th industrial revolution, energy systems are bound to get smarter, enabling us to optimize energy flows throughout the system.
More critically, innovation around energy efficiency can really help ensure reduction in energy consumption thus forgoing the need for additional energy to be generated. Enabling access to energy efficient appliances can create a lot of cumulative savings. For example, through the UJALA scheme in India, which financed access to LED lighting and energy efficient fans, energy savings of 47.87 billion kWh per year were made which is equivalent to GHG emission reduction of 39 million tonnes of CO2 per year.
However, there is still a lot more to be done. Globally, we need to increase investments in innovation development to help bring ideas to the market.
According to IEA,”CO2 savings from technologies currently at the prototype or demonstration stage would be more than 75% higher in 2050 than in the Sustainable Development Scenario, and 45% of all emissions savings in 2050 would come from technologies that have not yet reached the market.”
8. What is stopping solar energy from becoming the most prominent mode of energy production today?
The biggest deterrent in more accelerated adoption of solar energy has been traditional legacy systems in existing infrastructure that predominantly rely on fossil fuel based energy generation such as coal and natural gas. These systems had also developed lobbies with heavily vested interests since a lot of capital and infrastructure investments are dependent on it. A lot of the utilities and fossil fuel based energy producers have been actively divesting from this already and have set ambitious targets to enable the energy transition. For example, NTPC, India’s largest coal-fired power generator, is rapidly moving to produce electricity from renewables, in line with the country’s energy transition plans.
In addition to that, technology innovation also needs to play a critical role in advancing the business case for renewable energy. Solar and wind, the most common clean energy sources are both intermittent sources and do not generate energy exactly when we may need it. Energy storage solutions and innovations can play a big part in enabling this but it is still expensive. In order to ensure around-the-clock electricity, you have to factor in the cost of a storage device, which might double the cost of night-time power in a sunny country. There is plenty of hope though, we have already seen prices for Li-Ion batteries decline by over 89% over the last decade and expect to see a lot more to come through over the next decade.
9. You have argued that emerging economies could leapfrog the transition stages, as stated at the World Economic Forum, and jump to the third energy transition which will focus on decentralisation. Why do you think that? Are we going to see emerging economies leading energy transition if that is to happen on a wide scale?
Economies in the global North have had the advantage of capital and have led innovations to enable the initial energy transitions, however, they will need to redesign and improve existing infrastructure and systems to embark on the energy transitions of today. On the contrary, nations in the Global South, especially those that are still working on establishing energy access solutions have the unique opportunity to design systems that are more inclusive and democratic.
There has been enough evidence illustrating that traditional grid connections are costly ($1500/household on average). Even when subsidised, affordability is not ensured due to inflexible payment options for these systems. Decentralised energy solutions are better suited for most of these contexts and most realistic to help achieve universal access to energy which would help pave a pathway for a sustainable energy future globally.
Emerging economies may not necessarily lead the energy transition but they can certainly help set a new benchmark for what energy systems could look like in the future. They could do this by supporting local entrepreneurs and innovators to design and develop solutions tailored for their needs, sparking an energy transition bottom-up.
10. Energy production and control is highly strategic for governments and corporations alike. Can they be allies in the efforts of communities and the grassroots towards decentralised energy production?
Yes, indeed. We are already seeing some global initiatives focused on addressing this. SEforAll, an international organization that works in partnership with the United Nations and leaders in government, the private sector, financial institutions, civil society and philanthropies to drive faster action towards the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG7), has been leading the charge.
The Integrated Electrification Pathways (IEPs) strategy incorporates these important stakeholders and their perspectives to lay out key steps to guide policymakers in creating strategies and developing policies and programs to support a comprehensive approach to electricity sector planning.The approach relies on data driven decision making to effectively utilise resources to provide energy access through solar home systems, mini grids and the national grid itself customised for the specific needs of the context.
Countries like Togo, Ethiopia and Nepal have already begun to demonstrate how the decentralised and democratised approach to electrification can be integrated into national visions designed by policy makers.
11. Can you say a few words about SPACE10 and its vision?
SPACE10 is a research and design lab on a mission to create a better everyday life for people and the planet. We see ourselves as an interface for innovation; a space where we can surround ourselves with people who are smarter than us — with experts and creatives from multiple fields, and from all over the world.
SPACE10 is proudly supported by and dedicated to IKEA, but our work is not for the IKEA we know today, but for the IKEA we envision for tomorrow. So we never start our work with looking at IKEA but how the world is changing.
The starting points are the big shifts happening in our world. So, the focus is on exploring and better understanding social, environmental and technological shifts around the world to shape the future of design and technology for life at home by leading a new era of Democratic Design for the many.
Cover Image: SolarVille by SPACE10. Source: Photo by Irina Boersma.