06/06/2013 - 06:59

The distribution tail, the generation dog

All three authors in this Roundtable support democratic, decentralized energy systems in which the poor and marginalized -- women foremost among them -- play an active role. In my first essay, I concentrated mainly on issues surrounding energy distribution, while my colleagues Kalpana Sharma and Tri Mumpuni mostly concentrated on electricity supply. Beyond that, differences in the authors' viewpoints seem primarily related to their own countries' experiences.

When it comes to decentralized energy systems that can be responsive to the marginalized, Mumpuni's Indonesia is favored by geography: That vast nation of myriad islands is forced to practice decentralization. In a way, Nepal is similar: Hilltop villages are akin to islands, separated not by deep water but by deep valleys. Nepal's disadvantage is that its planners and politicians have mostly been schooled in technologies suited to the plains, where centralized systems are relatively easy to build and operate. They want to extend the national grid to remote hamlets even though it makes more sense to let the hamlets develop their own mini-grids.

Sharma's India, a vast and diverse subcontinent in itself, doesn't lend itself to easy generalizations, but it's safe to say that India's colonial history has helped shape the country's administrative institutions, including its energy institutions. Mohandas Gandhi had a vision of village self-rule, but that vision never stood a chance once the mahatma was assassinated; the British Raj returned with a vengeance in the form of a Nehruvian socialism according to which the government retained absolute control over the commanding heights of the economy -- transportation, energy, and so on. Decentralized energy technologies are eminently suited to India, a tropical and semitropical country with lengthy coastlines. But solar, biomass, and wind power are derided as ornamental by energy barons who favor centrally controlled power plants.

I continue to believe that, if a more democratic energy system is the goal, and the marginalized poor are to enjoy a sense of ownership over the energy systems that have such an immense impact on their lives, vertically integrated electric monopolies must be unbundled. Moreover, democratization should start at the distribution end of the business, not at the generation end (and even small, isolated power systems require legal guarantees that protect the rights of local people). In many places, democratization represents a difficult battle against the forces of history. But Nepal has experienced some successes.

Diptara Thamsuhang is chairperson of the Small Farmer Agriculture Cooperative of Baluwadi, a village in Jhapa District. Of this cooperative's 462 members, 73 are women -- but the executive committee is composed almost entirely of women. Diptara and others manage electricity distribution in the village, buying power in bulk from the Nepal Electricity Authority and then retailing it, and they have also installed many biogas units. The cooperative earns a significant profit from its electricity sales, and this allows it to run a sustainable microcredit program that finances small agro-processing concerns. This economic activity would not be possible without electricity.

Meena Khadga is chairperson of the Community Child Development and Women Empowerment Center in Katari, a village in Sindhuli District. The center manages electricity distribution for 532 households, and maintains a policy of training and employing only women for meter reading, wiring, and repairs. The center is planning to invest the profit it earns from its electricity business in a small hydroelectric plant. The surplus energy that is generated will fund campaigns for child health, among other things.

Progress such as this would not be possible if Nepal's electricity monopoly had not been partially reformed in 2003 through a set of by-laws on community electricity; it was only these institutional changes that made Diptara and Meena masters of their own electric destinies. If these women were still atomized consumers, beholden to diktats from distant managers, the initiatives in which they are involved would be unthinkable.

The powers that be did not agree to reforms gladly, and powerful vested interests still oppose decentralization. In 2009, a regressive electricity bill was introduced in the nation's parliament that would have promoted the interests of large-scale, export-oriented, hydroelectric developers and severely curtailed the freedom of women community leaders such as Diptara and Meena. The national association of community electricity users to which the two women belong mounted a campaign against the bill; lobbying with legislators scuttled it. That is democratic empowerment in action -- but it is only possible when reforms such as allowing community initiatives in distribution management are instituted.