Arthur Schmitt
Switching on: creating energy solutions for India

Department
RCA Innovation Design Engineering

Research partner
Legrand

Access to reliable energy has far-reaching effects for social inclusion, with low-income communities most at risk across the world. In developing countries, safe and affordable energy services can be a powerful tool for improving basic education or health services whilst giving the individual a chance for entrepreneurship and income generation. For example, with a light, a fruit vendor can sell later into the night; with a dehydrator, a tomato farmer can make sun-dried tomatoes, a year-long, high value product.

Seventy per cent of people in the developing world still have no access to electricity in their homes, health clinics or schools. India supports over 17.5 per cent of the world’s population and has more people without adequate access to energy than any other country. Despite extensive government spending on large-scale electrification projects, half of all Indian households in lower income communities lack access to the grid. This project sought to understand local needs and create scenarios and solutions that allow these communities better access to energy and more control over their powered environments.

To address the issues that people face, two main field trips were conducted. The first was to an ‘off grid’ hippie commune in Wales and the second was an in-depth, three week tour of India to speak to energy experts and policy makers and undertake grassroots observational research in cities, slums and villages.

In Wales, people lived an alternative lifestyle as a commune in teepees, huts or yurts with each individual responsible for his own energy. They used solar panels or wind turbines to power lights, radios, DVD players, sound systems or laptops. Everyone, even the children, were really aware of the electricity they were using. In India, rolling blackouts were a fact of daily life, caused by insufficient generation capacity and inadequate transmission infrastructure. Access to energy emerged as a major factor in social exclusion.

Field trips to Indian villages showed that electricity can be accessed for as little as four hours per day, yet there was a strong willingness amongst villagers to pay for quality energy to sustain and grow their businesses. More than half of India’s GDP is based on rural enterprise. The rural research was supplemented by interviews conducted in the Dharavi slum in Mumbai – this is the biggest slum in Asia and home to one million people.

Four generic personas – a rural farmer, village-based entrepreneur, suburban worker and slum worker – were outlined from this research to drive the generation of a series of design concepts for India. Creative ideas were then mapped and graded according to how easily they could be implemented and their potential to improve life, and narrowed further in discussion with project sponsor Legrand.

‘Access to energy is a major factor in social exclusion’
Concepts range from a Hook Plug-Light that enables light fixtures to be hung anywhere to a micro-metering system that enables small communities to manage their energy use better. Interestingly, such ideas could in time become more relevant to the developed world. As the price of energy rises and fossil fuels become scarce, energy poverty is expected to increase dramatically everywhere. Concepts arising from this study could therefore have relevance for both extremes of the energy spectrum.

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