‘Developing India: from the Bottom-Up’ is a cluster of articles authored by Rob de Jeu, business manager at Rural Spark in New Delhi, and a valued contributor at REIN. In the upcoming posts Rob will break down bottom-up approaches and their value addition specific to India. In the following interview with Rob, REIN’s communications coordinator Ramya Bommareddy delves into why Rob does what he does, and how this series fits in with REIN’s mission values.
Ramya Bommareddy : Hello Rob! So tell us about how you ended up as the business manager at Rural Spark in New Delhi.
Rob de Jeu: Hello Ramya! While pursuing my master’s program Sustainable Energy Technology in The Netherlands at the Delft University of Technology, I was impressed with how international students coped with settling down in a totally new country. I wanted to experience that situation too: to feel and understand better the people that make such moves. I ended up becoming friends with a handful of Indian students, and combined with my high interest in energy networks and renewable energy, it was merely sensible to work for an energy organization in India…
RB: Do you remember why you first got interested in Energy? How do you think economics shaped this development?
RdJ: During my two bachelors in Economics & Business, and Physics & Astronomy, there was this moment where many students started to think about a more sustainable world for the first time. The problem was that most of us, including myself, could talk a lot about it but found it hard to make concrete and clear contributions to do “sustainability solutions”. I decided that the most direct, effective and concrete way to implement “sustainability” is to implement renewable energy e.g. wind, solar or biomass in our society.
The role of economics is to push down the price of renewable technologies and make it cheaper than the conventional energy solutions like natural gas, oil and coal which have high CO2 footprints. Another option is to remove subsidies from fossil fuels and apply them to renewable energies. However, one should not forget that energy is also politics, and the vested interests in conventional energy resources make it hard to change such state of things currently.
Another interesting aspect from the typical economic theory point of view, where people are consumers or producers, and not both, we will see people becoming both in the future. The push for more renewable energy stimulates people to produce their own energy (solar panel on your rooftop) and consume it yourself and feed the energy back to the grid or store it for later. Consumers, thus also producers, become prosumers: which is a relatively young concept in economic theory.
RB: How did you get involved with REIN ? How do REIN’s mission values fit in with your work and philosophy?
RdJ : What always kind of bothered me during my economics studies was that my classes were not very critical of textbook economics. We sometimes had brief discussions, but that was it. Also not much changed after the great financial crisis within the university. Assumptions about rational behavior and expectations are fine as starting points, but I felt that building macroeconomic models based on these microeconomic assumptions might have missed more than just a few decimal errors. Unfortunately I was not very well equipped as an undergraduate student to do anything more than pointing out to PhD students and professors that human behavior and complexity was largely omitted. Then a PhD student active within the ‘Institute for New Economic Thinking’ recommended that I should have a look there, which also quickly lead me to ‘Rethinking Economics’. Now being in India, and focusing more and more on the role of economics, REIN got my interest. I was willing to add to REIN’s mission of educating the public about the role and the boundaries of economics in an open and simple fashion. In spite of the fact that we don’t yet fully understand events on the macrolevel, like we have seen in the financial crisis, I think it is good to keep searching for the economics we can understand and apply to improve the quality of life on our planet.
RB: So I see that the series is about Bottom Up approaches for India. How did your interest in this area begin and grow?
RdJ: Following my passion for energy in an engineering masters, leaving economics after finishing my bachelors in it for what it was then, I discovered that there was such a thing called “Agent Based Modelling”. It is a modelling technique that can incorporate bounded rationality, meaning we are rational about our decisions in the future, but accept that these decisions face uncertainties. It also can deal with complex behavior, which means that based on some initial conditions, you can get very different outcomes each time you repeat the same experiment.
The butterfly effect is a good example of this. Academics also called the agent-based modelling, a bottom-up technique because you start with a few elements and you see the system emerge without top-down intervention. Also,villagers becoming prosumers is a typical bottom-up example. I believe that many difficulties and challenges governments faces can be solved with such a bottom-up or hybrid top-down and bottom-up approach.
RB: What do you see in the rural spark impact map in the next 1, 2 and 5 years?
RdJ: In the short-run we see multiple energy suppliers and local village networks emerge in different states of India (the first layer, as explained in the first blog of the series). Currently, undertakings are in motion to create the second and the third layer, which is more challenging since more stakeholders, especially the local state power companies will be affected. Creating a connection to the grid as well won’t be a walk in the park as it involves the approval with the government and making sense out of the economics and political factors. Along with energy access, more than 30 million ton CO2 emissions will be avoided by replacing kerosene lamps and having people using renewable sources in rural areas instead of an energy supply consisting of coal and natural gas.
RB: Where do general public stand in this plan?
RdJ: Our experience talking with the rural population showed us that energy is just one of their many concerns and aspirations. They are not focussed on this larger plan we have in mind, and that makes sense. For now we are happy to see that there are local villagers willing to take up the role of local energy supplier. And since this a fresh idea, the rural population needs to get used to this idea of generating and selling energy themselves. It will be another leap if they start interacting with villagers from other areas to trade energy. Also when we interact with villagers they tell us that they want “real energy”, and it is only real when it comes from the grid in their opinion, even if the solar energy supply is more stable at the current level. Moreover, villagers expect that the government to be responsible for their electricity supply, as opposed to a company or an ngo for example. CEEW found this to be the case in several other villages as well. I believe electricity should be everyone’s right and the government is mainly responsible, but to make it a reality we should be able to share this responsibility as well.
‘Developing India: from the Bottom-Up’ will be out tomorrow. Check back in for the first post, where we break down Bottom-up approaches in the context of development. REIN thanks Rob for his time and patience which were valuable to the development of this series.