Tag Archives: solar energy

Response to Jon: Solar Hot Water and the urban poor

New construction in Thane and the Sai Nagar slum

On June 9 Jon published an article on solar hot water systems in Kuyasa, partly in response to my previous blog post on solar hot water and water conservation (see below or click here for Jon’s piece). Jon makes an interesting but in my opinion easy to make challenge: interrogating the proposal (or the dynamic?) from a social justice perspective. I think we need to be careful about where and when we use this argument, as we don’t want to overuse it. But here are the challenges he made:

“Does this seasonal variability make the technology redundant in the face of the energy needs of poor households?”

I like the link Jon draws between climatic seasonal variability, energy needs and poverty. Geography plays a key role here, as this limitation in SHW systems will be felt more in those cities that have a harsher winter, like Cape Town. Poor households might not be able to buy an electrical geyser as a back up. Since they might not have the money to invest in two systems (a SHW for most of the year + an electrical geyser as a winter back up), there is the possibility that they will only go for the technology that delivers hot water all year round: the electric geyser (despite this being more expensive in the long run, as per the electricity monthly bills). Or, even more, they might go for the energy technology that delivers hot water only when required: a gas cylinder or biomass to heat up water in the cooking stove. But then again, this might be influenced by the severity of the winter in that particular city. Also, a cold but sunny winter still delivers hot water.

What do they do in Kuyasa to heat up water during winter? Is the SHW technology redundant there? In Thane it is pretty much redundant during the Monsoon, as the relatively constant cloud cover does not allow you to get hot water. In the winter it works on and off, as there are some sunny days during winter. But then again, poor urban households do not use SHW in India.

 “Are there better suited technologies that can provide a constant source of hot water?”

Well, that depends on the definition of ‘better suited’. For the middle classes, the main alternatives would be a small and highly efficient electric geyser or a gas geyser. The running costs of the gas geyser would be cheaper as gas tends to be cheaper than electricity. I guess we need to do a bit more of research on this front.

For the poor, cheap is part of the definition of ‘better suited’. The urban poor in India tend to cook with biomass (less often these days), gas or kerosene. The hot water technology in this context would be to use this cooking arrangement for heating water.

“Furthermore, when we consider the idea that the SHW reinforces a low water consumption practice[,] is this limited to poorer households as middle and high income houses are able to rely on electricity to heat water when there is not enough sun?”

The key issue here is not your income level, but your practice with regards to water usage. By practice I mean the practice of using a shower or the practice of using a bucket bath. Even with an electric geyser, if you use a bucket bath you significantly limit your water consumption (just as much as you would do with a SHW system).

By no means I am trying to say that because you are poor then you need to live with cold water over the winter months. We need to see how these things play out in reality, rather than being prescriptive about it. But the key message that I am trying to explore with here is that, given the type of technological arrangement currently used in India, SHW systems could play a role in (contribute to) the regulation of water resources. This would be the case regardless of whether you are rich or poor. The limiting (regulatory) factor is not necessarily income level but the capacity of the system. But it is true that if you are rich then you can install a very large SHW system (twice the recommended capacity) and therefore you will not need to worry about water conservation ever.

Certainly people do not install a SHW system to conserve water. In Thane, individual households in existing houses tend to install it because they want to save electricity (and therefore reduce their energy bill). New apartment buildings install it because it is mandatory as per building regulations. The recommended capacity of the system is 125 lt/day for a family of 5 people. There are constraints for going beyond this capacity: it becomes more expensive and it requires more roof space.

In electric geysers water capacity is less of a constraint. They heat up water very rapidly. As long as you wait the required 5 or 10 minutes you will get pretty much as much hot water as you need. However, SHW systems require one entire day to heat up the water: the water that is being heated today is the water that will be used tomorrow. If the recommended capacity of a SHW system is 125 lt/day for 5 people, then you get 25 lt/person. This is enough for a bucket bath but usually not enough for a shower. Therefore, for the typical system to work properly there has to be a level of awareness regarding water conservation. If you use 50 lt as opposed to 25, your little brother who wakes up after you might not have hot water… or he might have to switch on the electric back up.

These type of conservation dynamics are in place in many Indian households. But it is not a golden rule. The conservation spirit mixes with other criterion that leads people to think (or not) about water conservation. For example, in the houses that I visited, the adults (and particularly the grandparents) tend to be the ones that are very much aware of water conservation issues. This awareness finds an expression in different ways, such as a bucket bath. The youth is much less aware of this, and often favours a shower over a bucket bath. Following Deleuze (1986) when he talks about cinema, possibilities and politics, I am describing the conservation dynamics associated to SHW systems not necessarily based on the representation of a world that is already there but on the possibilities for creating a new world.

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In the context of India, solar hot water (SHW) systems –or renewable energy technologies for that matter– are not really discussed or imagined in the context of the urban poor. Renewable energy technologies in domestic India belong to the emerging middle and middle upper classes that can afford new flats, or to the rural and remote villages located in areas disconnected to the electricity grid. I have not seen many meaningful discussion or projects linking the urban poor with issues of renewable energy.

However, it seems that the policies that make it mandatory for any new residential building to put in place SHW will benefit families taking part in slum redevelopment initiatives: their new dwellings would be required to have solar hot water. In the new model of slum redevelopment in India -which is just starting to be implemented- the government or a public-private partnership redevelops a former slum area and re-houses the original dwellers in the new building. Whether the SHW system here will survive over time, given basic challenges such as a persistent lack of water and limited resources for maintenance, amongst others, is yet to be seen.

It will be interesting to see how this debate plays out in Brazil.

Solar Water Heaters in Kuyasa, Cape Town

Some of the solar water heaters installed across Kuyasa

Following on from Andre’s recent post I thought it would be useful to provide an example of how Solar Water Heaters (SWH) are part of the reconfiguring of the energy network in Cape Town’s low income communities to engage with the dialogue he began…

Kuyasa is located in Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s largest township and not far from Mandela Park (see previous post). The residents have lived here for 10 years with residents moving from informal housing with a lack of services including electricity or water to the Government built RDP housing that was built here. Kuyasa itself means ‘dawning’ in Xhosa and has come to represent a new dawn for the residents as they moved from their old challenging conditions to this new housing. But this is not the end of the story and Kuyasa has moved forward again as a community. The installation of 2,300 solar water heaters (SWH), insulated ceilings and energy efficient lighting has helped the community become an African energy icon, a project that is continually cited as a success of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and a vision of the energy futures across Africa.

This was not an easy process with over 10 years of work by a wide range of actors including the community, the NGO, SouthSouthNorth and the City of Cape Town struggling to raise the required capital for the project, deal with the verification process of the CDM and organise the installation of the technologies. Although over 2,300 households have received these interventions (through the Department of Environment and Tourism’s (DEAT’s), Social Responsibility Programme and Provincial Government’s Department of Housing) there are still many households waiting for the next stage of the project.

The impact of the ceilings and SWH is currently being evaluated and it will be interesting to see which retrofit technology the households value the most. Its clear that with water heating accounting for a third to half of the average South African households energy costs that the SWH system is a beneficial intervention across Kuyasa. Yet site manager, Zuko Ndamane hinted, when I visited Kuyasa that it could be the less glamorous ceiling that has provided a greater level of comfort for the households; “Kuyasa has changed but I think the real issue during the last 10 years has been not having a ceiling”.

I think this partly comes back to the problem of winter and the lack of enough solar radiation to recharge the SWH as Andres has mentioned. For energy poor households the need for hot water is greatest in the periods of coldest weather and thus the SWH can provide only a limited level of support for families during the cold Western Cape winters. So although I like the idea of the poetic dance between technology and nature that Andres describes when considering the SWH I think there is a need to interrogate this from a social justice perspective. Thus my questions would include; does this seasonal variability make the technology redundant in the face of the energy needs of poor households? Are there better suited technologies that can provide a constant source of hot water? Furthermore, when we consider the idea that the SHW reinforces a low water consumption practice is this limited to poorer households as middle and high income houses are able to rely on electricity to heat water when there is not enough sun?

I think these questions raise some interesting pathways when considering the role of the SWH across urban energy networks of the global South and it will be interesting to note the similarities and differences that both South Africa and India will present as our research progresses.

Regulating practices of water use through energy dynamics?

From the roof to the bathroom: the links between solar energy and water consumption

How the sustainable use of one finite resource could contribute to regulate the use of another? Could the sustainable generation of energy also regulate the use of water in areas characterised by water shortages? I am exploring these thoughts this week, as I talk to users of solar hot water systems in Mumbai and Thane. Leaving the theory aside for this blog post, I am searching for ways to draw links between ‘practices of production’ and ‘practices of consumption’ of energy and water. It would be great if you give me any comments on these thoughts, both positive and negative. Be harsh! That helps.

One thing that I like about solar hot water systems is the way in which the technology responds to the seasonality of the city. If it is cloudy today, then there will be no hot water tomorrow. Slowly, after many mornings of lukewarm water, users get to understand that. Next week, as the Monsoon arrives in the western coast of India, we will see how the solar hot water systems that now adorn Thane’s roofscape start producing less and less hot water. Solar hot water systems portray a technology that, instead of aiming to overpower, is aligned with nature and its cycles; they are an example of a modernity that acknowledges uncertainty and recognises the multiple links between nature and society. This stands in opposition to a modernity where technology is meant to severe nature and society by giving us full and antiseptic control over the environment (see Beck and van Loom 2010). The solar hot water systems depict a dance between nature and technology, where undoubtedly the city is recognised within the context of nature and urban infrastructure as a mediator between the two.

In a beautiful way, solar hot water systems link practices of production (of energy) and practices of consumption (of water). Commercial systems in India are usually designed to provide 125 lt of hot water for a family of five. Each person gets 25 lt of hot water every morning. This is sufficient in a country where, for the most part, each person uses between 20 and 30 lt of water during its daily bucket bath. Most of the Indian families that I have talked to have a clear awareness of the need to preserve water (an awareness that is strengthened by a water provision service limited to some hours per day!), so the practice of having a bucket bath is today very much rooted in a water conservation logic. If shower baths were predominant, since a typical mixer shower uses about 10 litres per minute and a typical shower lasts 5 minutes, the consumption per person would be 50 lt instead of 25 lt. Under this scenario, the typical commercial solar hot water system would be useless, as only the first two people who take a shower would get hot water! Up to a point, the amount of hot water available (an energy dynamic) plays a role in regulating the daily practice of taking a bath (a water dynamic).

Of course, the social mechanism for the regulation of water consumption is there regardless of the presence of a solar hot water system. People who use electric geysers to warm up the water for their baths also favour a bucket bath due to water conservation practices. Is the solar hot water system reinforcing a low water consumption practice? What are your thoughts?

Urban India: balancing growth, energy needs and solar technologies

Thane: solar water heaters in the foreground (or background?) of an intense urban growth

India’s current electricity generation is in the order of 160,000 MW. However, India’s Planning Commission considers that, in order to meet the energy needs of the country whilst maintaining a GDP growth of 8% per year, it will need to increase its electricity generation capacity by nearly six fold in the next 20 years: 950,000 MW!!

It is within this context that we need to understand India’s Solar Mission. Launched in 2009 within the framework of the National Action Plan on Climate Change, the Mission aims for the deployment of 20,000 MW of solar power by 2022 (to give some context to those of you in the UK, the Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station has a capacity of 2,000 MW, beyond the electricity consumption of Ghana). The Mission’s emphasis is on large scale grid connected solar power, solar thermal generation and solar manufacturing capabilities. When looking at the approximately current 200MW of solar energy in India today, the 20,000 MW target by 2022 sounds positively ambitious. But it dwarfs next to the additional 890,000 MW that would be required in 2032 to meet the country’s growth demands.

This is also the broad energy context that frames my current exploration of the mechanisms that Thane City, in the outskirts of Mumbai, is using to become a ‘Solar City’. Thane is one of 60 Indian cities that have subscribed to the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) program ‘India Solar Cities’. The city passed a policy that makes it mandatory for new buildings to install solar hot water systems, is implementing a ‘Solar City Cell’ to promote public awareness on solar/renewable technologies and energy efficiency, and has several pilot projects such as the installation of PVs in the roof of the Municipal Corporation. But at the same time, it is receiving large amounts of urban growth coming from Mumbai, dramatically increasing the city’s energy needs. Thane often looks like a city in construction, with several dozens of towers spiralling up the sky. These towers, their luxury apartments and shopping malls maintained by air conditioners, are for the new middle classes of India: a vivid example of the rapid changing consumption patterns of urban India.

If India’s Solar Mission dwarfs in comparison to the medium-term energy needs of the country, the Solar Cities Program itself (with its emphases on small-scale decentralized and off-grid domestic technologies) dwarfs next to the ambitious targets of the Solar Mission. However, in the context of India’s rapid urban growth, the Solar Cities Program becomes more relevant as it points out to a new ‘practice of energy production’. A practice where the citizen is involved through awareness and ownership of generation equipment. For India, the challenge is not climate change mitigation, but the energy intensity of its growing economy. But this might be only half of the puzzle. It seems that India is in urgent need to look not only at new practices of energy production, but most importantly, its ‘practices of energy consumption’. Stay tuned!