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.