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City smart. Village smarter

City smart. Village smarter
First came Smart Cities. Now international focus is on villages as the global Smart Villages Initiative views bringing sustainable development to the rural masses – most of whom are languishing in the twilight zone due to cities taking the cake. This initiative is evaluating how to deliver energy access to rural communities in making smart villages a reality. Statistics show that a staggering 1.3 billion people worldwide have no access to electricity; three billion still cook on dangerous and inefficient stoves in most of the population living in remote rural village communities. Enter The Smart Villages Initiative – which focuses on providing policy-makers, donors and development agencies concerned with rural energy access with new insights into real barriers to energy access in villages in developing countries – technological, financial and political – and how they can be overcome. Smart Villages are proposed as a rural analogue to Smart Cities that will shift the balance of opportunities and development benefits – between cities and villages, including access to good education and healthcare, better opportunities to earn a living, greater participation in governance processes, and more resilient communities – all enabled by energy access together with modern information and communication technologies. The Smart Villages Initiative, in evaluating the barriers to energy access in rural communities in developing countries and how those barriers can be overcome, is focusing on off-grid villages, where local solutions (home-or institution-based systems, and mini-grids) are cheaper than national grid extension. The Smart Villages team, based at Universities of Cambridge and Oxford (UK), and established by Cambridge Malaysian Education and Development Trust (CMEDT), is funded by CMEDT and Templeton World Charity Foundation and has project partners including national science academies and their networks, Practical Action, and The Energy Resources Institute (TERI). 

This Initiative hopes to provide policy makers unique insights on: creating the framework conditions necessary for entrepreneurs to meet off-grid energy challenge; ensure government and donor funding achieve maximum leverage of private sector investment; integrate energy access with other development initiatives; take a community level approach to maximise social benefit and development impact; catalyse rapid progression through various levels of energy access.

Meanwhile, a Smart Villages Initiative (SVI) workshop in Colombo, Sri Lanka highlighted the conditions prevailing in villages worldwide including India – where more light needed to be shed – on electricity availability right upto the grassroots level. The two-day workshop offered an opportunity to explore the Smart Villages concept and study nascent Smart Village projects and relevant technologies from around the world. Dr Bernie Jones, Smart Villages Initiative Project Co-Leader, said this Initiative is aiming at universal access to electricity by 2030. About 47 per cent of world’s population and 70 per cent of the world’s poor live in villages. Hearing about the plight of farmers – who were committing suicide due to failure of monsoon rains and crops that often witnessed money-lenders seizing their properties – Jones told Millennium Post there is need to capture more of the agricultural value chain, foster entrepreneurial activities and maximise leverage of public sector funding; create new alternative businesses; shift balance of opportunities between cities and villages by creating more opportunities in villages in long-term through technological advances and game-changing technologies; focus on local solutions or rural communities; having mini-micro grids and home-based approaches. 

Elsewhere worldwide, villages are making ingenious use of solar power. Jones said the Tongan Islands are using solar power generation in their fishing community for solar-powered freezers for saving their fish catch at sea. Since diesel has to be imported and is expensive, this government is giving subsidy and now focusing on solar usage. Indonesian villages are including in their agriculture processing technology solar-powered DC motor grinders to grind corn where whole corncobs are tossed in with the grain getting separated and the cob tossed out. Such villages could set themselves up as processing centers, while also making rural life convenient, Jones noted, while pointing out that an additional $50 billion funding yearly is needed for investment in energy infrastructure (from public sector funding). 

Focusing on Personalised Medicine” for: malaria, HIV, SARS, Dengue, maybe cancer, cardiovascular, neuro-degenerative diseases for people living in Smart Villages, he said a device that can sequence one’s genome in barely 15 minutes is being tested in Africa (to detect strains of malaria) and this could easily democratise healthcare in Smart Villages through speedy medical care. 

An Indian initiative too is making waves. Dr Jones said an Indian has come out with the “Swasthya Slate” which is a Lab in a Bag and its trials are being conducted in Delhi and rural Jammu and Kashmir. While this device was highlighted to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Public Health Foundation of India presented this diagnostic instrument through which multiple health problems could be dealt with. This Swastyha slate transfers all medical info (BP, Sugar, ECG, Water purity measurement) to the “CLOUD” which can be opened up at any medical centre/hospital immediately – thus empowering people to protect their health while transforming healthcare by reducing costs alongside speedy diagnosis.

Observing that funding was possible through CSR by Industry which had such funds, Jones also highlighted necessity of a framework for greater cooperation and understanding between funders and needy communities, focus on ending poverty, hunger and achieving food security, improved nutrition and sustainable growth; to protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial systems (manage forests); combat desertification, halt/reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss (all this happens around villages, not cities.) To a query about success in Tanzania and Borneo, Bernie said there have been a number of projects that succeeded, but more needed to be done – especially on sustainable basis – and impact studies were being done on these efforts in such communities. 

Sreekanth C S, Associate Vice-President, E-Hands Energy, said $1.2 billion is total net profit of top 100 listed companies in India and the mandatory CSR spend is two per cent of their net profit. About $74 million was spent on the MARS Mission, whereas barely two per cent of that amount could have greatly helped in CSR, he said while pointing out that company case studies on solar energy access including solar lamps in villages economic activity highlighted: women making Rs 16,000 (Weaving), Rs 15,000 (Incense units) and Rs 14,000 (Poultry units). Danger too was evaded when a snake that had entered the women’s house was located with a solar lamp light. The company partnered with a village in Basti (Uttar Pradesh) for providing energy access solutions (wind/solar hybrid) of 1.5 kW for powering the community toilet complex and pathway, besides also a backward tribal area in Palghar (Maharashtra) being provided solar mini-grids of 2.5kWp (for a school) and 2kWp (tribal hamlet) – where the impact was improved conditions. “So we do community engagement programmes to explain these solar programmes and provide also local employment (like local electrician and masons to build structure for solar panels). In another Smart Village development Plan at Kalap (Uttarakhand) village (450 population having no livelihood options), we provided 1kWp solar mini-grid for lighting 20 houses, besides also assisting in tourism efforts where now Japanese and Egyptian tourists keep coming. We also plan to power up solar-powered “vaccine” refrigerators and an NGO will be involved for collecting payments of usage of solar power,” he said.

Another Indian delegate noted how a municipal waste handling project in Lucknow costing $10 million – alongside the government paying 50 per cent subsidy – did not take off in 2001 due to inefficient waste collection. “I was trying to keep this project going, but we used to get mostly construction waste, which is not suitable for our waste project,” he said. 

Did you know?
The Smart Villages’ Initiative is a three-year project to advance sustainable energy provision for development in off-grid villages in Africa, Asia and Latin America. 

Dr Bernie Jones, Project Co-Leader, said “We have some new thinking on renewable energy’s potential to catalyse off-grid communities and media can highlight this. The Smart Villages Initiative through six regional workshops is expected to bring together top African, Asian, American and European scientists and key stakeholders (e.g. entrepreneurs, NGOs, financers, policymakers etc.) in Tanzania (East Africa), Ghana (West Africa), India (South Asia), Malaysia (South-east Asia), Bolivia (South America) and Mexico (Central America).”

LED lights are considered good for off-grid villages as they are operated with a solar cell and battery to provide continuous light for 1,00,000 hours (11 years), compared to 1,000 hours using for incandescent bulbs. AlGaN-based LEDs producing deep UV radiation can be used to destroy pathogens that cause water-borne illnesses and can be powered off-grid using solar PV battery, but efficiencies are currently too low to purify flowing water and further 2 to 10 years research is needed. GaN power electronics are 40 per cent more efficient than silicon based technologies enabling easier off-grid charging and use of mobile phones, computers etc. LEDs can provide a cheaper and more energy efficient basis for transmitting wireless internet using light waves instead of radio waves, although a further 3 to 10 years R&D is needed for commercial application. Multi-junction InGaN solar cells could – in 5 to 10 years – enable production of more efficient solar cells. 

Most stakeholders agree that providing access to clean water is a major priority for rural villages, where water-borne illnesses are the top cause of hospitalisation. Changing global patterns of water consumption and the substantial amount of energy consumed transporting water was highlighted in discussing energy provision for off-grid villages, besides changing patterns of agriculture and diets with higher proportions of animal products, bioenergy from plants (non-edible parts of crop plants and Algae being viewed as potentially game-changing alternative), electricity generated directly, via biophotovoltaics – using algae in solar panels, or coupled with growth of crops. Potential use of microbial fuel cells for generating electricity while cleaning water was also highlighted. 



Dominick Rodrigues

Dominick Rodrigues

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