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India has the potential to be a world leader in green energy, Sarah Butler-Sloss, Founder Director, Ashden

24 Dec 2012

Founder director of Ashden, Sarah Butler-Sloss, an internationally recognised philanthropist and an authority in the field of green energy, talks to Pallavi Karan Chakravorty about India’s relevance to the Ashden Awards, and how viable is renewable energy for India. The expert also talks about the success story of Ashden and why is it essential to promote green energy as one of the sources of power generation.

What has been your biggest achievement as a pioneer in the field of green energy?
After setting up the Ashden awards in 2001, it has been incredibly inspiring for me to witness the achievements of our award winners throughout the years. To date, some 140 winners from India and across the globe have helped transform the lives of over 33 million people. They have also made major inroads in the battle to tackle climate change, saving 4 million tonnes of CO2 every year.
In India, where the share of renewable energy is just about 10.63 per cent, how do you think off-grid power should be made available to the poor?

There is huge potential and capacity available in India to provide decentralised renewable energy solutions that meet the needs of the poor, as several Ashden award winners have demonstrated.

For example, AG Bank has provided the finance for 52,000 solar home systems in Uttar Pradesh; Selco has provided 135,000 solar home systems in Bangalore and other areas; and Husk Power has brought electricity to 200,000 people in Bihar.

The models these organisations have created could be replicated across India. I am very encouraged to hear Prime Minister Manmohan Singh making such promising statements in support of sustainable energy at the International Energy Access Seminar in Delhi on 9 October: what’s important now is that words are translated into action.

Though, the government through the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission aims to generate 1,000 MW of power by 2013, it is doubtful whether this would be of any benefit to the poor… Your take?
Along with the 1,000 MW solar grid electricity programme, I understand that the government is focused on providing electricity in the off-grid sector. I believe the target for the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission is for 20 million homes to be given access to solar power.
How would you rate India as a renewable energy destination?

The fact that there are 20 Ashden award winners in India – a far greater number than in any other country outside the UK – demonstrates that the knowledge, entrepreneurial spirit and business models already exist that could propel India to world leadership in this field.

This could help change the lives of millions of poor people, particularly those in the ‘darkest’ states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Bengal and Orissa.

We have now closed applications for our 2013 Ashden Awards – the deadline was 23 October – and I can’t wait to hear about more inspiring stories from India.

It has been more than a decade since the Ashden awards were instituted by your trust. Do you think they have been able to serve the purpose of their inception?
We are proud of our achievements so far, but there is still a long way to go. A fifth of the world’s population still lacks access to modern forms of power and a third are cooking on traditional stoves and open fires, the smoke from which is causing nearly two million premature deaths per year.
The Ashden Awards are doing a lot to bring renewable energy and particular organizations that are pioneering schemes into the public eye. Going a step further, do you think that there’s anything that foundations can do as a sector to bring climate change to the centre of public debate, and right onto the political agenda where it needs to be?

Our role at Ashden is to communicate about the huge potential of renewable energy to transform people’s lives. We work with our winners to share their stories as widely as possible, so that others can replicate them.

In terms of driving climate change up the political agenda, it’s important to us that we don’t just sit and criticise, but that we offer a vision of a different future that our winners collectively provide.

We also work hard to get the message across to governments that supporting sustainable energy will also help them achieve other goals: including reducing poverty, creating jobs and improving health and education outcomes.

India is the only country that, with Ashden’s support, has created its own organisation made up of former Ashden award winners called by the name of ASHDEN India Sustainable Energy Collective (AISEC) - a team comprising Ashden awardees from India. Can you elaborate on the projects that the team is working on and their practical implementation?

With our support, AISEC is working to break the vicious cycle of energy poverty in India by engaging in policy dialogue with government, private and social sector stakeholders on key sustainable issues, sharing experiences and engaging in debate on solutions.

It’s really exciting to see AISEC already becoming a major force for change in India: for example it recently joined forces with others to successfully represent the case for the Reserve Bank of India to include renewable energy for households as a priority sector lending. This is a very exciting development, and will help extend the reach of sustainable energy across the country.

Despite various debates and attempts to create awareness about the importance about green energy, the world is still majorly functioning on thermal-based power. What is the feasibility of renewable energy to take a lead in power generation in future?
The reality is that fossil fuel supplies are finite. Finding alternatives is not an option, it’s essential. But if we if we work together to reduce demand and create a stable investment climate for renewable energy, we’ll be well on our way to securing our energy supply without the need for nuclear or fossil fuels. And sustainable energy doesn’t just cut greenhouse gases – it also boosts economies and changes lives.
In a power-starved country like India, which is abundant in coal, is it practical to spend money on green energy, which is also expensive?

Coal alone will not power India – as is sorely evident from the lack of reliable grid energy and the millions of people who live without access to electricity. Coal sources will also eventually run out and its extraction will become much more expensive. Many types of renewable energy are just as competitive as grid energy and coal, and even cheaper and more reliable in the long-term.

While renewable energy services and products may have higher up-front costs, there are increasing numbers of innovative finance schemes available in India to help end-users and energy providers with the costs. One of these is Shri Kshethra Dharmasthala Rural Development Project in Karnataka, which won the Ashden International Gold Award this year. This is a wonderful example of the vital role a well-run microfinance organisation can play in meeting the energy needs of the poor.

How has the attitude of people on a whole changed about green energy over the years?
Public attitudes are changing, but very slowly. We need to move away from frightening people with apocalyptic scenarios and offering them a vision of a sustainable future that everyone can take part in. The good news is, people around the world are realising this: only this week, the BBC reported that the EU has decided to emphasise the need to ‘inspire people’ to join the challenge to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

(InfralineEnergy thanks Sarah Butler-Sloss, Founder Director, Ashden for sharing her valuable insights with our readers. The column 'In-Conversation', is a platform to engage experts from various sectors to share their views on the different transformations happening in the Indian Energy Sector.)