Urban Energy Innovation in the Global South

[This post originally appeared (with more photos) over at worldchanging.com. For more from the 2009 ICLEI World Congress see here.]

It's been a while since most cities took an active role in managing their own energy supply. Centralized national or regional generation and supply grids effectively displaced the days when cities ran their own independent systems. But with the interest in local renewables a shift is in the works. Cities are becoming increasingly comfortable integrating energy policies into their mandates and encouraging local level generation. The many facets of this shift have been a key theme at the ICLEI World Congress, running in Edmonton (Alberta) until the end of the week.

Through programs like the Cities for Climate Protection (CCP), and the Local Renewables Network, ICLEI has helped foster renewable power projects in many cities that have already been celebrated for their energy accomplishments. German solar cities like Freiburg, or Vaxjo Sweden (acclaimed the greenest city in Europe) are all attending the Congress here in Edmonton. But a draft report released at the conference by REN21, the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies and ICLEI makes it clear that those cities are not alone. The “Global Status Report on Local Renewable Energy Policies” points to 160 other cities who have put in place local renewable energy policies and programs. Among the most interesting are cities outside of the areas normally celebrated in the media for leadership on these issue. In India, for example, a small group of cities have been pushing for the adoption of local renewables, and their work has paved the way for a national Solar Cities Project announced earlier this year.

One of those leaders is Nagpur, India. A city of 2.4 million, Nagpur has put in place a municipal ordinance requiring solar hot water heaters on all large new residential buildings. In a different take on using property taxes to create incentives, the municipality has created a 10 percent tax rebate for homeowners who comply. Nagpur is also aiming for a 20 percent reduction in conventional energy consumption by municipal buildings and services by 2012.

While the initiatives may sound familiar, the reasons for carrying them out are very different from what we've seen in cities in the global north. Reducing emissions doesn't have quite the same political caché in India as it does in Europe or North America. Both politically and practically speaking, concerns over energy security and the stability of the energy supply are the key issues. “Even today, still, in a city like Mumbai you have blackouts at least 2 or 3 hours a day,” explained Emani Kumar, executive director of ICLEI's operations in South Asia. “If you can tell people and politicians there that you have a way for them to address this problem – they are interested.”

The interest is more than local. The recently announced national Solar Cities Project builds on the work done by Nagpur, and other Indian cities that are part of ICLEI's Local Renewables Network. In the first phase of the project 60 cities (Nagpur among them) have committed to meeting 10 percent of their energy consumption through energy efficiency measures and renewables over the next 5 years. The national program provides cities with major financing to enable them to plan and implement a local energy strategy.

I spoke with Kumar about the initial hurdles of the Local Renewables Program in India and his hopes for the future of the Solar Cities Program.

AA: What were your early challenges with the Local Renewables Program?

EK: Our main challenge was that Solar [projects] already had a bad name in parts of India. We had earlier state sponsored programs to promote them. But after the installations were done, nobody maintained them. So that has given officials and the public the impression that they don't work. You try to tell people about solar and they would tell you “no we've done that already and we are not interested.” [ed note: a problem also felt in South Africa]

We've been using demonstration projects to work with residents and politicians to change that perception. To give them chance to see that if you maintain them properly they work very well.

AA: What is it that wins them over?

EK: Carbon emissions may not be a priority. But energy efficiency is a priority, saving money is a priority, energy security is a priority.

We have been working with architects, builders and public works departments as well. They are the ones who are going to be spending the millions and millions on big projects. There it was a bit of a chicken and egg situation: the architects would say “no, no, no, we can't put [solar or renewables] in. The builders won't accept it because it will cost more.” And the builders would say “no, no, no, it's the architects who are coming up with their plans up there. What can we do?”

So we got in there to try to break that cycle. If you ask me, so far we have been successful maybe 30 percent or 40 percent of the time. It is going to take some time. But peoples' priorities and conceptions are changing in the right direction.

AA: Are these programs just about creating a few exceptions to the way that cities use energy? What is the hope that these projects will be able to create a bigger shift?

EK: It's true, there are 500 cities in India. If we were just talking about two or three cities getting involved then I would say we'd just be creating exceptions to the rule. But the 60 cities we are talking about here are all cities of between .5 to 1.5 million people. There are 200 cities like that in India, and if we do 60 in the next five years, automatically the others will want to follow.

Initially the Solar Cities program is only taking two cities per state. Already there are some states where five or six cities are asking “why, why can't we participate?” So I think a change is coming.

Top photo: Solar water heating systems installed at housing complex in Pune, Maharashtra, India, courtesy of Emani Kumar]


1 Response to "Urban Energy Innovation in the Global South"

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