Launching a New Way to Explore Energy and Human Development

By Yael Borofsky and Sarah Dimson

The conversation on energy in the developing world revolves around a paradox. Opportunities for innovation in the energy sector to drive economic growth are rapidly expanding throughout much of Africa, India, and parts of southeast Asia. At the same time, the conversation in the western world often seems stagnated around simple lighting solutions that address the most urgently energy poor customers, but not the underlying opportunities for sustainable large-scale power sector development.

In September 2013, we launched a discussion forum called e4Dev (energy for human development) in the hopes of tapping into a more wide-ranging, complex conversation — both within MIT and beyond — about the future and the complexity of power sector development in developing countries.

Now, e4Dev is bringing that conversation to The Energy Collective, operating on the assumption that the key challenges we grapple with, such as expanding energy access, developing stronger, more resilient energy infrastructure, and sustainably managing energy resources, have important implications for global energy challenges. To help orient you, what follows is the story behind e4Dev. We told a version of this at the forum’s public launch event last year.

e4Dev has grown up around the notion that energy for human development is not only about universal access to electricity, but, broadly, the linkage between energy and human development challenges. During weekly e4Dev meetings, we frame the topic this way to highlight the often invisible role that energy plays in connecting nearly every service and system — from food and water to transport and healthcare — that enables people all over the world to fulfill their daily needs and long-term aspirations. When you consider that three quarters of the world’s population still uses just 10 percent of global energy [http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/admin/publication_files/2013.22.pdf] it’s hard to ignore the glaring reminder that energy is only as useful as the people who have access to it.

This linkage helps explain why energy has been so central to human progress, yet energy issues are often siloed from other development challenges and considered purely technical problems for engineers to solve. Moreover, as development decisions become increasingly entangled in questions of sustainability and climate change mitigation, understanding the social implications of technology choices is critical.

Over the course of our first year we discussed the challenges, opportunities, and potential impacts of micro-grids in India, water filtration in sub-Saharan Africa, solar innovation in Chile, and many other topics. The coordinators of the Obama administration’s Power Africa initiative traveled to MIT to engage with the e4Dev community and discuss the goals for power sector expansion, access and policy in six sub-Saharan African nations. In the spring, the e4Dev community met with the World Bank’s Africa Energy Group to discuss grid-scale and off-grid solar as well as the role these technologies may play as countries in sub-Saharan Africa continue to take off economically. This year, we hosted the Joint Chief of Regulatory Affairs from India’s Central Electricity Regulatory Commission to learn more about the regulation of large-scale renewables in India.

Like the discussion forum, we hope this column will be grounds for a more complex conversation — not for the sake of being interdisciplinary, but with the goal of uncovering the range of technical and nontechnical challenges that touch power sector issues in developing countries, such as the implications of vast natural gas finds, generation capacity shortages, unreliable grid infrastructure, high diesel prices, waste-to-fuel innovations, climate change policy, and plenty more.

We’ll share research findings when we can, but more importantly we’ll open up key questions facing researchers in the midst of projects, we’ll describe obstacles to technology development and deployment, and we’ll share our personal opinions. Just like energy could be considered the lifeline that connects the drivers of human progress, we think it can also serve as an intellectual link. People from a range of disciplines have the capacity to share the sort of awareness and knowledge that may one day lead to better, more thoughtful solutions that raise quality of life around the world.

We hope e4Dev will spark a community and a conversation here that builds on the notion that energy challenges may present technical questions, but they have fundamentally human answers.

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