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Living off the grid

This was the first meeting in the series and our three 'Expert witnesses' helped us to get an overview on off-grid situations and to explore existing approaches and possible challenges while using local resources. 

Our first witness, Professor Sir Brian Heap, Scientific Advisor of the 'Smart Villages Initiative' joined Dr Heinz Ossenbrink, Head of Renewables and Energy Efficiency Unit, Institute for Energy and Transport,  European Commission, Joint Research Centre, Italy and Dr Muhammad Tayyab Safdar, Affiliated Lecturer at the Centre of Development Studies and a member of the Tutor Panel at the Institute of Continuing Education (ICE), University of Cambridge.

Wicked problems and questions generated by the open discussion

How sustainable are biomass solutions? There are indirect environmental costs from transporting fuel and conservation issues such as potential deforestation. As a result, biomass is not always an appropriate energy solution, but for off-grid areas it has much potential and is rapidly deployable. Increasing efficiency through a number of technological and behavioural changes is important.

Where does the investment come from? Often the technology exists to vastly improve energy efficiency but the high initial investment required discourages both consumers and businesses. Initial government subsidies, which demonstrate viable business models, may represent a solution but are not necessarily sustainable.

How can we encourage uptake of sustainable energy solutions? Understanding the ‘demonstration effect’ will help improve uptake at both ends of the energy chain. The demonstration of the long-term profitability of renewable schemes will encourage private schemes, and providing sceptical end-users with proof of a fully functioning and durable energy solution will stop regression to prior practices. Ensuring quality products is a crucial aspect of this process as, for example, sometimes non-branded solar panels will lack warranties and upon breakdown reduce confidence in the technology.

How can solutions be tailored for local contexts? There are a variety of challenges regarding land types and societal variations which mean that different off-grid energy solutions are required for different areas. At times, even end-users will not fully understand their needs or ability to pay. Sometimes lower-tech and small-scale solutions will be more appropriate and easier to maintain for a rural, developing population.

How can we use land most efficiently? There are approximately 1.6ha available globally per capita. With this in mind, it is important to understand how much land is needed for all human activities. Photovoltaic energy may be more efficient than biomass solutions, but it requires storage and does not fulfil all our high-end fuel needs or provide food and raw materials. Balancing land usage, particularly with regard to biomass, in an economically fair and sustainable manner is a real challenge. There have been major changes in the US concerning economic biofuel production but will Africa and other regions follow suit and what will be the resulting indirect land use changes?

How can we use material most efficiently? Using biomass to its highest value by extracting its most useful components and utilising as much residual material as possible is something that requires both research and behavioural change. Waste as part of the energy system is an important factor requiring consideration.

Are the problems surrounding photosynthetic energy solutions intrinsic to this technology? Many of the problems appear to be related to wider market forces that also affect other energy markets. Proper infrastructure and policy frameworks are required to support newly-implemented technologies and practices, which may be more difficult in developing countries. The green paradox, whereby fossil fuels can become cheaper if supplemented by other energy sources, must be countered by careful energy policy management.

To find out more about this theme or the meetings, please e-mail Dr Konstantina Stamati (ks712@cam.ac.uk).