Responsible Innovation in Rural Energy Technology for India — TU Delft Master Thesis

Introduction video to research

This video was commissioned by the TU Delft Global Initiative that has partly provided funding for the project. The other part was provided by Rural Spark, an energy company providing bottom up solutions for the rural areas in India. For any interesting leads that could support this research, please contact me at or comment on this story below. The project is supervised by Dr. L.M. Kamp and Ing. Esther Blom. Below a further description of the project.

Woman and child with the Rural Spark Lamp

Introduction to research & research questions

What follows is the introduction to my research project. I was not able to include all references, but have added names of scholar wherever it was applicable. For the original citations, please contact me.

India, a country of many faces, parallel to the many gods that are portrayed in their religious Hindu storytelling. In 2020, India is expected to be the largest country in terms of inhabitants. These people will be in need of food, water, shelter and energy. India is already the third-largest economy in the world in terms of purchasing power parity with one of the fastest growing service sectors. Increasing wealth and increasing demand for electricity in developing countries are causally connected.

As of yet, however, still 244 million people in India are waiting to receive a connection to a reliable source of power, as defined by the International Energy Agency. The Government of India (GoI) acknowledges the need of electrifying the country and has set up a movement in the right direction, by reforming the electricity sector. The past decades of reform have proven encouraging for the electricity generation segment, however, the segments of electricity transmission and distribution are lacking behind in development. Smarter use of the flow of energy is critical to the rejuvenation of the electricity distribution segment. The introduction of renewable energy technologies is proving to be a very positive influence, however, it has also spawned new problems to be faced, such as the intermittent nature of the energy supply, since the sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow.

Current activities are rapidly evolving to solve such problems and the combination of those elements is clustered in the term ’Smart Grid Technology’. In essence, a smart grid is a type of electrical grid that can cope with changes in power supply and demand, due to the instalment of power balancing systems, such as batteries or demand response techniques. This thesis will not extensively elaborate on the technical aspects of smart grids. For a deeper understanding of the technological components, absent the recent development on Blockchain (cryptocurrency) technology I performed an internship with Rural Spark in 2016.

The internship report also revealed the institutional barriers that still lie in the way of smart grid development. Some of the findings have served as the base for the problem definition in this thesis, where especially the recent draft policy proposal on microgrids is an important artifact. To be clear, ’microgrids’ and ’smart grids’ are terms that can diverge on meaning, however, in this context the terms are considered to be synonyms or rather complementary. This means that the focus of the thesis is on smart microgrids, opposed to smartly operated nationwide grids. Microgrids are defined as: A group of interconnected loads and Distributed Energy Resources (DER) with clearly defined electrical boundaries that acts as a single controllable entity with respect to the central grid and can connect and disconnect from the central grid to enable it to operate in both grid-connected or island mode.

In June 2015, the GoI released a draft proposal on microgrids, aiming for penetration of electricity in rural areas. In the proposal the GoI seeks to resolve the problems in the electricity distribution segment, sometimes called the last mile connectivity. It defines important roles for The State Nodal Agency (SNA), Village Energy Committee (VEC) and the Energy Service Company (ESCO). The first two are responsible for, respectively, governmental control and giving a voice to villagers in the decision processes. The ESCO, however, will be the focus for this research. The ESCO is responsible for the installation and operation of the envisioned smart microgrid in rural areas of India and for economically exploiting it. The Figure below shows the transformation a village would undergo in terms of electrification, led by the ESCO.

Figure 1 — Transformation of village led by ESCOs

This transformation cannot happen overnight and certainly is not influenced by the ESCO alone. In the transformational process, many stakeholders are required to contribute, because the ESCO does not have all the knowledge internally available to develop all components of such a smart grid itself. The complexity of the technology requires many different technological disciplines, such as electrical engineering, information technology, chemical engineering and more. Furthermore, the inclusion of smart grids in society, economy and environment will require sociological, political, economical and ecological insights as well. This observation shows that developing smart grids is no easy process.

It is therefore evident that the ESCO needs to participate in collaborations. Collaborations with academia to provide research data and develop innovative technologies, with governments to create new policies, with industry to create new business models and local production sites and with communities to create support for the developments in technology that will influence their lives. Some of the collaboration partners might already exist, some might be organisations that become apparent in the future. In other words, the ESCO needs to include all the actors that are and will be of importance for the development of smart grids. It requires the ESCO to anticipate changes in the composition of the actors as the technology develops, to be able to reflect on its own position towards those actors and to be able to respond in accordance with its own strategy in surviving in this environment. At the same time the ESCO’s strategy needs to be mutually beneficial to itself and the environment it lives of and thrives in, which can be seen as a dynamic system of actors.

Innovation in this system is a shared responsibility. Interactions between technological and social actors create this system, but also pose risks that have to be addressed. The collective nature of innovation makes it unpredictable and difficult to control. While individual actors might not have malicious intentions, the complex systems of innovation can lead to unfavourable outcomes, called ’organised irresponsibility’. There should be a framework in place that can guide the collective innovation process towards a more organised responsible approach.

Photo taken from exposition ‘Metropolis’ of Dutch photographer Martin Roemer at India Habitat Center in Delhi (admittedly it shows Pakistan, not India, but was for me the best picture there.)

A method introduced by Stilgoe, Owen and Macnaghten, with the fortunate name of Responsible Innovation (RI) does just that. It promotes to follow the dimensions of Anticipation, Reflection, Inclusion and Responsiveness in technological development and innovation. Responsible innovation, in their words, means taking care of the future through collective stewardship of science and innovation in the present. While this is a broad statement, the dimensions can serve as guidelines and design requirements for today’s decisions. RI works as a filter to remove innovation processes that might lead to a collective irresponsible situation. For each dimensions, the scholars provide several tools that will include either of one of the dimensions from the beginning of the design process. This thesis will take the RI framework as a guideline for its methodology.

It is important to expose what the available tools are that can responsibly guide the processes of innovation and what the requirements for those tools are in the context of an ESCO operating in rural India? Several characteristics are required from the tools before they can be applied. As noted earlier, the actors that are involved with the development of smart grids in rural India need to be uncovered. What can further be noted is that those actors, or the potential collaboration partners, are for a large share part of different institutional contexts compared to the ESCO. Institutions are rule-structures that behave as formalised societal contexts, such as academia, governments, industries and with the emergence of the knowledge society also the knowledge intensive public or civil society and media. Addressing societal problems that can only be solved with the inclusion of multiple institutions can be described as sustainable development, requiring collaboration between the different institutions.

Institutions often have different sets of goals and ways to define the problem at stake. They have been designed to address specific societal problems, creating ways to hold actors within the institution accountable for their decision processes and actions. Crossing the boundaries between institutions creates new problems. New technologies often find themselves in what Hajer calls an institutional void. In other words, there exist no accountability structures to guide collaborations to prevent conflicts between institutions. Developing a shared understanding of the problem at hand, is crucial in getting inter-institutional collaborations to a successful end, therefore assuring the satisfaction of all stakeholders.

It is therefore important for the tools that guide the responsible innovation processes to take institutional differences into account. Furthermore, the nature of the collaborations they form can take different forms. The tools must therefore be able to differentiate between collaboration types and what those differences are of influence on the development and transition of the technology and the innovation system.With the help of existing tools, a combined approach will be sought that makes use of the complementary characteristics of those tools. This will create a new framework for the analysis of collaborations within complex and knowledge intensive innovation systems. This framework will be applied in a comparative case-study in India, where data will be collected through qualitative research to provide prove for a conceptual base of the introduced framework.

Summarising, the objective of this thesis is to deliver an innovation strategy for an ESCO, that has to deal with the institutional void of smart grid technology and will expose the types of collaborations that can fill this void. The strategy shall focus on the inclusion of dynamics of other actors that are important for the sustainable development of smart grids in India. It should result in an approach that benefits both the ESCO itself as the environment it operates in. Logically, therefore, the results of this thesis might also provide beneficial insights for policymakers and academia. The research questions that aim to guide the process of the research are presented below. Next to the societal value for an ESCO, this research will also present an academic value, since a new framework will be presented that is more suited in addressing problems that involve actors across institutions.

Main Question — What types of collaborations must Energy Service Companies pursue in order to guide a responsible innovation process for the development of smart microgrids in rural India?

sub question 1 — What is an Energy Service Company and what are its potential collaboration partners?

sub question 2 — What is responsible innovation and what are the tools that can be applied to reach this?

sub question 3 — What framework of tools can be applied to discover suitable collaboration types and interactions between the ESCO and the collaboration partners for rural India?

sub question 4 — What empirical evidence can be collected from a comparative case study in India and how can it be used to validate and generalise the use of the framework?

sub question 5 — What should a suitable innovation strategy for an Energy Service Company look like?