Harish Hande & SELCO Foundation: Solarizing millions of lives. Improving health for many more. Creating jobs in solar, sewing, silk weaving, blacksmithing, health care, and more.
Zachary Shahan, Director & Chief Editor at CleanTechnica, interviewed Zayed Future Energy Prize (ZFEP) winner Harish Hande of the SELCO Foundation earlier this year in Abu Dhabi. SELCO Foundation was founded in 2010 as an open-source, nonprofit, public charitable trust. It is headquartered in Bangalore, Karnataka.
Harish Hande had long been with SELCO India, which he cofounded and which had been a ZFEP finalist before. He now devotes his work to entirely to SELCO Foundation. His work with the nonprofit is significant as a combination of sustainable energy and the beautiful democratization of energy.
Zachary extends, “First of all, congratulations on winning the prize. It is a huge challenge because there are just so many wonderful people doing wonderful stuff in cleantech these days. … Tremendous work, it was in 1995 that you started SELCO India. Back then, solar wasn’t what it is today. … Where did you have the brilliant idea to be a leader at the forefront of the solar revolution?”
Harish Hande responds, “I’m not sure it was a brilliant idea.”
Zach continues, ‘”It was early.”
Harish explains, “At that point in time, frankly, I felt, Zach, I felt it was common sense. [It was the only way] to get poverty out and eradicate poverty and put development at the forefront. Forget climate change. Put development at the forefront, and the only thing that made sense was sustainable energy. And so, if people were using kerosene; people were cutting wood and the expenditure that people were doing at that time; actually, if you created a financial model, it was working. It’s not according to what returns people would expect. but it was working. So way back even in ’94 itself, it made a lot of sense, using the development angle.”
Zach continues, “And you studied energy engineering before that?”
Harish responds, “Yea, all my degrees were energy — from bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D.”
Zach inquires, “So did that insight come from the education?”
Harish, “No, unfortunately, not from the education. Most of the insights came — I guess it was my colleagues whom I traveled with me in the rural areas. Just looking at the itty bitty — okay, how much does a street vendor spend on a daily basis? How much does a sewing machine — how much does she lose because she does not have electricity?”
Zach jumps in, “You say common sense, it does seem like common sense, you know, if you look at the lifetime operational costs of burning fuel.”
Harish interjects with buoyant enthusiasm: “One is, the beauty of sustainable energy is it democratizes. It democratizes health; it democratizes education; it democratizes power. Like, I have the light when I need it; I have the sewing machine when I need it. I need the help at my doorstep. I can provide a solar power dental chair, foldable, rather the poor traveling to the hospital. I can go with a solar power projector to a remote school rather than the kids coming far; I can break the whole technology. I mean, sustainable energy in general. I think that’s where the beauty of sustainable energy is — it democratizes.”
“And this is a topic I wanted to get into with you because,” Zach notes. “We’re very drawn to the democratization of energy that it provides — distribution of power, electricity, also means the distribution of social power and socioeconomic power more, and that’s obviously a huge challenge today and it always has been, so there’s this potential. But, you know, the need for clean energy is so huge that there’s a diversity of approaches, right? And India has taken a very strong approach on these — what’s the word now, ultra-mega solar power plants?” Harish, smiling, “Yes.” Zach goes on: “These huge, tremendously huge — do you see that as just complementary or … do you wish that there was more of a focus on the democratization?
Harish, who has clearly thought a great deal about this, shares, “I always would wish. Because if you look at 600 million people — forget the 400 million people, who have everything; I’m focusing on the 600 million people.
“But also, in some cases, it’s like a software industry. Would you want Word, Excel, or PowerPoint — what would you use right? It depends on the situation what to use. I think same here — large, okay, makes sense only if transition lines are nearby and … you have a free water source. If you don’t have water source, the cost of water is tough. It’s going to be expensive. For me, decentralized energy is the most sustainable way of providing electricity. Absolutely.
“Completely negates transmission and distribution lines. It is customized to the needs and the wants at the doorstep. And the resources are at the doorstep. I want a light today. Yes, great. After a year, I want to have a sewing machine. Great, I modulate, I increase it. So I will design it accordingly. But also, also, it pushes for multiple thinking that I can do education and energy together. In large things, energy comes, then education, then health. In decentralized, you do all the three parameters together.”
Zach interjects, “Yeah, these indirect effects are something very seldom talked about, where — if you get solar, or you get an electric vehicle, you start thinking about energy and you start conserving energy, and you start, you have a totally different relationship to it.”
Harish continues, “Just like, for example, we did boat clinics. … ‘Boat clinics’ means inside you have a vaccine refrigerator, autoclave, you have a dental chair, you have an infant warmer. So we solar powered everything else. And so — they can stay much longer in the islands. So, per rupee, per patient, or per service actually decreased.”
“But the beauty of it is, it pushes for efficiency and innovation. Today, when I power a solar-powered sewing machine, you blame me for solar to be expensive — nobody blames the sewing machine for being inefficient. Today, sewing machines, silk weaving machines, butter churners — all are inefficient. Even if somebody made 20% more efficient, I will prove solar is viable today, competing against grid. Inefficiency is the best friend of the grid. And that is what we are saying, that sustainable energy is a key. It will democratize and push the process of innovation value — dental chairs, X-ray machines, infant warmers.
Zach brings it back to the quick large move to clean energy. “In China and India, you know, there have been these quick, large moves to clean energy. And there’ve been targets for utility-scale and commercial and small-scale [solar], and the small-scale has been harder to hit it seems like, because of different regulatory barriers perhaps, or issues with roofs or what not. What do you see as the biggest barriers in this realm right now?”
Harish answers, “I think the biggest barriers in that — our industry is the biggest barrier. The cleantech industry, for me, is the biggest barrier. We are not thinking out of the box. What we should think is: ‘What is clean energy leading to?’ In a conference, like a clean energy conference, we should have a panel of doctors. We should have a panel of professors and principals of schools. Right? I want energy to be a part of education, I want energy to be part of health. A doctor coming and saying, ‘If I had energy, I could have delivered more services in the rural areas.’
“We need to cut across not to energy departments of countries. We should close down the energy department of countries. We should have a Department of Energy in Health, a Department of Energy in the Education Department; Department of Energy in Women and Childbirth. Suddenly, you see energy cuts across across all. We unfortunately are focusing energy as unilateral. You go to energy conferences, where is a panel on health? We are looking at benefits of that. We all know the benefits — a doctor should be talking — okay, a head of a public health hospital should be, ‘This is how I use energy, solar energy.’ That is where we need to break — our industry needs to break out.”
Zach continues, “There’s also something with the, the numbers and the scale. I remember, I’ve been covering the Zayed Future Energy Prize for years, and the finalists and the winners — Dipal Barua of Bangladesh, I was writing an article about what’s happened in Bangladesh and the numbers of families and people — individuals — helped by the democratized, distributed solar was staggering. And this article blew up because nobody knew about it, because it’s not large on the megawatt/gigawatt scale. And these numbers of people helped don’t show up — they don’t show up on these large gigawatt plans. Is there a problem in communication about this? Is there a problem in conveying that, you know, how many people can benefit from the small-scale solar?”
Harish Hande: “Yes, we have a communication [problem] on two sides. We are, unfortunately, pushing sustainable energy as a solution for the environment — we have to put sustainable energy as a solution for development and humanity.
“You negate the climate skeptics, because they’re not going to complain against the development, right? You are forcing the environmentalists to start to look at solutions. We need to look at, not scaling up solar panels, we need to create the way to scale up the process of entrepreneurship, scale up financing. Then the solar panels — today we are focusing on solar panels and batteries, not scaling up the processes to happen, to actually happen — livelihoods.
“Today we are seeing the number of people impacted. Yes, that’s great — number of people impacted. We should also say number of people having better health services. Number of people getting education in schools, not at home — home is great, but schools. Then people [are seeing] that energy is actually cutting across. …
“We should look at number of jobs created by sustainable energy. Today what’s happened is, people talk of jobs being created in manufacturing, but a solar-powered sewing machine is creating 10 jobs. We are not calculating that! Because of solar, one person bought 10 sewing machines. That job is created by sustainable energy industry. We unfortunately just stick on the panels.”
“And I take it sewing machines is a big deal in India,” Zach laughs.
Harish: “Sewing machines is a big deal. Silk weaving is a big deal. In the last one month — we started a month ago on blowers for blacksmiths. In one month we have done 100. But do those 100 blacksmiths come under the solar radar that so many jobs [were] created? No!”
Zach says, “Of course not.”
Wrapping up on this topic: “I think we should get how we are impacting, not only the 3 million people and lives, but we are, sustainable energy is creating jobs in multiple sectors. A large solar plant will never create a job in that one.”
There’s a bit more in the video about what the SELCO Foundation does to create the ecosystem for sustainable energy’s success. Watch the last couple of minutes for that part of the discussion.
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