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January 11, 2019

Man stands on road surrounded by treesSaurabh Biswas, an Arizona State University School of Sustainability PhD candidate, knows that energy, poverty and sustainability are intricately intertwined. He has been investigating these dynamics for years and developing strategies to help marginalized communities undergo sustainable transformations using decentralized energy technology and cooperative structures.

Biswas is part of a team at the Center for Energy and Society’s Grassroots Energy Innovation Lab that recently won a seed grant from the Global Consortium for Sustainability Outcomes. The team, led by senior sustainability scientist Clark Miller, will use the funding for their project “Off-Grid Renewable Energy to Create Social Value and Community Development.”

Learn more about Biswas and this important project in the Q&A below.

Question: Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

Answer: I hold a master’s degree in energy systems engineering and in my design engineer days, worked on energy efficiency projects, micro-grid design and designing utility to community-scale solar photovoltaic power plants.

I was born and raised in a small railway town in central India, but then I traveled widely for education and work. I have a penchant for travel and exploring remote and difficult-to-reach places. My move from engineering to sustainability is probably inspired by my experiences travelling to such places and witnessing the challenges in people’s everyday life. It’s a humbling experience and a realization that transformative change at various levels is required to right this.

Q: What else can you tell us about the grant?

A: The seed grant from the GCSO enables us to work with small businesses and nonprofits around the globe — Nepal, the Philippines, Uganda and Bolivia — to upgrade their capacity to design green energy initiatives with outsized social impact. At the center of the project, participating partners will learn new ways to comprehensively integrate social value creation into the design, construction and operation of renewable energy projects. This one-year project is an operationalization of our core research exploring cross-scale impacts on human development by user-centric design of energy projects.

This is also a kind of “proof of concept” for the long-term ambition of building a global network of practitioners and researchers in the energy for development space. Karlsruhe Institute of Technology from Germany is an academic partner in this project. I have spent a month each with our partners in Nepal and the Philippines, resulting in a couple of innovative projects. In fact, the project we developed with the Nepal partner is competing for an innovation prize.

Q. How do you feel about winning this grant? What will it allow you to accomplish?

A: I am personally elated with the opportunity, since my research has always been focused on this challenge area. It has been pointing towards the need for a new paradigm in pursuing energy transitions for human development outcomes, based on place-specific characteristics of the problem, backed by rigorous methods for analysis and design, and above all, linking energy access to value creation for users and not simply lighting up a few light bulbs. It gives me satisfaction to be able to translate research to action — with and for people who I have always wanted to serve through my work.

From the lab and research group perspective, the grants create opportunities to apply and improve research in different contexts: with small enterprises, governments and civil society groups. This is important for exploring further enhancements for the concepts under varying conditions and making adaptations that suit different situations. It is also valuable experience in accomplishing a meaningful placement of research within policy making, program and project design. It helps overcome the perceived divide between academia and practice, through a demonstration of mutually complementary partnerships. Also, we might be able to create shifts in the status quo by successfully demonstrating the new paradigm in energy for development.

Saurabh Biswas, lower left, with project partners at a rural school in the Philippines
Q. Is there anything else you’d like us to know about your work at ASU?

A: The concepts and research underpinning the work carried out for these grants are an expansion of the conceptual work we have been doing for the last three years. For my doctoral work, I have been working with a rural community in Brazil since 2016, where I co-founded a community sustainability initiative that doubles as a testbed for experimental learning on sustainable transformations. Several design concepts and engagement strategies used in the projects emerged from this long-term research testbed.

The research group at the Grassroots Energy Innovation lab has been focused on the theme of eradicating poverty through energy innovation. Faculty and graduate students in the lab are working in several locations around the world, approaching the challenge through a variety of disciplinary lenses. This broad and collective experience makes us believe that the present linear, technology-focused ways of pursuing energy access have been overtly focused on simply lighting up homes, without much attention on impacting overall impoverished conditions.

We submitted a white paper to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals review committee for 2019 calling for a significant increase in the ambition of global energy access effort. In February 2018, we organized a global workshop to share our ideas with academics and practitioners from 15 countries.