How to make sustainable energy for all: interview with Reena Sayani

How can we make sustainable energy for all? Are mini-grids the answer? These are the questions Grantham Scholar Reena Sayani is hoping to answer with her research.

Born in Porbandar, a small town on the West coast of India, Reena took an integrated Masters in physics at NIT and then worked in the energy sector in India.

Though this work connected her to global issues, the top-down approach of big energy didn’t fit her ethos. So Reena decided to find a way to work from the bottom-up: creating sustainable energy access with the user in mind.

Now, using her expertise in AI, physics and big energy, Reena is designing sustainable mini-grids (off-grid electricity networks). In this interview, Reena explains the global context of energy use and why engineers need to embrace the social sciences. Plus she describes how doing fieldwork in rural India inspired her to make better mini-grids. 

Interview with Reena Sayani: How to make sustainable energy for all

What is the energy problem you’re trying to solve?

There is a dual imperative in energy right now: to electrify more people whilst cutting emissions. Currently, 770 million people lack access to adequate electricity (most are in Africa, Asia, and South America). And efforts are being made to provide electricity to these people. However, 60% of all carbon emissions are caused by energy use.

One answer to the challenge is to find sustainable energy sources. But sustainable sources are not always reliable. So we need to fix this. We need to optimize the system – and that’s what I’m working towards.

What are the current options for providing electricity to people?

At the moment there are 3 ways to provide electricity to those without. We could extend the existing centralised grid, create individual home systems (such as solar or micro-wind turbines), or make decentralised mini-grids.

Most readers probably don’t know much about electricity supply. Can you tell us some more about these different types of electricity provision?

So, first up, we could extend the existing grid to new places. And this is the lowest cost option. However, the existing grid is usually a mix of renewable and fossil – and we want to decrease the use of fossil. Further, it isn’t always possible to extend the grid due to geographical and economical constraints, especially in Africa and India.

Secondly, there are solar home systems. These are panels and batteries provided for individual households. But home systems are hard to regulate. Plus, they can’t be expanded if the demand grows. So it’s limited energy for basic use. However, where you have isolated houses scattered across unreachable terrain (for example, on mountains in Peru), this might be the best system. However, this is a high-cost option.

And what about mini-grids?

Lastly, we have mini-grids. These are a bunch of solar panels, wires and batteries for storage. They can serve up to a few hundred households. They can power small productive appliances, such as flour mills or water pumps. As such, they can help the local economy grow and create jobs. Also, they can potentially be cost effective as renewable source prices decline. These are what I work on, specifically the optimal design of mini-grids.

To help make the best mini-grids you did fieldwork in rural India. Why was that important?

How to make sustainable energy for all? Reena and 2 ladies working for energy justice in rural India.
Reena and the 2 ‘incredible ladies’ she met whilst doing her fieldwork.
From right to left to right, Sakun, Sunita, and Reena. Image courtesy of Pooja.

We don’t know enough about how people will consume energy in rural areas of developing countries where they haven’t had it before. So it’s hard to understand initial demand as well as how demand will grow.

In order to find out more, I worked with an organisation called Gram Oorja, who install mini-grids in rural India. Together we did a case study on electricity use in villages that are electrified by mini-grids. Because similar villages are likely to use electricity in the same way, we can use our data to inform provision for places currently without electricity.

Specifically, we wanted data on when and for how long electricity is used and what for (e.g. what appliances they have). All this micro-scale data at individual appliance level from developing countries will really help me to optimise future mini-grids at the planning stage.

What was the community like where you did your fieldwork?

We worked with a cluster of 6 villages around Tansa Forest in Maharashtra, India. In each village there were 10-50 households and 100-500 people. If homes were more scattered than this then home systems would be used instead of mini-grids.

The people from these villages were just beginning to get into an economic structure. Only a couple of decades ago they lived in the forests, but now those forests are gone. They live a rural life, and in general, people are more likely to be poor when rural. So though not every household is below the poverty line, the majority are. They may live on as little as 200 pounds a year.

Usually their main livelihood is agriculture or collecting medicinal plants from nearby forests, but this is seasonal work. Agriculture is small-holdings of less than one acre, so this may feed the community but they have no spare produce to sell.

And what are you trying to find out specifically in Tansa?

What I was trying to learn in this pilot study is the electricity needs of people. The people I visited are what we call tier 2 and 3: they use electricity for things like lighting and phone charging. And they may also use small appliances, like flour mills or sewing machines. Some people had TVs. Only one had a fridge. And they had a shared water pump and flour mill.

The way energy is used here highlights how energy is part of the water-food nexus. Energy connects to many sustainability issues and goes across the SDGs. For example, people use electricity to make food, to get water or to make money. Overall, electricity access can improve the quality of life for these very poor people.

Infographic: How to make sustainable energy for all

Want to know more about how we can make sustainable energy for all? Then have a look at this fantastic infographic Reena has created ↓ (the interview carries on after the infographic).


Interview with Reena part 2: Fieldwork, physics and mini-grids

Your background is in physics so you won’t have done much qualitative research. How did you find it doing fieldwork?

It was inspiring and it taught me a lot. It was my first time doing ethnography style study, and though it was a short visit, it was a deep learning experience. I stayed with the villagers and had home cooked meals with them, the food was delicious! It was peak summer (~44C) and there was a severe shortage of water.

I worked with 2 incredible ladies (see picture above), who inspired me greatly. They campaigned to get a mini-grid to power machinery for the community. I got to watch activism happen – and succeed – right in front of me. These women also stopped deforestation in the surrounding area. Plus they got an edible oil (from nuts and seeds) extraction machine to make money – it took them 4 years to raise the 700 pounds for this. Now they’re teaching in the village school.

Do you think engineering projects need a multidisciplinary approach to be a success?

I believe that qualitative research is essential, or designs won’t be efficient. We need to know what people need and how they adapt innovative technology. There are lessons learned from failed electrification projects where there was complete disconnect between supplier and receiver.

What changes came about in your design as a result of fieldwork?

There have definitely been some changes as a result. For instance, we observed there is a lack of maintenance available and we saw the need for real-time monitoring. Because the community is remote, to bring someone in from the city to fix problems would take a long time. So to avoid blackouts, energy storage is sized optimistically. But that reflects in high tariffs, so people get access to electricity but they are not able to afford it. So we’re are looking at optimizing energy services in these rural mini-grids. 

So your project is not so much about building a mini-grid itself but about optimizing them?

Yes, I am creating a simulation or modelling tool using algorithms to optimise energy systems to make them sustainable in the long term. It is a framework that can be used wherever a mini-grid might be implemented. 

We do techno-social simulations, or simulations of society (Reena is part of Multiscale Simulation group at the Sheffield School of Architecture). And we need a multidisciplinary approach to do this, to engage with society, because engineering on its own has a disconnect. This is the gap I want to fill. I like to get outside my comfort zone. There’s no point making algorithms that aren’t useful.

So you’re using AI, doing ethnographic-style fieldwork and engineering. How did you learn to do all this? Presumably not from your physics degree.

Education in physics definitely helped me learn the fundamentals. But to do this current project I trained myself in data sciences in summer school at ICTP in Italy in 2019. And through the pilot study, I also learned social science skills. Of course the Grantham Centre training helped me greatly too.

I have been acquiring skills, so I can see what’s useful. Now it’s time to implement those skills. Most of all, I want to use them to help society.

Why does working in energy attract you?

SDG7 Affordable and Clean Energy is the only Goal to connect to all the other goals. For example, social and economic gaps can all be seen in terms of energy. Plus the complexity of energy within the environmental situation makes it even more interesting. It is the most challenging problem and the largest scale, so even the tiniest bit of work can help.

Has Covid-19 affected your work?

Reena standing in front of the Arts Tower in Sheffield
Reena at the Arts Tower, which is part of The University of Sheffield.

On a personal level, I miss Sheffield, especially my office in the Arts Tower, which is the best space I’ve ever had to work in.

For my project I was supposed to do more fieldwork this year but international travel has been disrupted. Luckily, I can access some data remotely and build my models as planned.

Globally, in developing countries, electrification should be accelerated in response to Covid. Unfortunately this is not happening. Vaccines need refrigeration, and that needs electricity. So though I feel disheartened by Covid I am also inspired to work more.

Do you know if the community in Tansa have been impacted by Covid?

I have been in touch with people at Gram Oorja, they say the community I worked in has been affected. During lockdown they were scared, but then they became less scared, as they are not in a crowded zone.

However, a few people in the villages I worked in have had the virus, even though the community is miles away from the nearest town. It’s a worry – they barely have any health care facility there, forget about ventilators! But Covid has got to them, even if energy hasn’t.

Interview by Claire Moran. Unless otherwise stated, all images are by Dora Damian. Want to find out more about how to make sustainable energy for all? Check out our SDG page. Want more from our sustainability researchers? Look at our interviews and blog page.