Bottom-up electrification market innovations meeting the regulations: Takeaways of a youth innovator from CEM-MI

Clean Energy Ministerial - Mission Innovation 2019 (CEM-MI at Vancouver) concluded today. CEM-MI is a platform for dialogue between the innovators and the ministerial members from around 30 member countries focused over acceleration towards clean energy transition. As I had been exactly facing this issue in the development of Energy Bazaar– tackling the regulations in the utility industry for developing an innovation, it was a great opportunity to understand the detailed to broad challenges of innovations in the clean energy market. This entailed discussions with many innovators, policy makers, academicians and most importantly, the youth colleagues from 25 different countries. When I started my personal dialogues in these communities, I set out with three intentions:

(1) What regulations remain the bottlenecks for the development of bottom-up electrification access innovations like energy bazaar in clean energy industry? Who are the partners, where the different potential markets are, or what the different potential versions of the solutions are, for scaling up peer-to-peer solutions?

(2) What are the urban sustainability challenges - where and how they remain tackle-able in my capacity as an academician in the building sustainability space?

(3) How youth could be incorporated, not just in the innovation development, but also the policy design. What are the potential support groups for youth engagements?

IMG_20190526_192129.jpg

The innovators’ take

With these intentions in mind, I started the discussions. The most interesting takeaways remained from the innovators, who made first thing very clear - Clean-tech space is no more based on philanthropy or only public investments. Multiple private investment funds are coming to support these technologies and irrespective of how much risk they see in this market (and a long pay back time), utilities (Engie incubation program) to investment funds (PFAN, Gates Venture fund, Solar Impulse, Women in clean-tech challenge) are ready to support, if the innovation is ready. It was good to see many more local incubators focused on cleantech starting in developing countries like India, e.g. the Clean Energy Incubation Center at Delhi, powered by social alpha, and the tata-power DDL/ Tata-Trusts.

Though investment remained quite an important point of my discussions, I had to understand the feasibility of the local bottom-up solutions and upcoming innovations in the clean energy sector and due to the great efforts from the Natural Resource Ministry of Canada (NRCanada), and the Student energy , we were able to talk with many innovators. One of them is the mission-innovation Champion, Mr. Santi Pada Chaudhari, the man behind the first off-grid plant in India. There were many takeaways from his talks, but the most important things which I took away were his ideas on how the future of electrification access would look like in the coming decade in India. He was very clear about the fading business potential of off-grid market, with not just many government schemes, but also a better affordability (purchasing capacity) of the consumers to tap on to many sources of electrification. So, it was clear that off-grid is out, and India is a good business when it comes to the role of grid-integrator. A role, which many countries, even developed enough, are not able to define well. He made it particularly clear that as a grid integrator, there were three main roles - (1) phase out the off-grid when the demand is high and the central grid would remain cheaper, (2) develop the load management system when the off-grid is sufficient enough, (3) work with (around) the PPAs to trade the off-grid back to grid, when the demand is met by off-grid and there still remains an excess. Easy, right? Actually no. But I will come to the complexity of this later (the regulations remain a huge challenge in the given market policies and current infrastructures).

Including the talk with Mr. Chaudhari, I learnt from other innovators and ministers that the two problems still remained core: First, customer incentivization, a fairly solvable problem with reliable, payback-guarantee solutions. Second, and more complicated problem, the storage, which was keeping even the policies around the electricity market (regulations) very volatile. But, there are solutions which are being worked on right from thermo-electric generators to hydro-pumps, trying to guarantee a 24*7 storage solution. But in spite of all these technical talks, there was an echo among all the innovators and the innovation community - they all acknowledged that clean-energy tech space takes longer time for returns of investments, and this demands the same gritty attitude of any entrepreneur, but much more resilience where the competition hits head-on to age-old infrastructures and policies. In the same context, I got many confusing signals from professionals in the business sector to innovators to not just ‘avoid the utility space’ , but also ‘capture the opportunity of an unregulated developing country electricity market’. What will I listen to among these? We will leave that to future implementation (and current research).

The multi-stakeholder take

Talking about future, I had a very interesting opportunity of round-table discussion with people from academics, business and governments, to develop collaboration (public-private partnerships) opportunities on incorporating digitization solutions in the clean energy industries (especially, smart manufacturing). I was really glad to have a youth voice at not just the round-table, but also as the opening speaker for this event. It showed the willingness of stakeholders in clean energy to listen to the disruptive solutions which challenge their well-implemented solutions from grid to storage. But, at the same time, I could see the friction in the language and attitudes of an innovator and policy-makers and businesses, which was brought down at the table. The youth still felt unheard, the businesses still felt losing their IP, and the governments still felt, well, confused. In spite of this, there was one interesting solution, which was brought down to the table was about an open marketplace for transparent recording of the associated emissions in the supply chain of manufacturing. So, all in all, it was my first good (well, real) hands on experience of making of innovator oriented policies in the clean energy.

The youths’ take

As I was the part of the first ever youth forum of the CEM-MI, it was a great opportunity, but also a great responsibility to represent youth in a good light to be considered in important clean energy future discussions. Thanks again to Student Energy for bringing Canada Minister of Energy Amarjeet Sohi to Rachel Kyte, UN secretary for sustainable energy for all for a direct conversation with the youth. As much as we were curious about their plans, they were curious about our ideas, so all-in-all it was a great give-and-take! Involvement with our own country delegates also made the conversations easier as they learnt we were not just some activists, and we learnt that the delegates were not just some old people with no tolerance for new ideas. In spite of these improving inter-generational conversations, some challenges still remain : most importantly with better delegation contacts from developing countries (including India), and the voice of youth actually taken in consideration with some actionable engagement steps. One thing I would takeaway personally from this conversation is to develop and tap into the potential of support group, not just inter-generational and inter-sector, but also intra-generational and intra-sector, especially for as challenging field as clean energy.

Student Energy Youth Delegation for CEM-MI 2019 (-me)

Student Energy Youth Delegation for CEM-MI 2019 (-me)

The final verdict on clean energy innovation

Reflecting back on the three intentions I had, I think I had a fair share of answers from all the above experiences and engagements. I learnt that for actually implementing Energy Bazaar, we need a more clearer understanding of the roles of grid integrator and associated regulations in the market which we plan to be at. This still remains a question because regulations in India do not exist for off-grid, PPAs still remain a new idea for consumer (household level) trade, and grids still remain unreliable at many places. So, for now, we need to take a small step back and reflect more deeply into our own scaling-up plans and feasibility of the business in India. But this doesn’t mean Energy Bazaar is giving up or stopping, it just means we are learning the markets more to understand where we are actually needed the most. The many discussions on the market design and flexibility from Swedish Smartgrid, Utopus Insights, showed that regulators are aware at the need of the flexible regulations e.g. with the pilot projects of NEMOgrid, and we are not alone in demanding a change and re-design of the market regulations.

We, as Energy Bazaar, remain a developing solution at this stage, and we see that the potential of the peer-to-peer platform lies in urban sustainability (building energy efficiency and optimization, building as a service) to tapping into better storage solutions (e.g. using car as storage via EV). Thus, the takeaway for Energy Bazaar at this stage would be to (1) integrate and learn from the multi-stakeholder regulations and push for their flexibility, (2) adapt to the storage and the built environment (if exists), (3) build a pilot, learn and get partners in smart-metering solutions, but more importantly build the network among similar companies to learn and grow together (how is Powerledger, WEF doing it!?) and (4) make a reliable user friendly interface, guaranteeing a good reliable solution to consumer.

As personal lesson I would like to stress on the support group development across different sectors, within our generation while working on an age-old industry environment - this enables to put up a common language across sectors. As final note, I would say I genuinely enjoyed these collaborative platforms, representing the needs of youth and innovators and stressing on people-demand, stressing on bottom-up dynamic open solutions in clean energy space. Hopefully, CEM-MI will also hold a youth forum next year at Chile, and many of the youth representatives will be there to be part of the debate.

On this note, off to a hike now in Vancouver! Parks and Canyons, here I come. Hopefully my next blog would bring you to Chile this (COP2019) or next year (CEM-MI2020), and to the beautiful Patagonia.

————————————————————————————————————————————————————

1. I had received this question many times - so here is the answer to what was I (a 24 year old, not even a beginner in this industry) doing at such a high level policy event and how did I even get there? - Being a youth delegate from India, a PhD student from Switzerland, a startup developer from Netherlands, I fit well in the roles of innovator and academician from Netherlands, EU or India (whatever hat I wanted to put on), But, thanks to Student Energy and Government of Canada for making this possible, at the first place.

2. Additional to this overall discussion, I ended up attending many side events, where I learnt on the development and the update of SDG7- clean energy access for all, the ‘dispatch-able’ clean energy future, etc. to understand the state of energy transition, but I would not be providing any new information than most of what is available on respective country’s website or this report - for details, feel free to reach to me.