Women in Energy: Shalu Agrawal about researching India’s evolving power sector

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Leading India’s first-ever Residential Energy Survey (IRES), covering more than 15,000 households across 21 Indian states? That’s no problem for Shalu Agrawal.

As the Senior Programme Lead at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) in India, Agrawal leads The Council’s work on residential energy access, demand-side management and power sector reform, using data to study the changing energy landscape and devising strategies to ensure universal access to affordable, reliable and sustainable energy. We sat down to speak about India’s power sector, the gains made in household electrification over the last 20 years, and the challenges and impact of the pandemic.

In partnership with Power for All

You’ve worked in the energy sector in India for a number of years. How did you first get involved in this work and has your motivation changed over the years?

As a child, I was always excited by science – the myriad of mysteries it unfolded and the amazing things one could do with simple technologies. So, I pursued an education in electrical engineering. My undergraduate studies exposed me to wider literature and ideas on technology, society and environment, highlighting the need to develop and deploy solutions that would benefit our social and environmental context. Having grown up in a small town with various developmental issues, I could relate to these ideas. This, combined with a growing interest in public service, drove me to join CEEW, which at the time was a young four-year-old policy think tank. CEEW provided me the platform to work on various cross-cutting issues related to energy access and the clean energy transition.

What is your research focusing on?

In the beginning, my focus was on renewable energy policy and finance, and how it could help India raise its ambition towards deploying clean energy solutions – whether it was largescale plants or targeted solutions like solar irrigation pumps. However, even as India is pursuing very ambitious renewable targets, there are two critical hurdles in our journey.

Firstly, the health of the power distribution companies in the country – past financial burdens and inefficiencies make the transition difficult. Secondly, the ability of power utilities to provide reliable and affordable power supply to consumers at all times. The intermittent nature of renewables and the existing legacy issues in the sector present complex challenges for utilities to meet the changing nature of power demand. So, my current focus is on understanding these complexities so that we can strengthen our utilities for the transition through institutional, regulatory, technological and financial reforms, while keeping the consumer at the centre.

As a woman in the power sector, have there been specific challenges you’ve had to overcome? If so, what and how? What could change this for other women?

Technically, I’m working in the power sector from the outside – with a policy think tank. Outside of this think tank space, however, the presence of women in the power sector is appallingly dismal, both at the groundlevel and in leadership positions. In most of my conversations in the field, in offices, at conferences, I often find myself to be one of the few women, or sometimes the only woman in the room, which can be quite intimidating. But more than a personal challenge, I think this state of the sector is disturbing from the perspective of the clean energy transition. We can’t expect a just and inclusive transition through a system which lacks diversity and scores poorly on inclusion itself.

WE CAN’T EXPECT A JUST AND INCLUSIVE TRANSITION THROUGH A SYSTEM WHICH LACKS DIVERSITY AND SCORES POORLY ON INCLUSION ITSELF

Shalu Agrawal

Can you give an example?

Sure. To improve revenue recovery, the power utility in an Indian state rolled out an innovative model: recruiting women members of self-help groups to collect electricity bill payments. But the model didn’t take off due to several design flaws, particularly linked to a lack of an understanding about what it would require to recruit, train and work with these women.

As another example: we would all like to see distributed solar systems penetrate our cities, and efforts for their adoption abound. But India’s rooftop solar sector has a mere 10% of women in the workforce. When half our consumers are women, how do we expect to design solutions that would cater to their needs through a male-dominated industry?

There are so many other examples I could speak of, but the bottom line is we need more women in the sector across all levels – not just because it is the right thing to do and would have several positive spillover impacts – but most importantly, to make sure that we achieve a just and inclusive transition.

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One of the flagship surveys CEEW did last year was the India Residential Energy Survey (IRES) 2020. Can you speak about the overall state of electricity access in India, the impact of the COVID-19 lockdowns on household energy consumption, and the impact on revenue for state-owned distribution companies?

Insights from IRES 2020 were both heartening and perturbing. The survey indicated that nearly 97.5% of Indian households now have an electricity connection. This is a significant change when just 20 years ago only 56% of households used electricity for lighting their homes. We also note a significant improvement in the duration of power supply that these electrified households receive, as a result of which every 3 in 4 households expressed satisfaction with services provided. Yet, the disturbing part is the fact that the affordability of power supply remains a key challenge in sustaining these gains.

Even before the pandemic, nearly 0.5% of households had given up their connections due to their inability to pay bills (as per our survey). The drop in income and job losses during the pandemic would have made this worse and there is a concern that many more households would find it difficult to afford electricity – despite subsidies – even to meet their basic needs. In many countries, electricity use in homes went up during the lockdown, as people spent more time at home. But in many Indian cities and towns, we observed a reserve trend – drop in electricity use – partly linked to economic concerns.

As people feel the pressure on their pockets, the demand for electricity subsidies have risen, and this has become an important issue. At the same time, the power utilities incurred even higher losses, due to fall in demand from commercial and industrial consumers who paid higher tariffs to subsidise consumption in homes. There is no silver bullet out of the current situation, as we need multiple solutions. Making utilities efficient is definitely the most important step, which could be facilitated through stronger regulation of the sector and digitising operations, but this would only happen over time. In the short-term, we need to make energy affordable for everyone, through a mix of subsidies and energy-efficiency solutions.

What are some of the key initiatives you’re focusing on this year?

A big focus will be on power sector reforms. We are working with utilities in two Indian states to understand the challenges that consumers face in accessing reliable services and making timely payments, and accordingly devise solutions to bridge the gaps. Secondly, we are also devising business models that could help bring down the cost of superefficient appliances such as ceiling fans, and promote their adoption among low-income consumers. This in turn would make electricity affordable for consumers, improve their payment behaviour and help discoms recover adequate revenues. The third focus is on leveraging high-frequency data from smart meters to understand the consumer behaviour concerning air-conditioning use, which in turn could inform strategies to better manage the fast-rising energy demand to meet cooling needs.