Technological innovation with a humane approach: In conversation with Dr. Ronita Bardhan #WomenAndEnergy

About the #WomenAndEnergy Interview Series

The #WomenAndEnergy interview series is a collaboration between AEEE and South Asia Women in Energy (SAWIE), that focuses on hearing from women leaders in the energy and climate space, who through their journeys and experiences will narrate their opinions and views on some of the pressing issues in today’s time, through a gender lens.

These interviews are broadly themed around energy efficiency, climate change, women’s representation in the climate and energy sector, India’s energy transition trajectory, and global climate change crisis and potential solutions.

Q1. What was the inspiration that prompted you to pursue this career path?
The inspiration to pursue this career path has been there since childhood. I was born in a working-class family of engineers, where I saw my parents build our home over a long time. So it will be fair to say that I grew up with our house. One key aspect of our house was bringing nature indoors to support social customs and practices. I remember several household practices which needed active access to daylight and sun. This made me realise early on that “ we are where we live”.

In an era where we spend most of our time indoors, buildings can shape our health, energy use and well-being. Concerns about climate change and sustainability were emerging issues while I was growing up. I could see that these issues are interconnected and demand an interdisciplinary approach for an effective solution. A better-designed house can act as an agency for change for energy efficiency, just transition, and empower its occupants. It can catalyse the decarbonisation pathway.

Additionally, I am fortunate to be born in a diverse country where the opportunity to improve breeds in every challenge. Developing inclusive solutions for such a diverse population is a unique challenge. The first-hand experiences help generate contextual insights.

I am motivated to combine technological innovation with a humane approach. My mother says- if you cannot see it, you cannot be it. Hence I decided to train in architectural engineering so I can build spaces that positively affect human lives. After graduating from IIT Kharagpur, I designed several academic campuses in India like IIT Bhubaneswar, IIM Shillong, NISER with a primary aim of net zero future and minimising energy use. This was when I started working with a large range of datasets, from load profiles to people’s choices, behaviour, and preferences. I got intrigued by the patterns in the data. The data could tell us why and how people use space and energy with significant outliers. The abnormalities in data fascinated me as they represent the higher-order complex interaction of technology and social dynamics. Typically, if we only care about statistical significance, we remove outliers. But these outliers represent the diversity of meanings communities attach to the same solution. It elaborates how differences in culture, space design and everyday practices influence our energy use and behaviour. I carried this quest with outliers and earned a PhD in Urban Engineering from the University of Tokyo. I discovered that ‘ inclusive solutions to just energy transition lie in the contextual outliers’. We can find contextualised pathways to energy efficiency enabled by distinct space designs without overfitting to past trends. I realised that if we use data-driven techniques to design buildings, we could generate inclusive net zero solutions grounded in reality.

I pursued this quest of combining quantitative information with qualitative narratives in my academic career when I started my research lab – The Sustainable Design Group (www.sdg, as an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay and then at The University of Cambridge, UK. In my research, I soft couple the science of buildings with social dynamics to develop building design solutions that provide shelter while augmenting human capacity to cope, adapt, and mitigate climate change.

Q2. How according to you does the building sector look like in India? Do you think we have made progress through the years and moved towards decarbonisation?
The building sector in India today is in a transition. It is a fascinating and promising phase of growth where multiple initiatives/policies in the building sector interact simultaneously. While the Housing For All is closing the mammoth housing deficit, the missions like Ujjwala or Bachat Lamp Yojana aim to reduce energy consumption in Indian households. The National Cooling Action Plan or the design guidelines for thermally comfortable affordable housing are some recent progress pushing the boundaries for energy efficiency in the building sector. The NEEM project of the government was probably the first attempt to capture the diverse nature of household energy consumption across India. This is the first time such large real-time data sets on energy consumption have been captured in India. This is a unique opportunity to harness the new data streams for decarbonising the building sector. However, I do see that we as a nation often adopt policies that have been successful in the western world. This approach of emulating the developed world might not yield the desired results in our heterogeneous population. We need innovative research and interventions that can capture the strength in diversity. India’s cultural traditions are rooted in energy efficiency and sustainable consumption. For decarbonisation solutions to be socially acceptable and adaptable, we need re-look at these intangible data on cultural practices and everyday norms.

Q3. Investment in and commitment to clean energy has been the talk of the town, globally. What opportunities do you think this holds for India?
India’s strength is in its numbers. It provides the immense opportunity of scale. We all know technology can be promising as a pilot, but proving the same effect at scale is a significant barrier. India presents the opportunity to be the test best reliable futuristic technology. The diversity of culture and social practices in India is unique. It provides distinctive circumstances to develop inclusive solutions for its population and beyond.

Q4. India’s clean energy transition heavily relies on people’s awareness and willingness to opt for cleaner alternatives. Suggest 2-3 ways by which this can be done at a large scale.
India’s clean energy transition lies in identifying the societal brokers of energy agency and access. We often miss out on identifying the critical nodes of information translation. In Indian households, men usually buy electrical appliances while women use them. The crucial dimension of household energy use in India is a gendered decision. Hence general awareness campaigns work to a certain threshold and fail to permeate or sustain to a granular level. Often the burden of energy access is disproportionately shared within a household. Women mainly bear the shock of the energy burden.

Additionally, the meaning of clean energy transition varies with cultural norms and practices. Even today, the refrigerator is viewed as a luxury good in Indian households. The connotation that refrigerated food is “basi” (stale) leads to critical energy decisions. The willingness to shift to cleaner alternatives is embedded in everydayness. Like how many times women cook in a day is not an energy decision but rather a ‘good’ wife norm. Recognising these nuances of diverse cultural practices for clean energy transition is crucial to raising awareness. Women are the social brokers who can ease this transition to clean energy, provided they are economically, socially, and culturally empowered. The pathway to empowerment has to be institutionalised through policy instruments that respond to education, health or both. This is where the power of outliers lies. We need to understand the amicable circumstances that enable women to make the leap of taking the onus of household energy use decision-making. Translating these situations to policy instruments will help raise awareness and uptake of energy-efficient cleaner alternatives.

Secondly, a data representation of the clean energy shift has to represent diversity and continuity. Today we capture data at a resolution where we view opting for cleaner energy as a single-point household decision; however, that is not the case. A household may opt for a clean alternative, but who uses the clean fuel vs who does not have access to it within the same household is missing. Hence sustainability of the awareness or uptake of clean alternatives still remains a question.

Third, developing efficiency standards that are India-specific. The thresholds for thermal comfort that we follow are still an emulation of western standards. India has a diverse climate, with people having a wide range of thermal history. Our research has shown that women have a higher threshold for thermal tolerance than men, especially in resource constraint households. That means women do not use energy-intensive cooling devices when they are alone, even if the temperatures are beyond human comfort levels. This is also because women amostly bear the burden of reducing the electricity bill. Thus, sustainability lies in capturing this diversity in the standards for clean alternative transition.

Q5. As a leader in the clean energy sector, share your thoughts on decoding the larger energy sector with a gender lens in India.
The interaction between gender and energy is complex. Energy policy through the gendered lens is essential as it affects men and women disproportionately. However, the current energy policy has a gender blind spot aggravated by poor gender representation in policy making. As of 2021, there are 10 women in the union council of ministers out of 78 positions (including the prime minister). This imbalance affects gender discussion in India’s energy transition. Because large-scale energy policies like electrification of the grid to Housing for All are decided in view of its macro impacts. And the effect of such policies on women is often felt at the micro domestic level. Thus the benefits bypass the women.

As I mentioned earlier, Indian women are often energy poor, which induces time poverty and an enormous opportunity cost for women’s labour participation. While this is truer in rural areas where access to clean cooking fuels is scarce, with the new slum housing policy, the urban poor women are entering this vicious cycle of energy and time poverty. The myopic housing policy with the primary objective of providing shelter overlooks the consequences of housing design on energy burdens. These houses lack semi-public spaces where the informal social network among women thrives. Our research has shown that lack of semi-public spaces, poorly designed indoor spaces that trap heat, lack of agency to make energy use decisions, and broken social networks in the urban affordable housing can leave women with little time and money. One of our recent studies showed that women in slum rehabilitation housing spend more than 58 hours per week (way above normal labour standards) in unpaid household maintenance and childcare activities while bearing the burden of reducing electricity bills. This ingrained inequality, if not tackled, will deter the development of energy policies that can holistically benefit society. The invisible gender in energy policy discussions can be erased by bringing gender to the core. We need more women in the clean energy sector. A good clean energy transition will not merely cause economic upliftment but also liberate society as a whole.

Q6. What is the one career advice that helped you reach where you are today?
First of all, I must say that I have been lucky to have had wonderful mentors, including my parents, all my way. My mother is my greatest inspiration. There isn’t a particular career that helps me. Instead, there are several – some I received as advice, some I have learned through my experiences. Being a woman working in the clean energy sector itself is a marginalised position. I feel a profound responsibility to encourage and ease entry for the next generation of women. When I started working, I was appalled at the rarity of women’s representation across the sector. Hence failing on several fronts was inevitable. One piece of advice I received was to embrace failure and use my intuition to move forward. I realised there’s always a positive side to everything and that we must learn to recognise it. Learning to value feedback or criticism is an asset; it’s challenging but extremely helpful in progressing. My experience has taught me not to be afraid to speak up and ask questions. No question is a stupid question. One considerable power in negotiations is using data to speak. Since data isn’t emotional, it can’t be beaten. Today I use the power of data (both qualitative and quantitative) to communicate. It truly helps. Lastly, one piece of advice from my PhD supervisor is – “It’s good to be nervous before you make your pitch. It helps you focus”.

This interview was facilitated and compiled by Radhika Israni from Alliance for an Energy Efficiency.

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