Encouraging solar energy adoption in rural India

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

More than 73 million households in remote areas of the world get electricity not from a conventional power grid but rather from sources such as solar lanterns, solar home systems (SHSs) that can power several devices, and local solar-based microgrids. Such off-grid devices and systems provide life-changing services to people who are off centralized electricity grids, and they help spread the use of renewable energy. As a result, international aid organizations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are working hard to encourage their adoption.

To expedite the spread of solar technologies, such organizations need to understand the barriers and incentives for households to adopt them. Scholars have assumed that as household income increases, people will adopt newer, “higher-order” technologies and abandon older, “lower-order ones,” such as those that burn fossil fuels. But there’s clear evidence that in remote places people don’t easily abandon the energy sources they have – including their kerosene lanterns.

What motivates people in remote communities to decide to buy and use a particular energy source? What encourages them to choose a certain solar lantern? And why do they then hang onto some of their older devices after acquiring new sources such as a microgrid or even access to the state-run electric grid?

Three years ago, David Hsu, an associate professor of urban and environmental planning, and then-graduate student Elise Harrington PhD ’20, both of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, decided to investigate those questions in remote villages in India. From preliminary work in the region, they knew that many households use a range of energy sources. If they were to figure out what had prompted a household to adopt and use particular technologies, they’d need to interview the whole decision-making group – a prospect they knew would be difficult. In the past, when Hsu and his colleagues knocked on doors to ask about interest in microgrid power, a crowd of villagers would quickly gather, the person with the highest status would respond, and everybody else would nod. For this study, he and Harrington needed to go into the home, determine what energy systems and appliances were present, and then get the family members to remember – together – how they had decided to purchase them and perhaps abandon previous systems.

The first challenge would be to get in the door. “There are many different social norms that govern access to private spaces,” says Harrington. “But as a woman, I was allowed into interior living spaces. So I got to see firsthand the appliances and lights and so on that were installed or in use.” In addition, she had learned to speak some basic Hindi so she could introduce herself, refer to appliances, and ask basic questions.

The second challenge was to get the group to remember decisions made in the past and what had motivated them – a process that could be both tedious and confusing. For help, the researchers engaged Ameya Athavankar of twobythree, a company based in Mumbai, India, that specializes in creating techniques using elements of game-playing for applications ranging from building and product design to marketing research. Athavankar quickly became an integral member of the research team, working to explore and test possible game formats and field protocols, helping to communicate in both Hindi and the local dialect, and leading the interviews.

Game-playing reveals choices

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