4TU Alliance provides input to United Nations

A United Nations ‘expert consultation’ on energy accessibility recently took place. This gave associate professor Henny Romijn the opportunity to provide feedback on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to the United Nations, together with nine other researchers from the 4TU Alliance for Energy Access. “Experts were mainly busy listing ambitions, without indicating how these can be achieved. The latter is our focus at 4TU.”

photo Job Harweg & Vicente Zamorano Moll

It was a consultation process organized by UN DESA (United Nations Department of Economic & Social Affairs in New York, ed.). This organization had raised a question about the status of poor countries with regard to access to energy. “4TU registered to provide input to the VN. And we were selected,” says a beaming Romijn, who works at the Department of Industrial Engineering & Innovation Sciences.

The process included presentations by external experts on the state of affairs of energy accessibility in different regions in the world. “Those were useful because they showed us the most recent data. At the same time, the experts were mainly busy listing ambitions, without indicating how these can be achieved.”

“One thing that was said is that SDG 7 (‘Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all’) won’t be achieved. That more money is required, as well as more networking, and that more lessons learned need to be shared. But the ‘how’ was lacking. And our approach was to focus fully on the gap between ambitions and how they can be achieved. Afterwards we briefly discussed the meeting within the 4TU Alliance. It’s very special to do this together. It feels like you’re on a wave and you’re carried by the rest. This makes me feel very grateful and proud.”

Incidentally, these consultations take place more often, on such topics as climate and the debt problem. “All of our 4TU speakers got two minutes to provide input. In addition, we have the opportunity to provide written input. Among other things, this will allow us to address matters that we feel deserve more attention but that we couldn’t fit into those two minutes.” Romijn will also publish a paper on the subject with her colleagues.

Clean cooking

Henny Romijn is nearing retirement, but there’s a lot she wants to do still. “There’s so much left to do as well. The world has a huge problem when it comes to clean cooking. Data varies, but between 2.6 and 2.8 billion people (!) on the planet don’t have access to a clean, reliable and efficient way of cooking. And this lack of access causes asthma and eye problems in a lot of people. And that’s often the least of their concerns.”

Romijn: “They depend on biomass for cooking and that’s becoming increasingly scarce and, by extension, increasingly expensive. Wood quality is decreasing due to deforestation and the price of charcoal is going up.” She estimates that 80 to 90 percent of people in Africa still depend on biomass for cooking. “And it’s a major problem in India as well.”

To Uganda

In the Sustainable Energy & Technology (SET) program where Romijn teaches, she had two students that undertook a project in Uganda, a country with many war refugees from the region. “The entire area surrounding those camps has been picked clean, so there’s a great need for sustainable cooking appliances. There are appliances that could serve as an alternative for cooking on an open fire, but those are generally heavy and not very efficient.”

SET students Job Harweg and Vicente Zamorano have managed to reduce the weight by at least half, which makes the appliances much easier to move and to share between families. “Making them more efficient is very complex, so that wasn’t the focus for now. The modifications the guys made didn’t increase the costs in any case. They’re using less material now by integrating a layer of air, according to the principle of insulating a thermos.”

Together with Mechanical Engineering

Romijn does hope to improve efficiency in the long term. “I don’t know much about updraft principles and how something can be insulated as efficiently as possible. That’s why, early on in the project, my students and I went to gather knowledge at the Department of Mechanical Engineering. They have a zero-emission lab, where we got an explanation of how they insulate and how you perform correct measurements on a cookstove to gauge the effect of the insulation on efficiency. That was very useful. Another lab at Mechanical Engineering also allowed us to borrow measuring equipment to use in Uganda. I’m very grateful for this.”

There was even more luck in store for Romijn and her students, as they were about to meet PhD candidate Diego Quan. “He has his own start-up on cookstoves in his native country of Guatemala and knows a lot about insulation. This knowledge-sharing helped the students in Uganda a lot. As the making process was iterative there, Diego was able to make some adjustments. I’m very thankful to him for his involvement.” However, the TU/e representatives didn’t only meet with good fortune.

“The organization in Uganda we were originally in touch with, a refugee assistance organization, turned out to be difficult in facilitating the students.” When the students hit a wall in this respect, Romijn also travelled to Uganda, where she was able to connect them to a private non-profit cookstove organization. Although this also makes money, it feeds it back into the organization.

Co-creation is essential

“So the knowledge ended up somewhere else, but in retrospect this was probably for the best. In any case, they had a very clear vision of the development of the sector.” This is a subject that sometimes makes Romijn angry. “You often see that Western mentality of wanting to help according to how we do things here. But what you actually need to do is co-create with the people over there. It’s essential to listen carefully to what they need and what means are available, so you can make something together and ensure the people there can develop themselves in order to move forward.”

“At the moment, the sustainability sector in those countries is often dominated by foreign investors working mostly with Western subsidies. They show up with extremely advanced appliances, way too advanced for the region. And how can you sustain yourself based purely on subsidies anyway? We need a major shift of focus towards the knowledge and skills of local entrepreneurs,” Romein believes.

“The cookstove model we improved is from the nineties. It hadn’t been improved since. I was actually also blind for a while,” says the researcher. “Luckily, now I can see. Western knowledge isn’t the only solution in improving energy access. It’s a nice thing to share, but it’s using local knowledge and skills that will get you where you need to go in the long term. But that does require standing next to those people and taking them seriously,” Romijn emphasizes.


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