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Dr Clementine Chambon

Dr Clementine Chambon

Dr Clementine Chambon, Research Associate at Department of Chemical Engineering, Imperial College London, is bringing clean energy to off-grid communities in rural India.

I have always been interested in climate change and developing solutions to it as an engineer. In the first year of my PhD in bioenergy, I attended a climate-change workshop, where I met Amit Saraogi, and we went on to co-found Oorja, a social enterprise using solar energy to power off-grid communities in rural India. One of my proudest achievements is that we designed and successfully installed a small solar PV power station providing electricity to around 1000 people in a community in northern India before I had finished my PhD. Seeing first-hand the benefits it brought really inspired me to carry on.

By providing electricity to low-income rural areas you have a particular impact on women. They are the ones spending most of their time in the household and breathing in the fumes from kerosene and diesel. The systems we design enable the shift away from fossil fuels, providing economic savings of around 10-20 per cent, as well as a more reliable service which allows people to extend productive hours. That could mean more time for education or chores, or better irrigation through year-round access to solar pumping. We’ve even seen an increase in small businesses, for example, shop owners in the village use our LED lamps to sell goods in the evenings. We are now looking at larger scale strategies to power bigger loads, such as mills and pumps.

You can’t make a difference unless your products are adopted. As my research has progressed I’ve realised that to design a solution that’s relevant to a community you have to be really familiar with the context and always keep the end user in mind. It’s not just about connecting farms and homes to electricity and walking away. Sustainable development only comes through partnering directly with a community.

Climate change is not simply one global problem that needs to be solved. Lots of different solutions need to be found at local levels, and these require a variety of skill sets – from engineering, social development, politics, and many other disciplines. You also need different perspectives and specific local knowledge. In low-income areas, women are often most knowledgeable about use of energy in their communities and can be well-placed to propose solutions. But as a bigger picture, although women are under-represented in engineering, what I think is most important is diversity: of gender, culture, background and perspective. We need all these voices to tackle one of our greatest global challenges.