Penn Calendar Penn A-Z School of Arts and Sciences University of Pennsylvania

The Poor Man’s Energy: Low-Modernist Solar Technologies in India and the Global South, 1878–2016

in partnership with the South Asia Center, Dept. of History, Dept. of History and Sociology of Science, and Penn Program in Environmental Humanities

Elizabeth Chatterjee
Assistant Professor of Environmental History and the College, University of Chicago
Thursday, September 22, 2022 - 12:00
A HYBRID CASI Seminar — 12 noon EDT | 9:30pm IST Center for the Advanced Study of India Ronald O. Perelman Center for Political Science & Economics 133 South 36th Street, Suite 230 Philadelphia PA 19104-6215

(English captions & Hindi subtitles available)

About the Seminar:

Solar energy often appears a resource without a history, perpetually novel and promising futuristic abundance. This overlooks a long history of “low-modernist” solar research in and for the global South. Focusing on India, an important arena for (post)colonial solar experimentation, this seminar traces the idea and deployment of solar technologies as frugal everyday fixes for developing countries. Within the small transnational community of Indian and globe-trotting solar development experts, in parallel with the well-known postwar focus on high-modernist energy mega-projects, there persisted a competing tendency to think small. At its heart lay a dualistic conception of the modern energy economy: flexible and resource-intensive grid electricity for urban centres, inferior off-grid devices to meet the minimal and static needs of the rural poor. This impoverished, feminized Third-World-imagined user base resulted in persistent underinvestment and failed commercialization, helping to explain why solar technologies did not take off earlier.

About the Speaker:
Elizabeth Chatterjee is an Assistant Professor of Environmental History and the College at the University of Chicago. Her research has explored a wide range of topics in energy history and the political economy of infrastructure, from the Gujarat development model to fossil fuels in the Asian Anthropocene. She is currently writing an environmental history of electricity in India since independence.


Amrita Kurian:

Hello, everyone. Welcome back to the CASI Fall Seminar series. My name is Amrita Kurian. Sarath, Shikhar, and I are the new postdoctoral fellows at CASI. Sarath and I co-organized at this seminar series with our director Tariq Thachil. The seminar series will not be possible, whether it's publicizing the events or technical support, or coffee and patti rolls without a lot of help from the CASI team. A shout out to them. Before we commence our talk for today, a plugin for next week's event, virtual event, with Aditya Balasubramanian, who's a economic historian and will be talking to us about anti-corruption and the CBA. A word about logistics for today's event. The speaker will talk for 30, 35 minutes, which will be followed by Q&A. Tariq and I will moderate that. If you're attending virtually, please drop your questions in the chat. Sarath will convey them to the speaker. Last but not least, it gives me great pleasure to introduce our speaker for today's event, Dr. Elizabeth Chatterjee.

Elizabeth Chatterjee is an Assistant Professor of Environmental History and the College at University of Chicago. She's also a fellow of the Initiative for Sustainable Energy Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Her research has explored a wide range of topics, such as the transformation of the Indian state and bureaucracy, energy history, and the political economy of infrastructure, from Gujarat development model to fossil fuels. Her recent article in the Journal of Asian studies critiques dominant history of fossil capitalism in the anthropocene with the history of fossil developmentalism in the Asian anthropocene. She's currently writing an environmental history of electricity in India since independence. Today, she'll talk to us about the overlooked history of low-modernist solar research in and for the Global South, focusing on the case of India. Her talk is titled The Poor Man’s Energy: Low-Modernist Solar Technologies in India and the Global South, 1878–2016. Thank you, Liz for joining us here at CASI, and over to you.

Elizabeth Chatterjee:

Fabulous. Well, thank you so much to Tariq, to Sarath and Amrita for the invitation, and especially to Amrita and Juni for amazing logistics help. So I'm really excited to be sharing a standalone draft of what I hope to be an article with you and look forward to hearing your feedback. Let's just check that we are technically working. Yes. So in 1953, the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO wrote to the government of India with a really exciting proposal. Would the new nation be interested in holding the first major international conference on wind and solar energy? And for the next few months, Indian scientists and officials weighed in on the idea, mostly enthusiastically, including Nehru, himself a big solar booster who dined just a few months earlier on some cooked cabbage and vegetables prepared on an Indian-made solar cooker.

The UNESCO symposium, as you can see, was held in 1954 in New Delhi, "An apt location," said UNESCO, given India's remarkable pioneering work in the field of solar energy. The politician KD Malaviya, more famous as the father of Indian hydrocarbon exploration, delivered the inaugural address to an international audience. As you see here, he said, "Not only should we derive energy from wind and sun, but we should aim at getting it cheaply." And he told the gathered experts to keep two watch words in mind to guide their research, economy and simplicity. Economy and simplicity would be the fateful words that would guide another half century of solar energy research, I'm going to suggest, in India and in the Global South more generally.

Solar energy often appears a energy source without a history, perennially novel and always oriented towards the future, and this has gone, really, entirely unchallenged by historians who've basically shown no interest in renewable energy in most of the Global South and no interest in solar energy anywhere. As a result, the vacuums being filled by professionals who've come up with great kind of linear teleologies like this one here, I mean, they're not usually quite so stark, but you can see that this is typically narrated, then, as a linear story of progress here, from a leap from ancient history through to Bell Labs and the first practical solar cell in 1954, on via satellites and to today.

So there's a straight line of innovation. And it takes us here to the dominant imaginary of solar energy today. What we might call a high-modernist imaginary of big solar energy in the form of the solar park. This is Bhadla, India's largest solar park. It's about the size of Manhattan. This notion animating the big solar park we might see as a revival of the high-modernist idea or progress. It's founded on an optimism about the possibilities for science and technology to square the circle between economic growth and environmental sustainability, liberating wastelands like Rajasthan deserts while liberating humanity from dirty fossil fuels. It promises, basically, infinite power. Now, the air of Utopian futurism that envelopes the idea of what I'm going to call big solar, high-modernist big solar, obscures longer and much more complex and messy histories of solar energy.

Today, I want to trace one such alternative history of solar research and deployment in and for the Global South, and it's a history that really does not fit that nice, neat tale of triumph from innovation to commercialization. Now let's not forget, dominant solar technologies are actually pretty old. The silicon solar cell would be old enough to draw a pension right now, and things like solar cookers, solar water heaters, are older still. So today I want to flip the usual research question we ask about solar energy, and not ask why we see a meteoric takeoff in the 21st century, but to ask why that takeoff stalled for so long earlier on?

We'll see that India was a key arena for that kind of failed transition, and in the history I'm going to recount for you we see a revealing tale, I think, of under investment, failed commercialization, and technological cul-de-sacs. I'm going to suggest that the reasons for that failed takeoff lie in the pigeonholing of solar energy, not as something Utopian and oriented towards a futuristic life of abundance, but a much drabber imagined user base. The notion that was dominant from, I would say, the late 19th century all the way through to at least the 1970s oil shocks, that it was a poor man's energy source, a literal phrase that occurs in the archive.

We'll see that the user base that was imagined lay in the Third World. It was rural, it was feminized, it was impoverished, and it was imagined not as a post-carbon substitute to wean people off fossil fuels, but as a substitute, actually, for firewood, for dung, and for gathering work that was traditionally done by women. This was not simply, I'll show an idea imposed by aid experts from the outside, but by many Indian experts as well, who came to agree that solar energy was best suited where the grid have not yet expanded that true infrastructural modernization of the electric grid. And in this way then, I'm describing a pre-carbon rather than post-carbon history of solar energy.

Unfortunately, this user base, as you can imagine, was imagined to offer very little expected return on investment, and scientific and commercial interest was correspondingly limited then. Solar energy was not imagined as lying at the frontier of technological progress, a really exciting area to be getting involved in if you were, say, an energy physicist, but as an area of second-best fixes. Not as something high modernist, but what I'm calling low modernist, that is an emphasis on pragmatic, low-cost, simple, small-scale devices that would meet only minimal energy demands, which were statically defined and would work with rather than aiming to master the arid climate. I'll show, though, that rural energy users themselves really continued to reject that frugal imaginary and the constraints it put on aspirations for increased energy use. So very quick overview of what I'll be talking about. A quick, quick round, some colonial material through to Nehruvian India and on into the international development community.

For most people, as we know, in my benighted motherland of Britain, the intense sunlight of the tropics was imagined as a civilizational curse, but for India's first ever solar booster it was a blessing. William Adams was of all jobs, Deputy Registrar at the Bombay High Court. When he read an article by the French inventor Augustin Mouchot about his solar experiments in French North Africa, Adams was smitten. His 1978 monograph, Solar Heat, declared that, "Tropical countries possess in their clear skies a gratuitous and inexhaustible source of wealth equal to that which Western nations have to dig with infinite labor and toil from the bowels of the Earth." He called upon the government to invest in this promising substitute for expensive imported coal, and thereby to help slow deforestation that was becoming a huge issue. In Bombay, Adams displayed his solar innovations before newspaper reporters and army chiefs. Solar heat sketch plans to deploy solar energy from everything from desalinization through to cotton gins, and even Hindu crematoria.

This was a really sweeping, I would say, high-modernist vision of wholesale rapidly substituting solar energy for fossil fuels, especially for steam engines. "Solar energy," Adams told The Times of India, was destined to make India the seat of the principal manufacturing industries of the world." At the time, this was not an outlandish view. "The time will come when Europe must stop her mills for want of coal," said the famous Swedish American inventor, John Ericsson. There's a nice, big fountain of him you might have spotted in here in Philadelphia near the art museum. An industry would shift to the tropics, where the excess of solar heat promised an unimaginable abundance of motor power. But despite all these grand visions, it was actually for something much more modest that Adams would be remembered and go down in solar history, his solar cooker, which concentrated the sun's raise in quite an innovative way on this central utensil that you can see here marked B or C.

One obliging corporal from the Kolbar garrison used a prototype to bake a Christmas cake, and Adams boasted that you could even cook on the march with a cooker atop a coolie's head. But generally, the reception was a lot less favorable. One Bombay official pointed out that this was ridiculous. You couldn't just give factory workers a holiday whenever the sun didn't shine. Another person told him he would have to use the sun to cultivate cucumbers to use as fuel during the monsoon. And even a friend, as you can see, complained, "Your cook," i.e. the sun, "goes to bed at 6:00 and civilized people dine at 7:30 or 8:00 PM." These kind of objections about intermittency, of course, are familiar now 150 years later.

Now, Adams' solar cooker is little more, I think, than a historical footnote. Nonetheless, it offers an alternative genealogy of solar energy that looks very different to the narratives that would coalesce a century later with the oil shocks of the 1970s in the rich world. We see here solar energy imagined that there's something that is especially fit colonial context. With Adams, with Mouchot's experiments in French North Africa. But it was in the tropics that really, solar's potential lay. And the most striking example of this is a great son of the city of Philadelphia, Frank Shuman, who would build solar-powered irrigation engines to draw the waters of the Nile to irrigate cotton in Egypt under the watchful eye of Lord Kitchener. I think it's telling, too, that it was the idea of the cook stove, the device of the cook stove, which we'll see recur during this talk, that resonated where these grand inventions of Adams' were rejected.

As his critical friend made clear, the solar cook stove was fit only for uncivilized people. You see correspondence in The Times of India, for example, saying, "Oh, this would be perfect for relief camps, not for real people like us." So this would presage a huge, long series of tinkering for frugal innovations for the tropics in the name of, to quote the American solar booster, Charles Henry Pope, who saw solar energy as a way to conquer the American West, "To make the tropics grow opulent when the utilization of solar heat is carried to the point of simplicity and economy." He added, "What a motive to the truly humane inventor and capitalist."

Now, this is a pretty rural set of imaginaries. As you can see here in Shuman's irrigation engines for cotton, and that rural slant would start to intensify from a very different and much more conceptual direction. To understand this, we need to understand how solar energy was conceived of actually all the way up to the 1980s, which is not in the narrow sense of directly and through photovoltaics harnessing the sun's energy, often turning it into electricity, like we think of it now, but as something much more synonymous with the broad umbrella term of renewable energy. So solar energy then stood in for everything from tidal energy to the wind, with the idea that it's ultimately the sun that dictates these infinite flows in contrast to the fixed capital, and it's often the word capital that's used, exhaustible capital of fossil fuels.

In this imaginary, the single greatest machine if you like, for harnessing the solar energy was the leaves of plants, their photosynthetic capability. And in this way through, for example, the writings of the urban planner, Patrick Geddes, who was advising on many Indian cities, his disciple, the sociologist Radhakamal Mukerjee, for example, reading solar energy as an infinite energy source through agriculture and food lent solar energy, and much more explicitly agrarian cast in contrast to Adams' vision of industrialization through solar. Perhaps the most extensive articulation of this solar agrarianism could be found in the writings of Richard Bartlett Gregg, some of whose papers are here at Penn. So I think it's the most exciting part. If Greg is remembered at all today, it says the author of the incredibly influential Gandhian classic from 1934, The Power of Nonviolence, which books are forward by MLP Jr. But in his earliest effort, intellectual translation, when he was embedded in Gandhi's Ashram he wrote what sometimes called the first work of Gandhi in economic philosophy that aimed to translate Gandhianism into energetic terms.

He calculated that the sun falling on India annually was equivalent to all the coal mine in the world in 1927. And he pointed out or argued that the country's massive underemployed laborers were enormously efficient machines via eating rice for converting this solar energy into work. Centering energy in this way, he wrote excitedly in his almost entirely legible notebooks would profoundly alter gradations of social status. Then the Indian woman who picks up droppings in the streets of fuel would be seen to be very wise, equal to the physician on one side and to the fuel engineer or coal miner or forest conservator on the other. In this vision, farming was the most important branch of solar technology. And Gandhi, he literally called a great industrial engineer. More than this, Gregg argued that solar energy aligned with an oriental popularity for the decentralized and the small scale. "Indians could not think or work easily or efficiently in Western rapid, large scale ways.", he wrote. Now all of this was cited approvingly by Gandhi himself.

Of course, the Gandhian rejection of industrialization would not survive. But I think that this notion of solar energy as linked to practical research serve a rural India of limited wants in a Gandhian mode really does survive into the post-colonial. So like many congress leaders, India's future president spent most of the second world war in prison in Behar. And there in early 1945, Rajendra Prasad met the Bengali scientists and fellow Gandhian MK Gosh. Gosh said that he'd come up with his first successful solar cooker as early as 1934. And Prasad arranged for him to hold solar cooking demonstrations for the fellow prisoners. And actually after the war got some money from the tarts to continue these solar experiments. So this is the historical lineage that you often see recounted in Indian documents. Gosh's wartime hot box style cooker, hot box means something pretty different. Suddenly realizing, as I said. It's very simple box shape device, such as kind of, it is usually dark and warms up over time, as opposed to the concentrator design I just showed you. Yes. Rajendra Prasad.

I don't remember getting up to anything that while, but this hot box was passed on to India's post-colonial scientist as a historic artifact of the birth of solar energy. And I think this is pretty interesting because when we think of Nehruvian India, we associate this with energy mega projects, big dams, like the DVC, the huge secretive, incredibly expensive nuclear program. But in parallel with these big spending, very dramatic technologically sublime mega projects, we actually see a survival of what I would call a low modernist emphasis. And I think it fits with the overall emphasis on compressing consumer spending and therefore setting India scientists to look for much more frugal and austere solutions for the mass of rural consumers. In parallel then with the big energy projects, we see a corresponding tendency as the historian Daniel Immerwahr is called it to think small. So in 1951, the scientists at the pretty new national physical laboratory in New Deli set to work in building, yep, there's that device again, a solar cooker for the masses.

It's a nice young Punjabi scientist by the name of M.L. Ghai who's especially associated with this. This became the poster child when S. S. Bhatnagar was showing around foreign dignitaries, they would always be taken to have a look at the solar cooker. As the exemplar of the post colonies, technological prowess, but in this very low modernist, small scale practical vein, and you can see the design loosely harks back to Adams here, we have the reflector rather than the hotpots at the center of it. So we have a populous emphasis on applied utility, but with this austerity and approach to consumerism here. Now, India's leaders very quickly seized upon the solar cooker as completely exemplary. So it was featured in official documentaries like this one here from the Films Division of India, but also by the BBC. The government of Egypt petitioned to have royalty free access to the design and narrow themself weigh in to say, this would be fine. Push the industry ministry to speed up commercialization.

Engineers came from Burma, for example, to learn what energy science should look like in a post colony. And even the New York Times predicted imminent commercial success. And then of course, the bubble broke. The cooker was invented without any market research at all into the Indian women of course, who were the clearly intended audience. When women actually went to use it, it grew completely socially unacceptable. You had to sit outside in the hot sun for hours to use it. You had to shift this huge thing around as the sun moved in the sky. And worst of all, as the poly mathematician, DD Kosambi who was otherwise a big solar fan said the cooker, when tried by ordinary mortals away from news real cameras just refused to work. Rumor had it that the company that had been allowed to commercialize the design only made profits by selling them off for scrap.

The solar cooker affair, as it became known was enormously damaging, narrow faced hostile questions in the Indian parliament and thereafter, the NPL retreated away from applied research and turned itself much more towards basic science. But India, this is off rather it's like India's being pathological, it's very, very scientist and so on, too distant from business. The striking thing is that it definitely would not be alone in making these mistakes. So American scientists at this very moment were casting around for a new sense of purpose. For a moment during and after the war there's a lot of solar energy research going on in the US in the form of posh solar homes and solar heating for American middle classes along comes cheap oil and cheap electricity, and the interest quickly dies. But one door closes, another opens in the form of president Truman's famous 0.4 program for international development for the Third World.

And this galvanized a wave of philanthropic interest then that would remake solar energy as a Third World solution. Over at the Rockefeller Foundation, Warren Weaver, head of its natural science and agriculture division was intrigued. He conceived of the problem of the world's growing population in terms of what he called food energy. And so he was very quickly slotted this into the frame of seeing solar energy as part of a panoply of solutions that also included things like algae in the '50s. Everybody thought we would all be eating algae by now. So sadly people already risked on that. And so he set up a non-conventional agriculture program to tap this idea in an exploratory way in parallel with the Rockefeller Foundation's much more famous effort to develop what would become known as the Green Revolution. And he found... See, here's some alga. You can see, there's lots of interest in the Japanese and with the leaders, everybody was intrigued by, but this was framed as you can see, as solar energy to cultivate chlorella, which is its only future has been as spirulina now and health food shots.

We have found then a good fit for the program in the form of an old trend of his, the chemical physicist Farrington Daniels, who was then working at Weaver's alma mater, beloved to South Asians everywhere, the University of Wisconsin Madison. Now, Daniels is super interesting. During the war he had been the head of the Methodological Lab of the Manhattan Project in Chicago. After the atom bombs were dropped on Japan, he was pushed out of the nuclear program and almost like atonement became the biggest international booster, the most famous international booster for solar energy. In 1953 then, it would be Daniels who'd who headed the country's America's first major solar energy symposium in Madison, and then none other than M.L. Ghai, formerly the NPL relocated to New Jersey, like lots of Indians presented the Indian solar cooker. The frugal innovation in the cooker really aligned with Daniels' own interests.

And so he went to Weaver as you can see here, speaking of his goal of developing a poor man's solar energy of an efficiency solar that American engineers will have nothing to do with it, but which nevertheless could help to raise standards of living in some of the underdeveloped countries and said he looked forward to hearing more when he went to the UNESCO symposium where we started. As he'd tell audiences for years afterwards, his visit to India in 1954 was a revelation. He even had his wife paint, the bullet assisted irrigation he saw, and he hung the painting above his desk at Madison to show what they were trying to stop. He envisaged solar energy as saving, especially the labor of women in gathering wood and dung. And he was really emphatic that this was the need of the day that it was actually only going to be relevant in rich countries.

He said, in a thousand years time to have solar energy, but it was really, really super important for poor countries. Now this came as a bit of a shock, for example, to the Soviet delegate in Delhi who described his own country's plan for these massive mega plans to create OACs in Central Asia, but it was widely agreed by people like Malvia in Delhi itself that actually economy and simplicity was the need of the day. Daniels also eventually received a decade of funding from the Rockefeller Foundation to research, as he said, this poor man's solar energy and it's a bit on the nose, but actually poor man's is underlined in the proposal he sent to the Rockefeller. And this really reflected the prevailing view of the American NG commentators wrote, "Underdeveloped nations do not need, and probably do not wish to try to duplicate our Western industrial structure and gadgets."

Another said, "They needed machines operating at lower temperatures and slower speeds." So there's a curious dualism, I think here both in India and in international development imaginaries. At the same time, the Eisenhower administration's pushing atoms for peace, nuclear electricity for the Third World. India is also devoting huge amounts of resources to nuclear energy. And yet we have this low modernist solar in parallel and indeed international experts often discuss this in terms of an energetic division of labor taking advantage as one Stanford researcher said of the most fortuitous complementary between solar energy and nuclear energy. Farrington Daniels himself is a veteran of the Manhattan project maintained that nuclear energy was for the cities. And because solar energy is dispersed, you need a lot of land for it. It was best fitted for the dispersed populations in rural energies. And again, it's a bit on the nose, but in an analogy that he would repeatedly return to, Daniels called the sun, the poor man's atomic reactor.

It was a view that was really very widely shared in the solar community at the time. And this solar community is tiny. We're talking a few hundred people and they gather together in lovely gatherings like this one that they're all returning from here in Arizona that formed the Association for Applied Solar Energy for the world. So it's a tiny group that kind of all are thinking alike is the same Indians that go to the conferences, welcome visiting delegations that publish in the Association's journals and so on. And as a result, Daniels was very well aware that as he said, "The Indians had got rather badly burnt by the solar cooker affair." But he said he was much moved by letters from Mexico and Guatemala about the time that women wasted looking for firewood. And so solar cooker, the solar cooker was the need of the day.

It was pretty easy then to rationalize the earlier failure in India by blaming users. Yeah. I just love the solar cooker, so here it is again. That's Daniels of course, looking keenly at the cooker. And blame Indian Housewives in particular. So American researchers started getting involved in doing market research. They actually realized the issues were sociological. So from 1958 onwards, there would be anthropologists embedded with the Madison team and embedded in their research sites. But they said the issue was one of the inertia of women that they said it's been a flop because nobody she knows cooks on a solar stove, least of all her mother. The idea is it's very hard to break out of these patterns. Nonetheless, they were really keen that actually cooking was the easiest application. And so still like a bad penny, the solar cooker continues on and on as the goal. And the Madison team develops these nice cookers and sends them off for field testing in a very telling series of places.

First, on an American Indian reservation in Arizona, then with a Mexican restaurant owner and his wife in Denver, Colorado, and then finally to the employees of the Rockefeller agricultural station itself in Mexico. And they're all feeling really good. Of course, the result was a carbon copy of what had happened in India a decade earlier. So Daniels' colleague Jack Duffy recalled in an oral history interview, that the hardware worked like a dream in the laboratory and it seemed so good at first. They go around, everybody seemed to be using it well. On closer inspection though they found, and there's just reams of these questionnaires and so on that they started doing, that actually the locals ripped out the cooker, whenever the researchers came by, were cooking away and then put it away. They were like, "Why are these cookers so shiny?" It seems unlikely. And actually they listed the same complaint over and over again.

Many of which were familiar from Indians before. The stove was too expensive. The women disliked cooking for hours in the hot sun. It was both flimsy and too bulky to easily shift around to track the sun. The reflector, the glare hurt everybody's eyes. You could only cook one thing at once very slowly. It was bad at making both chapatis and it turned out also tortillas. It didn't work when it was cloudy or windy, or if you wanted to cook an evening meal at night. So the only thing it was good for was as a supplement for an oil stove. And as they kept saying, what poor people want to pay for two stoves? This was incidentally something that the Wisconsin team found with several other innovations.

For example, they'd come up with an intermittent solar refrigerator. I mean, intermittent refrigeration, also bit problematic. It worked brilliantly in the laboratory, but it was basically impossible for laymen to use. So Duffy at Madison said later, "It was fully to make housewives into engineers." Already by 1957 then, what Weaver at the Rockefeller foundation was recording a mixed verdict. This project is in part very satisfying and stimulating and in part somewhat disappointing. Don't worry. I'm wrapping up in imminent length. Now you might have thought that Indians would be saying, "We could have told you this." But actually there was very, very little pushback from Indian experts against this direction of travel. So the next major UN alternative energy conference held in Rome in 1961, the Indian delegate, J.C. Kapur, as you can say here, he's basically said, "Oh, the Indian population's underemployed anyway. Why are we going for this round the clock power? Are people going to just sporadically work? Why was must we apply the concept and economies of the advanced societies in entirely unwarranted situations?"

After all, again, very on the nose. It is neither possible nor advisable to bridge a technological gap of centuries in a few years. So the same old devices carried on being trotted out by NPL engineers at the conference with only lukewarm public enthusiasm. But the problem was, it was not at all clear that users agreed with this very complacent definition of what they should aspire to in terms of energy, in an autopsy for the Wisconsin program a year before his death, Farrington Daniels admitted that when anthropologists asked users about the ovens, the first question was, "Do the women of the United States use these solar cookers?" The answer no destroyed the prestige. Interviewed by the political scientist, Ethan Kapstein, his colleague Jack Duffy was Ethan Fraenkel, Mexicans and Indians were aware that the whites who brought them the cooker were not using them at home. This constituted a double standard. And it was one, the people did not wish to accept.

The hope was to progress new ovens, not to solar energy. So locals were really clear ride solar devices couldn't paper over their exclusion from the modern energy economy. And I could go on because there's a long legacy that we can see, for example, in the appropriate technology or intermediate technology movement in the '70s that sounds extraordinarily resonant with these '50s and '60s tales. But let me conclude here. So what can this history tellers, well think for energy historians, it reminds us that demand matters not just innovations on the supply side, but more than this is what the imagination of that demand is. The future projections of who the user base must be. And for much of its history, his solar did not signify something high tech and lucrative and so on. It was seen as diffused intermittent suboptimal power fit only for poor Third World, rural, feminist, impoverished users in a way that I think helped to limit industrial and commercial interest. It also for us as a South Asianist I think should make us rethink Nairobian India a bit.

I was pretty surprised in doing this research, how much this fits into a thesis of urban bias, that there really is a dual track energy economy that's being constructed this time, big dams, big thermal, big nuclear for the cities and this low modernist parallel track for the rural areas. And overall, I think this history really troubles the solar utopianism that is ubiquitous today with its visions of futuristic abundance. Instead, this is a history, much more of austerity and inequality as the hallmarks of solar energy, kinds of inequality that are obviously ramifying in new ways as solar parks displace huge numbers of people. And it also ought to remind us just how slow the takeoff of solar has been. How little of a way we have come in some sense since the 1950s. Overall, we can conceive in the rich world of as moving off grid as a choice.

Clearly, this is something that was not a choice. This is a pre-carbon track that is being deployed in India. This huge laboratory of India and the Global South more broadly, but it's an idea of inadequate energy that users repeatedly reject. And we can see this still clearly on the ground literalized today. So this is Danai in Bijar, which was a dream piece flagship solar village, but Nitish Kumar, the chief minister had a great shock when he came to inaugurate the solar micro grid in 2015, for testers greeted him chanting, "We want real electricity, not fake electricity." And because the elections were looming a week later enrolled the trucks, actually reconnected this in this case, the village to the grid, which in Bihar is overwhelmingly powered by coal was a decisive rejection of off grid solar solutions. And you can see now this is the solar micro grid, as it looked a few months ago, being used to store cattle. So thanks very much.

Amrita Kurian:

Okay. Now, we'll take questions. Anyone have questions? Good.

Speaker 3:

Thank you. That was great. It was really useful because it helps us to rethink discourse of temporality and progress and scrambles a lot of ideas of the ways that progress was considered in terms of timelines in the rural and urban. I mean one question that... I don't think is the main question I'd want to ask, but I would be curious how this discussion of solar energy intersects with a Gandhian discourse of vernacular architecture, sun-dried bricks, this kind of thing. But what I was really interested in, and especially since you used an image of it at the very end of your talk was, what you think something like Sultana's Dream has to say, just because the image you used of course, is a very contemporary artist drawing, a nano type of a utopian image of women cooking and using solar power in order to make food.

But the actual story, it's discourse of solar power actually draws largely from a [inaudible 00:42:35] idea of the death ray, which is all over that text. And the solar power and Sultana's Dream is not really low tech at all. It's actually, it's used to light armies on fire and eventually I think to power some kind of grid of teleportation devices and all these other very, very high futuristic devices. And I'm curious whether you see in this discussion of a rejection of solar power as being a [inaudible 00:43:03] or something like that. If you see similar discussions of solar power and its ability to kind of short circuit the colonial logic of power and energy as you do in something like Sultana's Dream and other sort of texts from the time that featured death rays uses sort of anticolonial devices of warfare.

Elizabeth Chatterjee:

Fantastic questions. Just on Gandhian solar architecture, there is in the '50s, at least an explicit discussion of this going on with the redesign of, for example, buildings in [inaudible 00:43:37] along passive solar lines. So there is that current, I don't think it produces more than a handful of buildings and it's passive. Whereas the active solar conversations for solar houses in the US are about intricate, big chemical storage devices to stalk solar power. So it's talking back to what are explicitly seem to be thousand year old designs. On Sultana's Dream, well, I just really like those Chitra Ganesh's series on it. So I partly put it in for that, but yes. I'm not trying to argue that this is a timeless association. I think one of the fascinating things is in the late 19th century, solar energy really is seen as this, and atoms is a peripheral figure, but somebody like John Erickson say, or Augustin Mouchot much more serious inventors do produce things like solar powered printing presses, big solar powered steam engines and so on.

This is really genuinely seen as an industrial technology potentially in the later 19th century. And that, I think Sultana's Dream comes at the very end of that. So I've not seen a huge, but point me too if I'm wrong, but the idea of the death ray being picked up. In some ways, every solar history has to say, "Well, [inaudible 00:45:14] burnt a fleet with solar energy." This is the first ever use, which I think is the use that then is picked up by Hassan. But I think Hassan is almost like an avatar of something that has started to drop out actually by 1905, when that story comes out and is a pivot point because we have both. We have both the death ray and we have a moment of pause where actually the solar cookware is demonstrated for the narrator to show how it works. So this feminized labor imaginary of it comes through very strongly there. And the men say that solar energy is a sentimental nightmare in the story. So I think it captures that.

Amrita Kurian:

Indivar and then Kim.

Speaker 4:

Thank you so much, this super helpful to think about even development processes now, this low modernist mode, even in villages or [inaudible 00:46:17]. And I probably can think of is toilets and the kind of toilets that I proposed, which are simple and frugal. And I'm wondering if waste is doing something important there? What is done with waste in a low modernist versus a high modernist that's extremely wasteful, but also extremely productive, whereas the low modernist for the waste has to be recycled? This seems to be something interesting there. And then also, all of these products being generated over time that are kind of [inaudible 00:46:50].

Elizabeth Chatterjee:

Yeah, I think that's really interesting. I had not thought about the waste issue in this context, but I think that that could work really nicely. So I'm borrowing this use of low modernism from the development studies scholar, Tom Scott Smith, who applies it to humanitarian food, the high calorie food stuffs like plumping apps that are distributed in disaster areas. And it captures something of that small scale infinitely, replicable, and modular for him, very easily commercialized character. I do think here, it's both the idea of sparing waste from the fossil economy, but more particularly the loss of dung is this deep preoccupation from the late colonial period on and the loss then to the land. And of course, deforestation. So I could have gone on here, 1981 Indira Gandhi gives the keynote address at yet another UN renewable energy conference in Kenya and outside as Wangari Maathai's Green Belt Movement. All the women chanting about deforestation being the single biggest environmental threat to the Third World. So I think that you are wrong to something there, but I'm glad that the low modernist notion resonated.

Speaker 5:

Thanks so much for this fascinating talk. I was wondering in imaginaries of the land, [inaudible 00:48:31] either as a consumer of the food that was prepared or something else. And if so, how did that influence it by, if at all?

Elizabeth Chatterjee:

Yeah, that's another good question. So gender is never explicitly really addressed here. The assumption is just a purely functional one. There are kinds of... So solar energy and a bunch of the other solar devices, like I mentioned, the solar refrigeration are explicitly designed to cater to the tasks that women have to do to maintain the household. Other than that is very regionally specific. So the [inaudible 00:49:08] is never targeted, but the man who dries [inaudible 00:49:13] say is a key feature or the man who might speed up some sort of processing in that way comes up, but overwhelmingly it is like water heating, keeping food fresh, cooking and so on.

These are the kinds of imaginaries that really dominate. So it's really interesting because also the question of who has decision making power to make this investment from the household also doesn't come up in what, before feminist economics has come along to problematize this, and it is a pretty startling, I think that this doesn't go to anyone. But the team in Madison is overwhelming male. The scientists themselves are male. All the NPL scientists that I've seen are male. It's only in the, say the documentary footage that good looking, well-dressed women pop into the frame.

Amrita Kurian:

Shikhar and then Sarath.

Speaker 6:

So I guess one part of the, as you were going through the history of this is also a history of bureaucracy and almost like a stubborn, stuck sum cost fallacy that we're down this path, that we had to keep going down the path. It reminds one of India's defense research Institute decided to build instead of misallocate a new replacement joint that never worked and they kept working at it and they kept working at it. So to what extent is this kind of pathology of bureaucracies or even science bureaucracies, or is there something specific about alternative energy or solar source that distinguishes itself from broader sense of how bureaucracies in India approach these kind innovations and questions?

Elizabeth Chatterjee:

Yeah, I think that's also a really interesting question. Certainly there is something to be said about the fact that NPL just continues rehashing the same set of technologies for two decades until in 1966, they are chastised in parliament, and that this is completely disappointing. The interesting thing though, is that this extends well beyond the bounds of the state. So I mentioned the appropriate technology movement and E. F. Schumacher of course, much influenced by Gandhi first outlines his ideas to the Indian planning commission and so on. And there's a branch of the appropriate technology group based out of luck now. And they are obsessed with solar cookers. There's this very heartbreaking feature done in 1991, by The Times of India with a guy called Mansur Hoda, who's a former, I think railway official who gets into this and they say, he recounts how all of these have producers thrown away.

Nobody uses them. They're all being wasted. And his hair has gone white in the effort of putting it. So there's something more broadly about, I think the totemic almost nature of the solar cooker, that this is a device that should work, that should be so appealing. And therefore that kind of reemerges in very explicitly counter state imaginaries like that of appropriate technology. So I don't want to say it's just NPL because I think that... You know can see the Madison team say is extraordinarily wedded to this idea and you can track the Rockefeller keeps giving them more money and they keep testing it a bit more and it never works. So more broadly, I think it says something about the character of international development funding and the search for technological fixes.

Speaker 7:

I have two quick questions. One is thinking about the colonial time period and one things generally about colonial science. If one has to think about this as also some sort of a scientific pursuit, we know that colonial science was really implicated in civilizational racial notions of people. So there's a colonial anthropology, also implicit in the scientific end to this. And I'm wondering, is there a subject in their mind who can actually endure the sun or is there in a certain biological features that they think about at all, which is a part of all kind of colonial signs? So I was just wondering, because when you're talking about people standing outside and cooking in the sun and so on.

The second question is really about perspective because I was thinking about all the people that you mentioned, we hear a little about the people who actually use the cooker. So there's a slight tension between who's speaking and who's being spoken about in the sense that maybe that's because of the nature of the archive, or maybe that's because we don't have reliable information about the people who actually use the cookers, but I wonder do you see a tension of... because this is a story that comes from the people who are actually scientists and academics and experts, right? Yeah.

Elizabeth Chatterjee:

Yeah. I mean, on the second point, that's completely a gap in the records that I've been able to find. I mean, I would love to say, for example, go through the BATNA papers and see if there's anything preserved in there that captures this a little bit more, but otherwise it's, as we know, so much [inaudible 00:54:50] is ephemeral. The closest thing is there is this copious documentation in the Rockefeller Foundation archives, at least of users in Mexico. And there is some work done on the Indian reservation, which is a ambivalent picture, but it is still intermediated through the surveyors and so on. And at some point I think it becomes reading between the lines, they don't trust the surveyors anymore, who are doing this work. So I agree. It's a problem. I'm probably one I need to own up more to on colonial science and heat. There's a bunch of work that started coming out on temperature and endurance and so on.

And one of the interesting things is your former colleague, my colleague, Frederick Albert Youngs at Chicago. I think one of his next big projects is going to be on the idea of wet bulb temperature, which now we hear about a lot with the idea of climate disasters in India was developed for colonial mining to see when people would die, but that, it's humidity is coupled with heat. So there is an imaginary that certain sorts of bodies are more able to endure heat. I think the interesting thing is how this colonial scientist passed directly through. I mean, the UNESCO conference that happens is under the ambit of UNESCO's arid zone program and it's India, who's the leading country that says aridity is an ecological reason for underdevelopment and pushes this climate determinism basically as an idea of underdevelopment in a really interesting way.

So a bunch of the research that goes on is always in the Registan Desert by the army very interestingly on, so [inaudible 00:56:44] in India, another strand that I'd love to excavate sometime. So again, that colonial baggage doesn't die out.

Sarath Pillai:

Do you want to ask a question, Nikhil Anand?

Nikhil Anand:

Thanks, Liz for this great talk. I really enjoyed it, especially to ask the question, why didn't solar energy take off? And so I'm very perceived by the unattractiveness of frugal imaginaries of low modernist design and them not being aspirational modes of engagement with technology for the people that, for whom you imagined, particularly in rural India. The question I had had also was thinking with promises of entailments of frugal imaginaries, one of the promises was also about decentralized power, village control, self-governance of energy in this case. Right? And so I was wondering how often it might have appeared in and among both the designers and the politicians and the engineers whose work you've been looking at in the archives, and also among perhaps to lesser extent among the subjects themselves and might the promise of decentralization also be a reason that these cookers or solar energy or decentralized energy did not take off?

Elizabeth Chatterjee:

Thank you, Nikhil. That's a really fun and interesting question. So in the '50s and '60s, there's really not much talk about the democratic potential at all of this decentralized energy approach, which I find kind of startling. So there is no imaginary of energy democracy or something like this. Where you start to see it is a bit later in the '70s, especially with yes to solar, but a gobar gas in particular from dung. And there, the notion is you'll have these household or village scale plants that then will become a locus of economic and participatory democracy more generally. And then you have a counterparty from people like Luke Lloyd Rudolph saying the people who have enough cows that can do this are actually the rural elites. You're just going to ratify these rural divisions. So it's certainly a little bit later, I think that that notion that decentralization is positive creeps in. Interestingly in the '50s and '60s, it's electricity that is seen as decentralizing.

So via Lewis Mumford, who is a great reader of Lewis Mumford, Charan Singh. Charan Singh puts him in his bibliography and says electricity, the very Mumfordian analysis, where steam power centralizes power and creates cartels both in the US and the Soviet Union. So electricity disperses along with the truck, the diesel engine plywood, and I think aluminum. So actually the grid itself is not equated with centralized power in a way that I think if you just look at the famous quote from Gandhi being like, oh, this is diabolical central power, blah, blah, blah. Then you'd miss that whole dynamic about the extension to rural areas of the grid and how that is the vehicle of true economic democracy and [inaudible 01:00:54] far and away the most articular exponent of that argument. And as far as I know, he's not interested at all in solar energy. Although Morarji Desai is very interested in solar energy, but just in the kind of fruity divine weirdo. No offense to the meeting.

Tariq Thachil:

So thanks so much, Liz for the talk. And in fact, your summary, you kind of hit on the two points that struck me. One is this general thinking about urban bias, where does this fit into rural relations? And I was wondering, I suppose it relates a little bit to what comes next and what wasn't in your talk, but there's been some debate now about the chronology of how biased was the urban bias? Was there an urban bias and how quickly did that flip to something approximating a rural bias even before Charan Singh, and then early days of [inaudible 01:01:54] politics? And it would be interesting to think what, even to the lens of solar has to say about those shifts about a pronounced open bias at the planning level, but in the execution quickly of flip where he's asked one accounting [inaudible 01:02:16] bias on the endowment though because anthropocene is majority, beginning to assert itself, and then later in granular form of based parties.

But it would be interesting to think, where is solar in this? Is it tracking some of these political trends? Or is there a maybe counterintuitive continuity that doesn't drive, and that might be read differently in terms of what purchase is giving us some of these kinds of larger kind of debates about how we even characterize postcolonial political economy that I think would be really interesting. And so I mean, that's just a kind of thought as I had this, because you ended right where I was like, oh, I wonder is it going to track? And there was some sense of a kind of thesis in some ways in your, at least in the narrative, but maybe that is what you meant to reply. The second is on this question of demand. I think you're totally right. That was also very striking about the under theorizing of the consumer in a lot of the debates that you're looking at.

But now we're in almost like a polar opposite of that. The world of behavior, economics and nudges, and thinking about everything is almost determined about thinking about who is the consumer and how do each affect their behavior? And yet I was struck by, I was just at two or three different presentations in India where everything around the solar cooker, once again is about [inaudible 01:03:39], and now it's the health benefits. We've got to get them [inaudible 01:03:42], knowing is there a big call south to get to a solar cooker. And so there's this incredible state. I mean, even although we flipped completely, I have hyper consumer research that the figure that remains the capture of our imagination, it's really similar. I guess that's more of an alternate, but I was just thinking about that and really struck me in your work that that's kind of for me despite this flip from [inaudible 01:04:09].

Elizabeth Chatterjee:

Yeah. On your question about historicizing urban bias, this is something that I'll have to think through more. I think solar is not a useful way into it because it's so marginal that you can't really get an accurate sense of, that this is actually the patch that's being given to rural India because clearly it's not. Clearly it still is the wood economy and the dung economy that overwhelmingly dominate. We know, as late as the 1973 oil shop is almost half of all primary energy use is still wood and dung. The solar is not even scratching that. And as to when this turn occurs, I mean, it's very tempting to want to posit, obviously that occur... The agrarian turn occurs at different points in different places in India. And then interestingly, you can look at rural electrification as a great metric of that as say, [inaudible 01:05:07] does.

It's tempting to think that some of these sunny desert areas, the sort of ones that Daniels went and had the painting done, which have very low rural electrification rates that maybe there is something of an imaginary or a dynamic there that this is a patch that really can work for rural villages there. But yes, I mean, I definitely would not want to make this sound like urban bias is just this fixed and permanent feature of the Indian polity as a whole. Clearly, it's changing the minds of politicians radically, but I don't think that that's feeding through to the NPL, which has its own bureaucratic sets of incentives. As for the imagined consumers today, I also think it's quite striking that saving women's lives front of this. Of course, it's a fossil fuel solution that's far and away, done much more to change that. I actually, and otherwise, I think the imagined consumer at the heart is quite different now with the idea bottom of the pyramid capitalism is the idea you've got a billion people just waiting to be unleashed.

If you give them just a wee bit of energy, like a solar lamp along the way. That's actually, I think not at all the imaginary earlier on, there's not really all that much interest in these people as economic agents or productive agents, really that it's a more like subsistence energy solution or something like this. So there is something that alters, I would say from the '90s on tying in the liberalization and we absolutely see the whole idea of solar energy change after Rio and be much more about entrepreneurialism, be much more explicitly about the environment in a climate sense than ever earlier. So there are some discontinuities as well as continuities along the way.

Speaker 10:

Yes. Thank you so much. This is fascinating. I think your talk has really helped me understand the ways that this topic of solar cooking has come to resonate with so many different people, so many different political contexts over space and time, but I continue to be a little bit obsessed thinking about your talk of thinking about this link between technology, performance of competence and masculinity in the late colonial period. Because I wonder if, and I don't know the literature about this particularly, but at what point do we start seeing the development of professional engineers aside from just hobbyists whose primary employment is through kind of British colonial administration impression, maybe unjustified from these archival materials in the early periods, either side projects that are being done by colonial officials to demonstrate their competence, to show their local knowledge, to show how... I mean, especially the example of looking at Christmas cake. I mean, it just shows exactly who the audience of that particular-

Elizabeth Chatterjee:

Roast beef and potatoes.

Speaker 10:

Excellent. Christmas dinner. Yes. I think, so my first question is, do we see this point, really this idea of the professional engineer being consolidated and could that be a way of approaching this clear sense that I was getting from your work that these circulations, the circulation of these texts is not about the people are being discussed at all, it's about the competence of the men who are publishing those materials? And then second, and even now just really side comment, even now, every engineer in undergrad that I know in the US has cut their teeth on the question of the stove, the rural stove in emerging economies. It's still this trope that somehow seems to... It won't die. And it's just remarkable. Did I have a second question? Oh, my second question.

I know more about print tech and I've been recently reading about electroplating. We talked about this a little bit last night, and there were pathways to embedding conversations about emerging technologies that are pretty, I think would've been apparent. You have the publication of handbooks, the circulation of written texts or the public meetings, discussing the development of the technology. There were ways that people were able to access this technology themselves and come to [inaudible 01:09:56]. So I just wonder if... It just seems to me, are there internally circulating conversations about solar energy or is it really just this huge Gulf between the people talking about solar cookers and any of the people who are engaged with that? Yes.

Elizabeth Chatterjee:

Yeah, really interesting questions. Yeah. I mean, when do professional experts come in? So this is a bug bear for Bengali nationalists that they're not allowed to have an electrical engineering courses until very early in the 20th century. And before that, Indian electrical engineers are all self taught. But in the early decades, then of the 20th century, you do start to get professional training in electrical engineering coming in. And by the time we've got something like the NPL, which is of course, part of a broader panoply of scientific institutions formed NB under the colonial in the dying days of the colonial regime, then this is solidifying into something like an actual card of science minded, I would say scientists who do a bit of engineering, not engineers as something much more distinct. Incidentally, somebody like M.L. Ghai, for example, who designs that solar cooker and it therefore influences the Madison group and I mentioned goes to New Jersey ends up working on the US space program, like high-modernist project par Exelon.

So these are quite seriously trained physicists who are doing this and they just pivot then to working on more basic science questions. But what does professionalization do? I think is a really good question because it really are, they're the same people it's almost like that's their job as being this solar and going around the world on junkets because there aren't too many countries who are big on this, but Israel, Australia, Japan, you can go Arizona a lot. You can go to all of these nice places on conferences and write for these journals and be in the loop. And until the '70s, it's just these probably a couple of hundred people across the whole world. So I think there are these professional incentives to go well beyond the point of actually demonstrating direct competence through and achievable solar cooker itself.

And as for whether this is embedded in a broader operators of knowledge creation, it is, but only for the internal consumption. So the journal of scientific and industrial research, which is the NPL's in-house journal, there are lots of solar pieces for other NPL readers and those plugged directly into the New Delhi scientific establishment. There are a couple of sites, for example, the Central Salt Institute. God, I'm forgetting where it is now, that do this. But I have not seen evidence that they try and disseminate this to the public at large. And in fact, this is one reason why the solar cooker keep failing is there are no maintenance infrastructures beyond what people like some women self-teach. There aren't conversations about what it looks like to repair one of these things. So once they're broken, they're broken, it is just something to be plopped down from on high.

And that's an issue that it is documented again and again and yet it's never really tackled. And that's altered a bit now at long last because the bottom of the pyramid idea has pivoted from the, like you say, these engineering students at place like Penn or more famously Stanford with their solar lamp, initially, they were all about patentable, standardized designs you couldn't tinker with. Now, are there are the Chini solar lamp or Chini solar systems that fall apart, or you can customize in all sorts of interesting ways. There's a much more rich ecosystem of repair and customization all around that. And I think very relatedly, there is this awareness that you have to go where people's aspirations take you, but just to finish on one amazing anecdote from the geographer Ankit Kumar about aspiration. So in behalf where I found that or finished up. He found households not yet on the grid, storing DVD players and so on carefully in cloth waiting, just waiting for the grid to arrive.

Amrita Kurian:

Okay. Do we have any more questions? If not, thank you so much, Liz, for this fascinating talk. I actually have a bunch of questions, but I'll keep that for our chat later. Thank you everyone for attending. I hope to see you next week.