Results tagged “solar” from Bob Freling's Solar Blog

copenhagen.jpgOne of the central issues that will be discussed at Copenhagen is the obligation of rich nations to help poor nations by committing "to far deeper emissions cuts than they already have, and to provide them with cash and technology so they can prepare for the worst and develop a clean energy infrastructure for themselves."

In spite of all the uncertainty surrounding COP15, I'm going to Copenhagen as an optimist. I agree with Bill McKibben's point that we need a dramatic breakthrough in Copenhagen, and I believe there are signs that President Obama's behind-the-scenes negotiations just may pay off.

obama_bob.jpgFor nearly 20 years, the mission of our Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) has been to provide solar power and communications to a quarter of the world’s population living in energy poverty.

SELF believes that energy is a human right.

To meet global challenges such as food and water scarcity, climate change and poverty, SELF is working to assign greater priority to the importance of sustainable energy among international development banks, aid agencies, foundations, and philanthropic individuals, who are committed to improving the health, education, and economic prospects of the world's poorest citizens.

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We define energy poverty as a lack of access to clean and efficient energy systems. Energy poverty exacts its toll on the health, education, food and livelihoods of the world’s poorest people. Energy is a foundation, a prime condition, a prerequisite to a healthy living and a competitive economy, without which:

  • Health Clinics go without lighting and medical equipment and without necessary refrigeration to preserve vaccines and other vital medicines for yellow fever, polio, tetanus, whooping cough, and hepatitis A and B.
  • Schools go without dependable lighting to facilitate education and ensure the well-being of their students.
  • Community knowledge is compromised when connectivity by radio and telephone is not possible.
  • Agricultural production is hindered by lack of irrigation systems, which leads to the loss of precious day-light hours to traditional fuel-gathering, severely impeding economic progress.
  • Homes are lit with kerosene lamps, which give dim and wavering light, emit cancer-causing smoke, and cause thousands of devastating house fires every year. In contrast, light produced by solar power is carbon free clean, steady, bright, and safe.
  • Drinking water is dangerously contaminated with disease-carrying waste and agricultural runoff.
  • Micro-Enterprise is severely hampered, as nightfall comes at about 6:30 p.m. year-round, effectively ending the productive work day without access to electric light.
  • Urban Migration causes explosive growth of cities in developing nations, straining the natural environment and overwhelming cities' social service systems.
  • The lack of irrigation leads to unsustainable farming practices.
The list goes on and on.  This is the impact of energy poverty, the root cause of so much suffering in the world.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Kalalé District of Benin in West Africa - a poor, dry region in the northern part of the country with approximately 100,000 people - none of whom have access to the electric grid. The economy, as in most rural districts, is mainly based on agriculture with more than 95% of the population involved with farming. Despite its great potential, crop production in Kalalé remains weak and easily influenced by natural conditions. There is precious little rainfall during the six-month dry season that runs from November through April each year.

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You can learn about SELF's work in Benin here. This is the whole-village development concept that SELF has been implementing for some time now. We call it our Solar Integrated Development ( SID) Model, and we'd like to scale the process across Africa.

My hope for Copenhagen is that we might just succeed in making the fight against energy poverty a global priority.

I believe SELF has created the right model for sustainable development across much of rural Africa, China, and India. It's time we used solar energy to reap a digital dividend (as C.K. Prahalad calls it) for the poor. Fighting energy poverty is, in my mind, a cleantech opportunity. Sustainability and innovation go hand in hand.

I'm confident we will see a new "coalition of the willing" emerge in Copenhagen  - this time to save the Earth.  The consequences of inaction are too serious to ignore.

My next blog post will be from Copenhagen.  Stay tuned.


I've just returned from Benin, West Africa where I had a chance to see firsthand the remarkable transformation that has taken place in the villages of Dunkassa and Bessassi since the launching, less than two years ago, of SELF’s solar irrigation project in Kalalé District -- a poor, dry region in the northern part of the country.

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Kalalé District consists of 44 villages (~100,000 people), none of which are connected to Benin’s electric power grid.

There is precious little rainfall during the six-month dry season that runs from November through April each year.  During this period, the land of Kalalé is parched and its people are hungry. Malnutrition is widespread, as evidenced by the many children walking around with distended bellies - a telltale sign of kwashiorkor, a condition caused largely by a lack of protein and micronutrients.

Our involvement in Benin began some three and a half years ago when I was first contacted by Dr. Mamoudou Setamou, a native of Kalalé who had received a Ph.D. in agricultural entomology from the University of Hanover in Germany.  Mamoudou, now a Professor at Texas A&M University, had just returned from a home visit to Benin, where he had participated in a meeting of Kalale’s district council to explore alternative options for electrifying Kalalé’s villages since the national grid was not likely to reach this remote part of Benin anytime in the foreseeable future.

Intuiting that solar represented a way forward for his people, Mamoudou turned to SELF for help.  After a series of discussions, it became clear that Kalalé District, with its 44 unelectrified villages, offered a great opportunity for SELF to scale its work beyond the scope of a single village to encompass an entire region.  After all, with much of Africa still without access to modern energy services, it was time to think and act boldly.

Over the next few months, we put together a plan to generate solar electricity for a wide range of end-uses—including schools, health clinics, water pumping systems, street lighting, and wireless Internet access—in each of the 44 villages that comprise Kalalé District.

In terms of priority, however, an on-the-ground needs assessment revealed that the first concern among the local communities was food security: to find a way to overcome the endemic lack of water and agricultural produce that condemns the people of Kalalé to an endless cycle of poverty and poor health, especially during the 6-month dry season.

To address this problem, we approached Professor Dov Pasternak, a leading drip irrigation expert who, for the past eight years, has been working for the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).  While at ICRISAT, Pasternak developed what he refers to as the “Africa Market Garden” – a simple but highly effective method of using drip irrigation to grow high-value fruits and vegetables on small plots of arid land in the Sahel region of Africa.

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Prior to working with SELF, Pasternak had relied upon diesel generators to power the water pumps used in his drip irrigation systems.  Needless to say, we felt that solar represented a more viable alternative, economically and environmentally.  Dov agreed to try it our way, and now with the successful launch of the first solar-powered drip irrigation systems in Benin, he has become a solar convert.  (In a white paper SELF recently put together, it is shown that the payback period for solar pumping – as compared with diesel – can be less than two years, and that's at today's diesel prices which are going up, and solar prices which are going down.)

My recent trip to Kalalé was the first time I had visited the project since its launching in November 2007.  I was accompanied by a French film crew that is going to feature SELF in an upcoming segment of "Earth from Above", a National Geographic–like program hosted by well-known French photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand.

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It was great to return to Benin and spend time with the people of Dunkassa and Bessassi, the two pilot villages where solar drip irrigation systems have been installed.  I immediately noticed a difference in the women, who have filled out since our last encounter.  Not only are the women better fed, but so are their families and the rest of the villagers who now have year-round access to a steady supply of highly nutritious fruits and vegetables.

What’s more, the women are earning an extra $7.50 per week from the sale of fresh produce at the local market.  I was there on market day, and was delighted to see the women march off proudly into town with their baskets filled to the brim with leafy green vegetables. 

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So not only has nutrition improved in Dunkassa and Bessassi, but income levels also have risen — income which will help pay for school fees, medical treatment, and overall economic development.  Indeed, the women are already starting to think about other types of income-generating schemes that can be launched in the villages.  It appears their entrepreneurial spirit has been kindled!

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Phase II of this project in Benin, scheduled for launch next year, will involve the “whole-village” electrification of Dunkassa and Bessassi, whereby solar electric systems will generate power for the school, health clinic, homes, street lighting, community center, and a WiFi network in each of the pilot villages.  We’re also planning to install additional solar pumps that will provide fresh drinking water to the residents of Dunkassa and Bessassi.

While much remains to be done, we’ve gotten off to a promising start in Benin.  The tandem use of solar energy and drip irrigation can be replicated in many other parts of sub-Saharan Africa that are poor in water resources but rich in sunlight. 

What’s particularly exciting is the fact that in this one project we now have a sustainable model that is simultaneously combating climate change, improving food security, supplying clean water, alleviating poverty, and empowering women.

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Stay tuned for further updates...

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