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Solar-powered drip irrigation systems significantly enhance household incomes and nutritional intake of villagers in arid sub-Saharan Africa, according to a new Stanford University study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The study found that solar-powered pumps installed in remote villages in the West African nation of Benin provide a cost-effective way of delivering much-needed irrigation water, particularly during the long dry season.

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We partnered with Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment to evaluate the impact of our Solar Market Garden in Benin's Kalalé district. 

I blogged about the our involvement in Benin in an earlier post titled - Food Security: Using Solar Power to Transform Rural Agriculture in Benin's Kalalé District - noting how we were first contacted by Dr. Mamoudou Setamou, a native of Kalalé.  Our hopes for Benin were also documented by Yann Arthus-Bertrand in the The End of Oil, a recent episode of his "Earth from Above" series.

While the results of the project are very encouraging, I want to emphasize that they are just one part, an important one, of course, of SELF's Solar Integrated Development Model.

The Solar Integrated Development (SID) Model developed by SELF is based on three principles:

SELF Help

Solar electrification projects are chosen by the people in rural communities as full participants, acting on their own behalf. The villagers determine priorities as well as the project scope.

SELF Reliance

Solar systems are purchased by villagers through micro-credit financing. Each family pays for its own system and participates in the ownership of community systems, spreading development funds further to help more people.

SELF Determination

Villagers, both men and women, are trained to install, maintain and replicate their solar systems. In addition, a store of spare parts is provided as part of the initial project funding. Local partners are assisted in establishing a supply chain for continuing purchase of spare parts.

Each project flows from the needs and leadership of the community. The community is committed to and empowered by full participation in all project phases including design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation.

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SELF partners with government, corporations and non-governmental organizations to develop and promote additional technologies and systems such as solar-powered micro-irrigation, crop-processing equipment, internet connectivity, telemedicine and commercial applications to help broaden the scope and impact of solar-generated electricity.

A solar electric system provides 20 years worth of energy at a fixed cost. Utilizing the latest technologies, projects are implemented with the most reliable and cost-effective equipment.

Beyond providing the electrical energy source, our Solar Integrated Development Model provides targeted applications, tools and hardware such as LED lights, sewing machine motors, oil expellers, vaccine refrigerators, water pumps, and computers, often through microfinance loans, so that community members have the tools to turn electrical energy into economic empowerment . The goal is not simply that people have electricity; it is that they immediately benefit from having electricity.

SELF's solar installation has made a dramatic impact on the health and quality of life for the people of Bessassi and Dunkassa in northern Benin. But there is much more work to be done. While the immediate next step is to drill wells in each of these two villages - ensuring access to clean, safe drinking water - there are 42 more villages anxiously waiting for solar-powered drip irrigation. SELF conducted site assessments in August 2009 and the wells were drilled in December 2009, with solar-powered pumps scheduled to be installed in March 2010. But we still need to raise money for drip irrigation systems for the additional villages.

Last, but certainly not least, SELF has promised to provide whole-village solar electric systems to each of the rural farming communities in Kalalé. By bringing solar energy to power their schools, homes, health clinics, street lights and microenterprise centers, we can empower Beninese women and their families to lift themselves out of poverty, ensuring a brighter future for all.

Please help us continue empowering the women of Africa, and bring hope to them and their children.

SEE ALSO:

- Saving Sub-Sahara Africa a Drip at a Time Miller-Mccune

- Solar-powered irrigation improves diet and income in rural sub-Sahara DNA


In April 2009, the French environmental magazine Terra Eco published a story on the Solar Electric Light Fund, SELF and the Empire of the Electifying Sun.” That story grabbed the attention of of Vu du Ciel, a National Geographic - like program hosted by world-renowned photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand

You may have seen or own a copy of Arthus-Bertrand’s stunningly beautiful coffee table book Earth from Above.  Or perhaps you have watched HOME, the documentary about planet Earth (as seen from above) that was filmed and produced by Arthus-Bertrand and made freely available to the world via the Internet.

On November 26, 2009, French television broadcast a 90-minute episode of Vu du Ciel entitled “The End of Oil” which featured SELF’s work in Benin, West Africa. 

Here’s the English-language version of SELF’s segment in the program:

Vu du Ciel from Solar Electric Light Fund on Vimeo.

cop15.pngI’ve just returned from the COP15 talks in Copenhagen.

One of the events I attended was a CNN/YouTube–sponsored debate that featured the following panelists: Yvo de Boer, Exec. Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, NY Times Op-Ed columnist and Pulitzer-prize winning author Thomas Friedman, actor/environmentalist Daryl Hannah, and Bjorn Lomborg, Director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center.


Mr. Lomborg, an environmental skeptic, says he believes in the concept of anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change, but unlike the vast majority of people and organizations who attended COP15, he doesn’t think that cutting carbon emissions is the best approach to dealing with the problem. Instead, he argues, we should invest our time and money helping those who are most vulnerable to the adverse affects of global warming.

In an article (“Time for a Smarter Approach to Global Warming”) that appeared in the Dec 15, 2009 edition of  the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Lomborg states that “money spent on carbon cuts is money we can’t use for effective investments in food aid, micronutrients, HIV/AIDs prevention, health and education infrastructure, and clean water and sanitation.”  

While I appreciate Mr. Lomborg’s concern for the poor—and yes, it is true that the world’s poorest citizens will, in fact, suffer the greatest from climate change even though they are least responsible for causing it—I do not agree with his reductionist way of thinking.  It’s the same old false dichotomy of “the economy versus the environment” argument, repackaged in a different form and for a different audience.
 
According to Mr. Lomborg, people who are dying of AIDS or malaria, or who are worrying about how they’re going to get their next meal, could care less about global warming.  That may well be true, but dealing with their individual plights while ignoring the causes simply perpetuates and compounds their problems. He fails to recognize that unless the rural poor gain access to modern energy services, they will have little hope of ever dealing effectively with the host of ills and injustices that plague their lives.

This point was certainly not lost on Tom Friedman who, sitting right next to Bjorn Lomborg at the CNN/YouTube debate in Copenhagen, astutely countered Mr. Lomborg’s specious argument with the following remarks:

…every problem Bjorn referred to is an energy problem. The school that has no light, that’s an energy problem. A clinic in a remote part of Africa that doesn’t have the capacity to refrigerate medicines, that’s an energy problem.  These are all energy problems, and if we, the developed countries, take the lead in driving down the cost of distributed energy, we are solving both problems (climate and poverty).

Watch:


Needless to say, I concur with Tom Friedman, and I am also pleased that I had an opportunity to contribute to his thinking on the subject of energy poverty, a topic to which he devotes a full chapter in his book, Hot, Flat and Crowded.  I am grateful to Mr. Friedman for having quoted me in his book, and more importantly, for having articulated to a global audience the indispensable role that modern energy must play in meeting the Millennium Development Goals. Thanks to Hot, Flat, and Crowded, people around the world are now familiar with the concept of energy poverty.

Had I had the opportunity to interject in yesterday’s CNN/YouTube debate, I would have described to Mr. Lomborg my recent trip to northern Benin, where I witnessed a dramatic improvement in food security thanks to solar power and its ability to pump water for drip irrigation.  Or, I might have cited the example of Dr. Paul Farmer whose organization Partners In Health is now using solar as the primary source of power for its rural health centers in Rwanda, Lesotho and Haiti — where tens of thousands of poor patients are being treated for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and other diseases.  Or, perhaps I would have mentioned Zwelenqaba High School in rural South Africa, where students are now able to gain computer skills and access information via the Internet thanks to a solar-powered computer lab that was installed last year.

These are perfect examples of how investing in clean, renewable energy for the developing world can not only help mitigate against climate change but also improve the health, education and economic security of some of the poorest people on earth.

At the CNN/YouTube debate in Copenhagen, and again in the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Lomborg calls for an increase in R&D in the cleantech space as the best way to counter global warming.  While I agree that basic research is important, the fact is, a number of renewable energy solutions, including solar and wind, have already benefited over the past couple of decades from dramatic reductions in cost and improvements in efficiency.  Solar cells are now being produced for under $1.00 per watt, and new breakthroughs are being announced on a regular basis.  Interestingly, the innovations are being driven by business opportunity as much as anything.

Even without further technological breakthroughs, however, solar energy today represents the least-cost option for generating electric power in parts of the world that are not connected to a conventional utility grid. 

We don’t need to wait any longer before we help those most vulnerable to the impact of climate change by enabling them to adopt clean energy solutions in their own lives and communities.

It’s time for a smarterand more holisticapproach to combating climate change.  Let’s turn to the sun to help people and the planet.

Watch the full debate here >>

hopenhagen.jpgI’m lovin’ it”??  There is still hope in Copenhagen. And a sense that our time is running out.  The sincerity of the world’s young people is on full display, as Bishop Desmond Tutu observed

copenhagenpeace.jpgThe question I’m raising is: can our governments and our businesses show the same level of commitment?

Earlier, Bishop Tutu had raised the question of how much rich nations are willing to pay poor ones to secure emission cuts.  The point he made is that one we have been making for some time now: the fight against energy poverty must be a global priority.

tutu.jpgOur position is simple: energy is a human right.

A few days ago, Prince Nasheed of the Maldives eloquently invited leaders to join him in signing a pact for the survival of their low-lying coastal countries, instead of a “suicide pact” at the UN climate talks in Copenhagen. Watch:



Steven Chu, the US Secretary of Energy, announced a plan to deploy clean technology on Monday, and I know SELF can play an effective role in his Climate Renewables and Efficiency Deployment Initiative.

In yesterday’s edition of the Washington Post, Juliet Eilperin cites the Solar Electric Light Fund  as an organization with a proven track record of bringing cost-effective solar solutions to poor villages in the developing world. Working with government, industry and non-governmental organization partners, SELF has facilitated solar electricity projects in twenty countries, including Benin, Bhutan, Brazil, Burundi, China, Côte d’Ivoire, India, Indonesia, Losotho, Navajo Nation, Nepal, Nigeria, Rwanda, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Uganda, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe.

We’ve been at it for twenty years.  Here’s what we do:

  • Bring partners and participants together
  • Establish “in-country” joint ventures and “for-profit partnerships”
  • Develop projects with community and local stakeholders
  • Identify options, formalize project design
  • Develop written proposals
  • Design micro-finance mechanisms
  • Provide technical design of photovoltaic systems
  • Procure project equipment
  • Train solar technicians
  • Manage system installation
  • Manage partner relationships
  • Build the capacity of local partners
  • Prepare evaluations and reports

Our goal?

We work to deliver solar power and wireless communications to rural villages in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

SELF
facilitates a new generation of “whole village” solar electrification projects to power water pumping and purification, drip irrigation, health clinics (including vaccine refrigeration), schools, household and community lighting, and income-generating micro-enterprises that can be scaled up through the private sector or through public/private partnerships.


brightgreen.jpgplanethope_s.jpgBack in Copenhagen, I had the pleasure of meeting Haakon, the Crown Prince of Norway, on Saturday at the Bright Green Expo

The Norwegians are taking Copenhagen very seriously, and are also deeply committed to eradicating poverty in developing nations.

It’s time.  The world has waited long enough.

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In South Africa—fifteen years after the end of apartheid—poverty still predominates in much of the rural areas, especially in the Eastern Cape, the birth place of Nelson Mandela.  While the South African Department of Education has a mandate to provide computer literacy skills to all high school students by 2012, the fact remains that some 16,000 schools in South Africa still lack access to electricity.

The challenge of providing electricity to so many rural schools in South Africa is not likely to be met by ESKOM, the country’s largest electric public utility, considering that ESKOM is having increasing difficulty keeping up with its current demand, and last year introduced load-shedding and rolling black-outs as a way of dealing with the nation-wide shortage of electric power.

Building on the success of a previous initiative in the KwaZulu/Natal region of South Africa, where Myeka High School—located deep in the Valley of a Thousand Hills outside of Durban—became the first rural, off-grid high school in the country to be equipped with a solar-powered computer lab, SELF teamed up last year with several local partners to bring solar electricity and wireless Internet access to three remote schools in the Eastern Cape.

With funding from the Kellogg Foundation and JPMorgan Chase, and with additional support from Dell, eKhaya, LearnThings, and Dabba Telecommunications, we installed a 4.5 kilowatt solar system at Zwelenqaba Senior Secondary School, located near the town of Coffee Bay on the “wild coast” of South Africa.   The solar system is now powering 25 laptop computers that were donated to the project by the Dell South Africa Development Fund, as well as a printer and several other peripheral appliances.  In addition, two nearby Junior Secondary Schools, Bafazi JSS and Kwa’Ntshunqe JSS, were equipped with smaller solar sytems and computer labs.

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All three schools are connected to each other by means of a solar-powered WiFi mesh network, as well as to the Internet via the local cellular network.  The Video-In, Knowledge-Out (VIKO) server donated by Dabba Telecommunications contain 1500 hours of interactive video lessons.

LearnThings provided training for the teachers on how to integrate computer skills and online learning into their curriculum, while eKkaya ICT has been working with Zwelenqaba and the two nearby junior secondary schools on a program of cultural exchange and remote training via the Internet.

An official launch of the project took place on August 1, 2008.  I traveled to South Africa to join in the festivities and to check out the completed solar installation.  To get to the school, one has to fly from Johannesburg to Mtata in the Eastern Cape, and from there, drive for two hours on a paved, then dirt road.   By the time my colleague Rael Lissoos from Dabba Telecommunications and I arrived to the site, it was already dark, but the computer lab shone brightly.   And the computer instructor was eager to show off the brand new Dell laptops before storing them away for the night in the safe that we had provided to the school.

sa_women.jpgThe launch could not have gone better.  The kids are ecstatic to have electricity and computers at their school, and they’re eager to soak up all kinds of new information.  Soon they will have a webcam in the classroom, and we’ll be able to videoconference with each other! 

Formulated by the United Nations as a blueprint for meeting the needs of the world’s poorest citizens, the Millennium Development Goals, or “MDGs” as they’re referred to, set forth a bold and comprehensive prescription for eradicating extreme poverty, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combating HIV/AIDS, and protecting the environment.

Astonishingly, access to modern energy has not been included by the United Nations as one of the Millennium Development Goals, despite the fact that, without an energy component, none of the MDGs are ultimately achievable.

Didn't they know that Energy is a Human Right?

They should've asked my friend Dr. Paul Farmer (Partners in Health).

He'd tell them that a reliable energy source is essential for the operation of hospitals and clinics.

With the exception of Egypt and South Africa, 85 percent of Africa’s 680 million people live in rural areas without electricity.


Diesel generators are the traditional solution — but hardly the best. Diesel is expensive and polluting, including greenhouse gases. And generator breakdowns are common, with replacement parts typically miles and days away.

Faced with a choice between solar and diesel at five rural health clinics in eastern Rwanda, Partners In Health took the solar path, collaborating with SELF on systems for the communities of Mulindi, Rusumo, Rukira, Nyarabuye, and Kirehe. The systems are solar- diesel hybrid systems that generate 90 percent or more of their power from the sun, with diesel generators for back-up during prolonged heavy usage, or in periods of rain.

Back to Dr. Farmer.  Here's what he said about the impact of solar power on the operations of his clinics:

"You can't do this without electricity. Because you're not going to have an operation room. You're not going to have a laboratory. You're not going to see people at night..."

More on Partners In Health and SELF here»

“Energy is a human right.”   We use the phrase daily at the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF), a Washington, DC – based nonprofit organization whose mission is to bring solar power to rural and remote villages in the developing world.

But what does the phrase really mean?  After all, people talk about human rights; they talk about social and economic rights; and some folks – like Dr. Paul Farmer, famed “physician to the poor” and co-founder of Partners In Health, – even talk about health as a human right

But “energy” as human right?  Now that’s a new one! 

It’s precisely because this notion of “energy as a human right” may strike many as being a bit odd or abstruse that I’ve decided the time has finally come for me to sit down and start this blog as a way to educate as many people as I can about a subject I care deeply about and which has huge implications for the future sustainability of  the planet.

I’m talking about the fact that some two billion people—almost a third of humanity—still live  without access to electricity.  Located mostly in rural villages in the developing world, these people are forced to retreat each evening into homes that are illuminated, if at all, by the dim light of candles or smoky, polluting kerosene lanterns. 

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The problem is especially acute in sub-Saharan Africa, where in many countries as much as 80-90% of the population is without power.  If you look at satellite image of the earth at night, Africa appears, literally, as a “dark continent”. 
 
This is an issue in which I have been personally involved for the past 15 years, ever since I first got involved with SELF.

At the time, I was living and working in Taiwan.   I had read about China’s first “solar village”, a tiny hamlet in the hard-scrabble mountains of Gansu Province.  I wrote to SELF and requested to visit Gansu, and perhaps write a story about how solar energy had impacted the lives of those  poor farmers who had been living in darkness for centuries. 

One thing led to the next, and before I knew it, I was hired to spend two months in Gansu, overseeing the solar household lighting  initiative that had been launched by SELF, with support from the Rockefeller Foundation and the W. Alton Jones Foundation.

There, in this isolated, dirt poor corner of China, I got to observe families turn on a light bulb for the very first time in their lives.

The following passage is an excerpt of a letter from a farmer who had just installed a solar home system:

As the fixtures were about to be plugged in, we waited breathlessly. In a flash, the lights came on, and as they did, an old man from the village rubbed his eyes in disbelief, and exclaimed, “I have long heard that city folks do not need oil to generate light, but in all my seventy years, this is the first time to actually see such a phenomenon with my own eyes. What a beautiful sight to behold!”

Over the course of the next decade and a half, in my work with the SELF, I have witnessed, in village after village, the heavy toll that “energy poverty” exacts on the health, education, and livelihoods of people who do not have access to electricity.

I have also been fortunate enough to see and document the numerous benefits that even modest amounts of electricity, generated by the sun, can deliver to previously unelectrified households and communities.

The purpose of this blog is twofold: first, to inform and educate the general public about energy poverty and its deep relevance to virtually every aspect of sustainable development; and second, to chronicle the many examples of how solar energy has been, and continues to be, harnessed for improvements in the health, education, and economic well-being of rural villagers who have, for far too long, been deprived of what should be a sine qua non of civilized life in the 21st century.

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