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Doing Good by Doing Solar

For those of us who live in communities traversed by power lines, it's hard to imagine life without electricity. But large swaths of the globe remain without this modern necessity. About one-fifth of the world, or 1.3 to 1.6 billion people, live in energy poverty, mostly in sub-Sahara Africa and parts of Asia, and to a smaller extent in Latin America and the Middle East.

The basics in an electrified society — food, modern medical care, a lit path at night — come only with great effort for the powerless, if they come at all. Filling up a glass with water takes the energy-rich seconds; for the energy-poor it may require a full day of walking.

Fortunately, awareness is growing about energy poverty among those who can do something about it — the famous and influential. And the solution they often adopt is solar energy.

Oprah Winfrey has solarized schools in Africa. Grammy-winning reggae band Steel Pulse donated record sales for solar in Haiti. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation put up money for researchers to develop a solar-powered portable toilet, an effort to prevent the deaths of 1.5 million children linked to poor sanitation. The William J. Clinton Foundation has helped fund a range of projects in Haiti, including solar lights for a resettlement community with 168 deaf families. And the UN Secretary-General last year launched the 'Sustainable Energy for All' initiative that strives to eradicate energy poverty worldwide by 2030, and do so with clean resources like solar.

"I am excited to see changes that are taking place at the high political level. For a long time, energy was not on people's radar," said Robert Freling, executive director of Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF).

If anyone is aware of the long struggle to raise awareness about energy poverty, it is Freling. Well before most others focused on energy poverty — more than two decades ago — SELF was installing solar panels in rural outposts. The organization has completed solar projects in more than 20 countries, partnering along the way with many governments, institutions, businesses and foundations.

Among the many forms of energy, why is solar so often the choice to serve the energy poor? First, it is clean and can help displace the polluting and dangerous energy sources now used — dung, wood and charcoal for stoves, kerosene lamps, and diesel generators. It is also a universal form of energy; the sun is everywhere and photovoltaic panels can be easily installed to capture it. Solar requires no construction of massive power lines and no trucking or piping of fossil fuels, all difficult in parts of the world that lack roads and basic infrastructure.

Solar and Nourishment

Operating under the motto 'energy is a human right,' SELF initially focused just on electrification through solar. But now the organization employs a broader mission, what it calls a whole village development model, which tackles critical problems in a community that solar can solve. As a result, SELF has helped develop drip irrigation systems for farming and brought modern medical care, refrigeration, online learning, microenterprise, and other life-changers to developing communities.

Malnutrition is widespread in the Kalalé District of Benin, West Africa, where SELF began a pilot project in 2007. "There we have managed to do something that is addressing a very, very basic human need — and that is to eat," Freling said. Sitting down for a needs assessment of the community, "their number one concern turned out to be food security, or lack thereof."

Kalalé is considered to be one of the poorest parts of the world. The 104,000 people who live in the district's 44 villages face particular hardship from November to April, the region's dry season when local food production comes to a near halt.

SELF is helping two villages through what it calls the Solar Market Garden, an approach the organization has pioneered to help communities overcome food scarcity and gain income from sale of crops. Solar pumps and electrified drip irrigation systems spare the farmers, largely women, from walking long distances to fill gourds with water to irrigate the fields. The women now spend half as much time watering.

"Prior to our intervention, these fields were largely barren during the six-month dry period. Now, year-round they are growing all kinds of leafy green vegetables," Freling said.

The families consume about one-fifth of the food; the remainder can generate income. As a result of the solar project, the women have gained both economic and psychological strength, exhibiting optimism and a new entrepreneurial spirit, according to Freling.

The organization has recently expanded the pilot to eight additional villages in Benin, and hopes the Solar Market Garden will eventually become a model for the developing world.

Solar and Livelihood

In parts of Haiti, fishermen must travel far out to sea in non-motorized boats because the near-shore waters are overfished. The return back to shore with their catch can be long. They must sell the fish immediately or else it will spoil, since they have no power and therefore no refrigeration. As a result, by the end of the day they are willing to sell the fish well below market prices.

NRG Energy, the largest independent generating company in the U.S., is helping the fishermen as one of its many projects in Haiti. (The company also has also partnered with SELF to solarize medical facilities and schools, as well as food production facilities in the country.) NRG partnered with ENERSA, a Haitian solar company, which offered the fishermen loans for electrified freezers. With the new tool, the fishermen can develop better business models — and an important source of protein for Haiti does not go to waste.

"We have a lot of innovative technology. The real joy is translating it in such a way that it works for that culture so that it can thrive," said Jennifer Brunelle, head of global giving for NRG Energy.

But it is not only the developing world that benefits from the idea of doing good by doing solar. The concept also is gaining traction in the U.S.

San Francisco-based Everybody Solar helps non-profits install solar panels at a low cost, so that they can cut back on their energy bills and channel the savings to their mission. Everybody Solar recently raised $34,000 through crowd funding for its first project, a 13.5-kW array for the headquarters of Rebuilding Together Peninsula (RTP), which does home retrofit projects for low-income families. The solar panels are expected to save RTP $100,000 in energy costs. Everybody Solar hopes its approach will be used as a model for non-profits throughout the U.S.

The work of SELF, NRG Energy, ENERSA, Everybody Solar and others may point out a new direction for the solar industry. For years, the industry has been growing by leaps and bounds as modern societies increasingly embraced the technology a way to aid a planet in need. But more and more, solar is showing itself as a way to aid people in need. Solar, it turns out, is not just an environmentalist, but also a humanitarian. This is an argument for solar that even environmental naysayers can embrace, and it's one that might benefit the industry as renewable energy becomes increasingly politicized. We can expect to hear more about how solar is doing good in the coming months and years.

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