PART II -- Ending Energy Poverty: The Missing Millennium Development Goal

PART II -- Ending Energy Poverty: The Missing Millennium Development Goal

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If you missed Friday’s Changemakers’ introduction to the work of Bob Freling and the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF), SELF’s inspirational efforts to end energy poverty is truly worth a look as the world prepares to discuss ten years of progress on the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, leading to the September 21st to 23rd annual gathering of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) in New York City.

“I was at the first two CGI Annual Meetings, and SELF helped to make the first CGI Annual Meeting carbon neutral by providing carbon offsets that had been generated by our solar project in Nigeria,” said Freling, the Executive Director of SELF.   “At the 2006 Annual Meeting, SELF made a pledge for implementing a pilot project for solar-powered drip irrigation project in Benin. I was invited back in 2009 to present a progress report on the project in Benin.  In 2010 the project is getting further attention because of our status as a winner in the Ashoka Changemakers and ExxonMobil Women | Tools | Technology competition, and I believe that is why I was extended an invitation to participate as a full member in this year’s Annual Meeting.”

CGI also brokered a relationship between SELF and NRG Energy, the ninth largest producer of electricity in the U.S., to help Haitian communities get access to solar energy for schools, clinics, drip irrigation, and fish farms. This partnership was announced today at CGI’s opening plenary session.  NRG is committed to working with SELF to expand clean, renewable power opportunities to the Haitian commune of Boucan Carré in an area surrounding an anchor site, a medical clinic already powered by solar electricity. By clustering clean-energy applications to power village resources, NRG seeks to demonstrate how fundamental reliable electricity service is to rebuilding Haiti—and that it can be provided cleanly and, over the long term, affordably, with solar energy.  This $1 million commitment can provide a successful, replicable model to address conditions of chronic poverty and stalled economic development.


This connection to NRG Energy from CGI came about because of SELF’s ability to deliver measurable outcomes in its 2006 pledge for Benin, and because of SELF’s on-the-ground presence in Haiti, working to solar-electrify rural health clinics operated by Partners In Health.


“The garden saved me,” said Gannigui Chabi Yerima, one of the Benin women benefiting from a SELF Solar Market Garden. “We didn’t know the sun could do all this.  Now we sell, we eat.  We eat a lot here.”

The equipment and training for each Solar Market Garden is currently grant subsidized, with the total cost of the solar system, pump and drip irrigation system approximately US $18,000. The Stanford study estimated that if the communities were able to get advance loans to pay for the Solar Market Garden, it would take only about 2.5 years to repay because of the income the gardens generate.  This assessment bodes well for scaling this model through the public and private sectors, requiring an innovative microfinance model to support it.


“Right now this is grant based, but that said, the women are now able to buy their own seeds and make money selling vegetables, and seeds from their crops to other farmers,” said Freling.  “We’ve only done this in two villages, but will scale it next to the next eight villages, incorporating more of a payment mechanism, which will require access to microcredit.  We truly want to move away from a grant-based model to a finance-based model.”

Freling’s larger vision for the villages goes beyond the Solar Market Gardens, where water currently is used for agriculture only.  His plan is for the villages to have solar pumps for drinking water, electrification for the health clinics, lighting for homes and, power for schools, computers and wireless Internet access. “Solar energy and Wi-Fi connectivity have broad implications for health, education, and economic prosperity,” said Freling.  “This multi-year, multi-phase effort will demonstrate that a holistic solar model can meet most of the communities’ needs locally.”

One constraint on the Solar Market Gardens is that all of the equipment has to be imported. “We want to help start joint venture companies locally for producing the solar materials,” said Freling.  “We are able to do training and capacity building with the villagers to teach them how to maintain the solar systems.  This provides villagers with income-generating jobs, but ultimately more jobs could be created if we were able to teach them to manufacture their own equipment.”

“SELF continues to witness a lack of familiarity and understanding of solar technology, and many misconceptions about the cost,” said Freling. “Many development projects are willing to spend more money on diesel, when in fact, if they were able to take a more flexible view, they’d see that solar is a capital-intensive solution, because once you put this in place, there are no fuel costs and within three to four years, you break even.”  

Freling sites one example where in 2009 the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) launched a US $40 million Development Grants Program for climate change adaptation, microenterprise, water and sanitation, and dairy, with individual grants of up to US $2 million.  But when he reviewed the index of eligible countries, Benin was not included.  When he approached the USAID mission in Benin, their response was, “we’re focused on health and education.”  Freling asserts that institutions need to take a more integrated approach to understand how education, health, agriculture and energy are intrinsically intertwined. 

“Universally, key development agencies and governments have to connect the dots.  Unless we pay attention to the 1.6 billion people now living in dark, we will never accomplish the Millennium Development Goals.  We have to change mindsets and create the political will to allow us to end energy poverty in our lifetime.  Financial institutions at all levels need to take on financing for solar, because it pays for itself.  Cars and homes are financed, so why can’t we finance solar systems for clinics, homes, schools and businesses?”

SELF’s Solar Market Garden includes a massive training and capacity program in technical design, installation, and maintenance so that villagers can “run with it” when SELF leaves.  But Freling believes that the world still needs continued research and development to drive down the cost of solar, and make it easier to install, simpler to use, and capable of creating local solar manufacturing. 

Yesterday, Monday, September 20, 2010, TEDx and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation marked the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the Millennium Development Goals, by convening a panel and webcast, led by Melinda French Gates, on the MDGs progress.  Freling had been invited to participate in a moderated response, entitled "Energy for All: Powering the Millennium Development Goals" which will address the vital role that power sources play in accomplishing all of the goals set forth by the United Nations. Because energy sources are the lifelines for civilizations, Freling argued that none of these goals can be met without making these resources available to all.

By Changemakers contributing writer Carol Erickson