Information and stories on Energy and Electricity

Renewable Energy in Zambia
Zambia has enjoyed significant economic growth in the past few decades. With prosperity, its demand for electricity has increased. However, the current energy supply has struggled to meet this demand. Zambia relies on hydroelectric power for more than 85% of its electricity, and frequent droughts have prevented these plants from operating at full capacity. Further, the average nationwide access to electricity is 30%. Worse yet, only 5% of the rural population has electricity access. The Zambian government has set a target of 50% electricity access across the nation by 2030. As electricity demands continue to grow, the expansion of renewable energy in Zambia is critical for the country’s social and economic development.

Capacity Building for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Project

To aid in the sustainable development of Zambia’s energy resources, renewable energy projects are underway. One such initiative is the European Union (EU)-funded Capacity Building for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency project. The project is a collaboration between the EU and the Zambian government to provide technical assistance to the Rural Electrification Authority (REA) of Zambia. The project’s assistance will help fund the REA’s development of energy infrastructure. The project began in 2017 and should have reached completion in 2021.

Specifically, the Capacity Building for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency project is striving to establish a collection of solar-powered mini-grids to provide electricity to rural Zambian communities. Mini-grids are small electricity generators interconnected to an energy distribution network. These are useful in Zambia because they do not require the construction of long stretches of electrical lines. They will provide electricity to an estimated 10,000 people living in rural communities in Zambia.

Shiwang’andu Small Hydropower Plant

Another initiative to develop renewable energy in Zambia is the Renewable Energy for Sustainable Development in Zambia project. Created by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization and the United Nations Environmental Programme, this initiative seeks to bring readily available and local renewable energy sources. One of the initiative’s projects is the construction of the Shiwang’andu Small Hydropower Plant, which the Zambian government commissioned in 2012. The Shiwang’andu plant supplies a solar mini-grid that will provide electricity to more than 25,000 people in the Mpanta region.

Hydropower plants generate power using the energy that the flow of water creates. This energy generation requires the water to flow across an elevation difference, from a higher point to a lower point. Usually, dams are built in running bodies of water, such as rivers, to construct this elevation difference.

Because constructing hydropower plants involves building dams in bodies of water, the developers of the Shiwang’andu plant had to consider the plant’s impact on wildlife. They installed a second dam during construction to divert water, which maintained normal downstream water flow. They also included a 1.5-meter gate within the dam to help fish, crabs, shrimp and other migrating animals.

Renewable Energy Key to Expand Sustainable Access to Electricity

As Zambia continues to see economic growth, and as it aims to provide electricity access to a greater percentage of its population, its energy demands will continue to increase. The development of renewable energy in Zambia is an efficient and eco-friendly way to expand the country’s energy resources.  It should provide sustainable access to electricity for more Zambians in the years to come.

– Aimée Eicher
Photo: Flickr

Renewable Energy in Portugal
Portugal is taking advantage of its Atlantic coast by investing in offshore wind farms. These developments occur in an effort to reverse the negative economic effects of COVID-19 and downsize energy poverty in the country. The expansion of renewable energy in Portugal has the potential to reduce the country’s expensive dependency on imports while simultaneously creating new local jobs and domestic industries.

The Issue of Energy Poverty

The United Nations defines energy poverty as a lack of “access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy.” Compared to other countries in the European Union, Portugal endures some of the highest rates of energy poverty, with nearly 20% of the country’s population reporting that they were unable to properly heat and cool their homes in 2018. Compared to the E.U.’s average of 6.9%, Portugal has a notably high rate. Energy-inefficient homes result in extremely high energy bills for citizens when temperatures fluctuate, especially in the winter. Recent studies show that 75% of the buildings in Portugal fail to meet the required guidelines for heating. This is an issue that has devastating impacts on the overall health of residents.

The Portuguese government does provide discounts on gas and electricity for households that meet certain socioeconomic criteria, and in 2020, nearly 753,000 households in Portugal received the electricity social tariff. Additionally, approximately 35,000 received the natural gas social tariff. However, the development of renewable energy and the subsequent reduction of overall energy costs could eliminate the need for these social tariffs altogether.

The Economic Effects of COVID-19

Like many countries, Portugal’s economy has faced huge setbacks as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Its GDP decreased by 8.4% in 2020, “the largest annual decline since 1936.” In order to combat this decline, the country is making strides to expand its renewable energy sector.

The hope is that it can transition from the expensive task of importing fossil fuels to finding innovative ways to generate its own clean energy. Renewable energy in Portugal has expanded greatly in recent years, providing more than 50% of the country’s electricity needs in 2019, with hopes to reach 80% by 2030.

Innovations in Wind Energy

One area of renewable energy in which Portugal has become a leading European country is the development of wind energy. In 2019, Portugal’s Atlantic coast became home to the second floating wind farm in Europe, an alternative to onshore turbines which can disrupt tourism and generate noise complaints. Previously, offshore wind farms were limited to shallow waters, preventing countries like Portugal from taking advantage of the industry due to their deep Atlantic waters.

However, incredible innovation by the Windfloat Atlantic Project produced three wind turbines located 20 km offshore from the port city Viana Do Castelo, minimizing disruption to the local fishing industry and taking advantage of more powerful winds and deep water storms. These three turbines alone possess an installed capacity of 25 megawatts. This is “roughly equivalent to the energy consumed by 60,000 homes in one year.” The cutting-edge feat of the Windfloat Atlantic Project has captured the attention of many other coastal countries who hope to develop similar technology and presents great potential for a resurgence in Portugal’s economy.

Renewable Energy and Economic Growth

COVID-19 caused unemployment in Portugal to skyrocket by 36.2% between May 2019 and May 2020. Throughout the pandemic, workers without degrees in higher education were most affected, with an average increase in registered unemployment of 38.3% between the same dates. However, the expansion of offshore wind energy is creating new job opportunities for this demographic which do not require higher education.

Wind energy in Portugal currently employs approximately 22,000 people, and the Windfloat Atlantic Project, which Ocean Winds implemented in 2011, has created 1,500 jobs for local citizens. Increased dependence on renewable energy in Portugal will also decrease electricity bills for residents and become a pivotal agent in combating energy poverty. Many expect that the pioneer project will grow in the coming years. Portugal is in the perfect position to capitalize on that growth, improving the lives of its citizens and revitalizing its economy in an earth-friendly way.

Like many countries, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic were detrimental to Portugal’s economy. However, the success of the WindFloat Atlantic project has resulted in more job opportunities for those who became unemployed during the pandemic, a decreased dependence on energy imports and the downsizing of energy poverty due to the more affordable prices that renewable energy sources are able to offer. The cutting-edge technology of Portugal’s offshore wind farm has sparked excitement in many other European nations who hope to develop similar projects along their coastlines. As a new leader in the development of renewable wind energy, Portugal will continue to innovate and pave the way for cleaner, more affordable energy for all.

– Hannah Gage
Photo: Unsplash

EU Energy Poverty
Rising prices for gas and electricity have prompted the EU to appeal to its member countries to subsidize customers and businesses as it deals with the negative impact of its decisions regarding climate. Seeking to deter energy poverty, EU Energy Commissioner Kadri Simon spoke of measures that target select customers at most significant risk of energy poverty with direct payments, cutting energy taxes and shifting energy taxes to general taxation. Simon said to the EU lawmakers that mitigating the social consequences and protecting households most at risk is of 
“immediate priority.” He also suggested that businesses engage in longer-term power purchase agreements while not ruling out the possibility for relief through state aid. Here is some information about energy poverty in Europe as well as programs to alleviate energy poverty.

Energy Poverty in Europe

Energy poverty is prevalent across Europe, where anywhere between 50 and 125 million people cannot afford proper indoor heat, according to a 2009 publication by the EU. Member states have acknowledged the gravity of the issue and its ramifications in health issues and social isolation. Energy poverty marks low household income, high energy costs and inefficient energy houses, where an increase in revenue, management of energy costs and more energy-efficient infrastructure are solutions. Energy poverty affects Sub-Saharan Africa significantly, particularly in the medical sector, with limited time for health care activities and thus increasing risk for patients. Europe is not immune to these issues and should not overlook them, even if the potential scale is not as significant.

EU Plans Backfire and Exacerbates

According to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, behind the rising energy prices afflicting Europe today are the EU’s “Green Deal” policies. President Vladimir Putin of Russia shares the same opinion. The Green Deal initiative aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030 compared to levels seen in 1990, on the way of eliminating emissions by 2050. One of its strategies involved discouraging the usage of long-term purchase agreements for gas, coal and nuclear energy in favor of short-term pricing to deter its use. LTPAs are not sensitive to market prices and are therefore a more cost-effective option than purchasing gas if one is doing it for the long run. This discouragement has left EU member countries scrambling for alternative gas options amid the energy shortage, exacerbating the already low levels of energy poverty.

Programs to Alleviate Energy Poverty

Various projects have developed across Europe with the common aim of ending energy poverty. Horizon 2020 Energy Efficiency voiced themselves in 2018 and granted around 6 million euros to three projects responding to energy poverty: STEP (Solutions to Tackle Energy Poverty), EmpowerMed and Social Watt. STEP, for example, has created a model that includes a call to organizations and consumer groups that specialize in issues affecting those who are energy-poor. It wants to educate energy-poor consumers in nine European countries they have identified as the most energy-poor and share their methods and policies with other EU countries.

STEP

In Lithuania, for example, the Alliance of Lithuanian Consumer Organizations partnered with STEP following inquiries by ALCO into organizations that revealed concerns by consumers regarding energy poverty issues. The Association of Social Workers, an amalgamation of social workers across many organizations, which also happens to be ALCO’s principal partner, received an introduction to the STEP project. This led to several social workers’ interest in receiving the required training to become efficient energy advisors.

EmpowerMed

EmpowerMed, a slightly more nuanced project than STEP, is also addressing energy poverty in Mediterranean coastal areas with a focus on women, gender and health. Its name has an association with numerous publications on energy poverty training, policy and reports. This is part of a constitution of other efforts such as energy workshops, advocacy campaigns that gender-neutral stress policies and energy visits to select households.

Social Watt

Social Watt tasks itself with providing parties exhorted under Article 7 of the Energy Efficiency Directive in Europe to engage with strategies to alleviate energy poverty. Integral and endemic to the function of Social Watts are its features. The Analyzer feature of Social Watts is a downloadable tool that facilitates consumer data observation to identify risk houses. The Plan function identifies optimal solutions that accommodate any nuances in the energy conservation dynamic. The Check tool serves as a verification function to ensure the endeavors of Social Watts are without errors or negative ramifications. 

The ramifications of energy poverty constitute adverse health effects, educational delay, medical impedance and economic disruption. While COVID-19’s economic consequences have exacerbated Europe’s energy poverty, programs to alleviate energy poverty have been able to offer hope to the most vulnerable and, at a minimum, prevent social unrest.

– Mohamed Makalou
Photo: PublicDomainPictures

Renewable Energy in Vietnam
On February 22, 2021, Vietnam released the national power development plan (PDP 8) for the 2021-2030 draft for public comment. This plan highlighted the commitment of Vietnam in the transition away from fossil fuels and to renewable energy. Until 2020, Vietnam’s effort to continuously divest its energy sources and focus on renewable energy projects has put it in a good position to become Asia’s next clean energy powerhouse. This article will provide an understanding of renewable energy in Vietnam as well as lessons for other countries transitioning away from fossil fuels.

Vietnam’s Economic Growth and Renewable Energy Investments

Researchers and experts have pointed out that one of the critical factors in Vietnam’s explosive renewable energy growth is its economic growth. According to the Asian Development Bank, the country has seen its economy grow by 6% annually since 2014, and 7% since 2018. Coupled with the country’s population increase, Vietnam’s swift economic growth drives up energy consumption at an extraordinary rate. Consumption of electricity has increased by more than 11% a year, growing faster than the GDP of Vietnam. According to the International Energy Agency report, Vietnam is Southeast Asia’s second-largest electricity consumer. The statistics affirm that if Vietnam wants to continue growing its economy and attracting foreign investors, it needs to move away from fossil fuels and invest in renewable energy.

Vietnam’s Green Energy Potential

Another important reason why Vietnam has gradually moved away from fossil fuels is its green energy potential capacity. A report from the World Bank pointed out that Vietnam has one of the highest numbers of installed solar panels in Southeast Asia. Recently, renewable energy in Vietnam has seen massive solar outputs of electricity and energy, with the country producing 16,500 MW at the end of 2020. According to the statistics from a report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), Vietnam is among the top 10 countries with the highest capacity of solar energy panels as of 2020. Vietnam has an estimated 311 GWs of wind energy, one of the best resources in the region. Accompanied by the government’s commitment to investing in renewable energy, Vietnam is in a strong position to become a leader in the world in renewable energy development and innovative energy solutions.

The Need for Green Energy Projects

The second most important element of Vietnam’s recent renewable growth is its public commitment. A by-product of Vietnam’s economic boom was its massive carbon footprint and environmental pollution. Recent severe air and water pollution incidents in major cities have created public pressure that opposes any new development of coal power plants. Vietnamese people living in urban areas have been wearing their protective facemasks long before the COVID-19 pandemic; however, the increasing number of cars and motorbikes on public streets has created a hazardous environment.

Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi have seen pollution levels four times higher than what the World Health Organization (WHO) considers acceptable. Recent Vietnamese governmental reports said that local governments refuse new power projects because of their environmental implications. As a result, urban planners and the Vietnamese government are reshaping their energy market to incorporate more solar and wind energy in order to reduce the country’s reliance on fossil fuels. Experts believe that Vietnam can become a study case for renewable energy financiers and investors, thanks to its vast solar and wind energy potential.

Vietnam’s Accomplishments in Renewable Energy

From the beginning of 2014 through 2015, the country only produced 4 MW of installed solar energy for power generation. Renewable energy in Vietnam is only 0.32% of the total electricity that the country generates. Yet, as the statistics have pointed out, in just over five years, Vietnam has produced over 7.4 GW of rooftop solar power. Its renewable energy share boasts 10% of the country’s total electricity generated.

Researchers have estimated that Vietnam would produce more than 16.5 GW of solar energy, and 11.8 GW of wind energy. The government has already prepared for more onshore and offshore wind projects by 2025, which should produce 12 GW of energy capacity. These projects include wind farms in Binh Thuan and Ninh Thuan, which projections have determined will produce about 170 million kilowatt-hours of green energy per year, along with Bac Lieu offshore wind projects. Along with these projects, the government’s effort and policies show precisely why Vietnam is on track to become Asia’s next renewable energy powerhouse.

The Impact of Vietnam’s Growth in Renewable Energy

Vietnam’s recent accomplishments in renewable energy have contributed to combating extreme poverty both nationally and globally. With the help of a booming green energy market, the country’s yearly poverty rate has been declining gradually. Vietnam has gone from a country with a rural electrification rate of 2.5%to being able to connect millions of rural families to the national grid, and the country is on track to provide more green energy to rural areas. According to a report from the Asian Development Bank, these transitions will experience enhancement, thanks to renewable energy. In urban areas, renewable energy can help combat economic inequalities by providing a cleaner environment and stable energy prices. As the country has a commitment to transforming its energy, its economy will likely benefit and reduce extreme poverty.

These factors have contributed to the fast and efficient transformation of renewable energy in Vietnam. From a country that heavily relied on fossil fuels, Vietnam has become one of the leading countries in green energy. This transition helps the country combat weather changes while also uplifting the nation’s economy and providing solutions for eradicating poverty.

– Tri Truong
Photo: Flickr

Investing in Renewable Energy in AfricaIn sub-Saharan Africa, more than 600 million people do not have access to electricity in their homes. This figure equates to about half the population of the continent. In addition, the sub-Saharan African population makes up around three-quarters of the global population living without electricity. Reliable energy access is one of the most effective methods to bring people out of poverty. This is due to its status as a prerequisite for countless utilities and as a gateway to the online world. For these reasons, many companies and organizations are investing in renewable energy in Africa, especially renewable forms of energy such as solar and wind power.

How COVID-19 Impacts Electricity Access

The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted energy access in Africa. For several years prior to the pandemic, the number of people with access to electricity was steadily increasing, but in 2020, progress was lost as 13 million more people had no access to electricity in Africa. As many countries struggle to recover from the impacts of COVID-19, investing in renewable energy in Africa is more critical than ever.

Fortunately, the world has not given up on investing in renewable energy in Africa during the pandemic. In 2020, direct foreign investment in Africa fell by around 16% overall, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. This percentage of reduction was even higher in specific regions such as North Africa. However, “international project finance deals” in the renewable energy sector rose by 28% from a little more than $9 billion in 2019 to $11 billion in 2020.

Developing Efficient Energy Systems in Africa

One notable organization investing in renewable energy in Africa is the World Bank Group (WBG), which has invested around $2.3 billion in the West Africa Power Pool (WAPP) over the course of roughly 10 years. The project aims to provide “universal access to electricity” in 15 specific West African countries by 2030. Some of its methods include installing power grids and developing battery-energy storage technologies that will maximize energy efficiency and renewability.

As recently as June 10, 2021, the WBG provided $465 million to start the Regional Electricity Access and Battery-Energy Storage Technologies Project. This project will refine policies surrounding these technologies while also greatly expanding them. It will also help the rural and impoverished Sahel region between the Sahara Desert and the southern savannah.

Shoprite’s Solar Power Initiative

Domestic companies are also investing in renewable energy in Africa. South African retail chain, Shoprite, aims to promote solar power by installing miniature grids across South Africa to provide widespread access to electricity. The company aims for 25% of South African electricity to come from renewable sources in the foreseeable future. This is certainly feasible given that many countries generate much more solar power than South Africa despite being less sunny. Due to the sustainability and affordability of solar power as a renewable energy source, investing in solar power will likely save significant amounts of money in the long run.

Development of renewable energy in Africa is growing and it may help African nations recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, the sustainability of renewable energy may eventually bestow greater economic security to Africa.

Sawyer Lachance
Photo: Flickr

Geothermal energy in KenyaAccess to electricity in Kenya has steadily improved over the last decade and a substantial part of this progress is due to the country’s impressive geothermal power plants, the first of which formed in 1981. By prioritizing ways to expand electricity access and by harnessing the potential of geothermal power in Kenya, the government plans to achieve 100% access to electricity for its population by 2022.

Geothermal Power in Kenya

The geothermal energy in Kenya comes from Africa’s Great Rift Valley, a natural geological phenomenon created by tectonic plates, where the Earth’s mantle of molten rock comes closer to the surface. Geothermal energy plants produce electricity by harnessing this heat and creating steam to power turbines. Approximately 38% of Kenya’s electricity now comes from geothermal power rather than other non-renewable sources such as coal or natural gas.

Kenya’s primary geothermal power plants are contained in the Olkaria Geothermal Project, which has the potential to produce 791.5 megawatts of total energy, accounting for 27% of all energy in Kenya. The project sources its experts and employees locally, producing jobs and encouraging higher education. Renewable energy in Kenya is an integral part of helping the country maintain its pace as one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa.

How Geothermal Power Can Help Poverty

Despite its substantial progress, Kenya still struggles with poverty and access to electricity is still unavailable for a quarter of the population. An estimated 15.9 million people were living in poverty in 2020, which equates to about a third of all Kenyans. Rural areas have the highest concentration of multidimensional poverty and nearly half of those living in multidimensional poverty are children. Access to power, which often correlates with poverty, can help efforts to reduce poverty and improve access to education and healthcare in underserved areas. The reliable nature of geothermal power can also reduce the likelihood of blackouts and make electricity more dependable.

Geothermal energy also produces significantly fewer carbon emissions than traditional fossil fuels, “just 2.7% as much as burning coal or 5% as much as natural gas.” The reliable nature of geothermal energy, and its lack of continuing fuel costs, also keeps its costs of operation and maintenance low and predictable. After the initial costs of discovery and development of a geothermal power plant, it remains cost-efficient and it can produce energy at a stable and affordable price.

Another advantage of this type of renewable energy in Kenya is its minimal use of land. The Olkaria Geothermal Project, which is located in the Hell’s Gate National Park, takes up less space than other sources that produce the same amount of energy. This allows more of the surrounding natural landscapes and ecosystems to thrive without interruption.

Increasing Access to Energy

The Kenyan government outlined a goal to provide universal access to electricity by 2022. The Kenya National Electrification Strategy, which was created in 2018, incorporates multiple strategies to expand access to rural areas and strengthen existing power infrastructure. A focus on renewable energy will also help Kenya meet its goal to reduce its carbon emissions by 30% by 2030 while continuing to develop. Through partnerships with the World Bank and other institutions, the government is working to keep electricity affordable, clean and reliable. Kenya now has the highest rate of electricity access in East Africa and it continues to improve dramatically. With further investment and a focus on geothermal and renewable energy, Kenya can continue its pace and develop sustainably.

Nicole Ronchetti
Photo: Flickr

Self-sufficient Energy Production in OdanthuraiOdanthurai, a small village in Tamil Nadu, India, is the first in its region to incorporate wind, solar and biogas energy into its community. India is running out of the resources normally used to receive electricity. Since imports are expensive, using solar energy will boost the economy in the long term. Using solar energy will also help many villages, such as Odanthurai, to gain access to clean electricity. Self-sufficient energy production in Odanthurai will help many villagers gain access to clean electricity and, as a result, alleviate poverty.

Why Odanthurai Converted to Self Sufficiency Energy

When farmer Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam was elected council president of Odanthurai, he became invested in the development of the community and village as a whole. Shanmugam fought for access to cleaner water, as well as better sanitation and roads. He then began realizing that implementing these additions, such as the installations of street lights, drinking water plants and filtering points, was increasing the village’s electricity bills. In an India Climate Dialogue interview, Shanmugam admitted that “the electricity bill was only INR 2,000 (USD $30) when I joined, and it increased to INR 150,000 (USD $2,220) in just two years.”

Shanmugam realized that change was necessary in order to sustain Odanthurai without causing extensive electricity bills. In the long run, clean energy would allow for a reduction in power bills. Electricity bills were making up 60% of the council’s expenses. This was a hindrance that prevented them from implementing any other developmental changes. Shanmugam began looking into alternative means of energy.

Implementing Clean Energy in Odanthurai

The first change Shanmugam made in Odanthurai was to replace the electricity-run water pump with a biomass gasifier. The resulting cost showed a reduction from the previous cost by almost 70%. This was a significant cutback from the state of the village’s electricity beforehand. Additionally, Shanmugam established two solar lights in Odanthurai. This was a step toward renewable energy that saved the village a total of 5000 INR.

The success of biogas and solar energy bolstered interest in exploring alternatives for electricity. Eventually, the council bought a windmill. The resulting energy that the windmill created was enough to sell to the state as well as pay off the local villages’ bank loans. Shanmugam’s statement on the self-sufficient energy production that he helped to effectuate was simply, “[The village councils] in India should take steps to address development on their own. If this can be done in Odanthurai, it can be done anywhere in India.”

Clean Energy’s Role in Poverty Reduction

While clean energy such as biogas, solar and wind energy is important for the environment, it also has a strong link to poverty reduction. The cost of installing electricity in the village was infringing on their budget for developmental changes. Using clean energy, which reduces power bills, can help alleviate poverty by allowing impoverished communities to focus on other necessary improvements such as hygiene and education.

According to a 2015 report by Synapse Energy, harnessing renewable energy allowed the state of California to save more than $15 million in the first six months. This can be similarly applied to other regions in the world, as the long-term costs are proven to significantly decline over time. As a result, villages can focus on areas that need further development without spending a majority of their budget on electricity bills.

Organizations Providing Assistance

While Shanmugam and the village council were able to implement self-sufficient energy production in Odanthurai, other activists and organizations are also taking action toward advocating for clean energy. Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) is a non-governmental organization that provides solar energy to underprivileged regions around the world. SELF points out that 14% of the global population lacks energy access, which is a whopping 0.9 billion people. Since 1996, SELF has conducted its projects in about 25 countries around the world. Some of their notable projects include providing excess energy from solar vaccine refrigerators to power medical equipment. It also has been improving online learning in South America and powering telemedicine in the Amazon rainforest.

Self-sufficient energy production in Odanthurai acts as a powerful example to the rest of the world. Clean energy has the power to change the world and alleviate poverty. It is time for other communities and countries to look toward self-sufficient energy options and see how they can improve the lives of their people.

– Esha Kelkar
Photo: Unsplash

solar-powered iron
India possesses the second-highest worldwide population with 1.2 billion people. Poverty in rural areas leaves local Indians unable to find job security. They instead must resort to street vending. Approximately 10 million street vendors exist in India, with many representing the laundry and textile industries. In particular, impoverished Indian families tend to choose the path of ironing clothes, a lucrative business considering the needs of everyday workers. However, there is one downside of the traditional method of ironing clothes in India: charcoal powers the irons. Luckily, a 14-year-old girl named Vinisha Umashankar recognized this energy source’s impact on the environment and innovated a solar-powered iron to create a renewable alternative to coal in India.

The Importance of Street Vending in India

Two kinds of retail industries exist: organized and unorganized retail. The latter represents the main retail industry in India. Unorganized retailers lead a solid 97% of businesses in the country, including local stores, family-run shops and street vendors. The sector of unorganized retail is the second-largest source of employment in India following agriculture. This demonstrates how much these workers crucially rely on their jobs for financial security. Those who have education but are jobless, or who suffer from poverty, benefit from the consumer familiarity and low-cost structure of the unorganized retail sector. Additionally, Indian small-store retailing generates self-employment relatively easily and does not require much investment in labor, land or capital.

India’s Pollution Problem with Charcoal

Early Indian society used a coal-fuelled iron box to smooth out clothing. Street vendors who iron clothes rely heavily on coal to power their equipment. There are some 10 million ironing carts in India and each cart uses more than 11 pounds of charcoal daily.  Given the hot and dry summers in India, cotton clothing requires washing and ironing on a daily basis. The high demand for ironing is escalating the use of coal and intensifying the smog issue in India.

The monsoon season from June to September poses an additional threat to the quality of the environment. Due to heavy rains, the coal becomes damp, causing an increase in the total weight bought by vendors. The moisture of the water, however, also reduces the warmth the charcoal produces when burned. Also, in the winter, as the price of coal naturally rises, suppliers purposefully add additional water to extend their product. Therefore, intense rain means increased spending on coal for the irons, further intensifying the cycle of Indian poverty.

Coal supplies approximately 72% of India’s electrical needs. The reliance on coal energy presents challenges regarding rising smog levels and respiratory conditions in cities. Coal power plants emit toxic gases and particulate matter that can penetrate human lungs. A reaction between sunlight and the nitrogen oxides that coal-powered plants release causes smog. The more people burn coal, the more smog that will emerge. However, coal is still a cheaper alternative to other, cleaner, forms of energy in India. Most people do not have the means to finance renewable energy.

Vinisha Umashankar’s Solar-Powered Iron

Vinisha Umashankar, an Indian teen with great concerns for the Indian air, developed an alternative to coal-powered irons. She suggested that they use solar-powered irons to harness the energy in the sun. This innovation promises to improve the poverty associated with the ironing industry as well as the environmental issues it causes. India receives enough sunlight to produce solar power 3,000 times more than its total current energy consumption. Her innovation to eliminate the use of charcoal in the ironing industry received the Children’s Climate Prize, comprising 100,000 Swedish krona ($11600) to further aid the project.

Umashankar also developed a solar-powered street cart. Similar to the solar-powered iron, Umashankar designed the model with functionality and cost-efficiency in mind. Individuals can use the cart effectively after only 15 minutes of tutorials. The solar-powered batteries charge in under five hours and last for six hours.

Overall, the goal of the solar-powered iron and cart is to improve the economic and health outcomes of the street vendors working in the ironing industries. In the long run, with further innovation, Umashankar intends to develop a cart prototype with solar panels and batteries that could last up to eight years. This ambitious plan favors sustainability for two parties: vendors and the environment.

Looking Ahead

With innovations like Umashankar’s solar-powered iron, India shows promise for improved environmental conditions and reduced poverty rates. Although expensive, new technologies are constantly emerging and individuals as young as 14 years old are working to prioritize cost-efficiency and sustainability. Given the fact that street vending is a widespread market in India, a solar-powered iron has the potential to transform the harmful coal-sourced iron industry into one that is profitable and environmentally conscious.

– Sarah Frances
Photo: Unsplash

Renewable Energy in Mexico
Renewable energy in Mexico is facing a crisis. On December 28, 2020, Mexico saw a two-hour power outage that affected 10.3 million people. Mexico’s National Center for Energy Control (CENACE) reported that the blackouts were due to an imbalance in the National Interconnected System (SIN).

SIN is Mexico’s state-owned power grid. During the blackouts, Mexico experienced a loss of 7,500 megawatts due to complications with Mexico’s fossil fuel power plants. CENACE blames the blackouts on renewable energy, although renewable energy currently accounts for only 28% of SIN’s power supply.

Following the blackouts, CENACE sought to consolidate the SIN system. Representatives from the CFE (Federal Electricity Commission) said the current SIN grid system does not have the mechanical inertia and capacity to support renewable energy sources. CFE Communication Director Luis Bravo stated that renewable energy damages “the reliability of the national system” and that CENACE will exclude renewable energy from the SIN. This will not only set back Mexico’s environmental progress, but it will also drive up electricity costs for families and businesses that the pandemic has already left struggling.

Higher Electricity Costs and Reduced Investment

Expensive electricity has long been a hindrance to Mexican households and businesses. In 2020, the state-owned electric company’s generation costs were over three times the generation costs of private renewable energy businesses. In February 2021, when the company cut power to two Oaxaca communities where many residents had unpaid electricity bills, local residents traveled to the state’s CFE headquarters to protest the company’s unreasonably high rates.

Nevertheless, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is fighting against cheaper renewable energy in Mexico in favor of government-owned fossil fuel plants. On February 2, 2021, he proposed a bill that mandates that SIN plants be the first source of statewide power. The bill also requires that the government approve all renewable energy usage.

Not only are many Mexican businesses voicing opposition, but many foreign companies, like Iberdrola, a huge Spanish producer of wind power, have stopped investing in Mexican energy projects. In June 2020, Iberdrola suspended a $1.2 billion project to create a power plant in Tuxpan that would have been an economic boon to the area. Reduced usage of renewable energy in Mexico could also damage the country’s standing in international arrangements, such as trade agreements or the Paris Climate Accord.

Renewable Energy Opportunities

Despite what their president claims, renewable energy in Mexico is affordable. While wind energy is growing within Mexico through international means, solar panels are helping domestically in rural areas.

Many businesses are starting to use solar energy. One region, in particular, Querétaro, is wholeheartedly embracing the economic benefits of renewable energy. The Federation of Producers of Corn Flour and Tortillas said solar cells currently power more than 40% of the state’s 389 tortilla shops. This organization helps shop owners take out low-interest government loans, allowing businesses to get off the SIN grid. Federation president Arthur Campos Novoa said, “Over three years, they have to pay [monthly] for the [solar panels], but after that, it will be a benefit to the business.” Businesses that receive the loans save 20,000 pesos every two months. The goal is to get 100% of Querétaro’s tortilla shops off the SIN grid.

Iluméxico

Iluméxico is another company using renewable energy to benefit everyday citizens. Its mission as a social enterprise is to empower rural communities that are living in energy poverty. Iluméxico specializes in installing small solar panels in areas with poor infrastructure. The company designs and distributes solar panels, creates affordable energy access plans and trains people in the solar panel trade. Iluméxico is Mexico’s largest provider of off-grid solar energy. It has installed nearly 25,000 systems and should reach 1 million people by 2025.

For example, Iluméxico helped Nereo Cruz of Chichicuastla, Veracruz along with his wife and four children out of energy poverty. Cruz and his family used to have to stop most activities at sunset because of their lack of electricity, but with a microloan from Iluméxico, Nereo purchased a solar home system that he slowly paid off using savings and income.

Renewable energy in Mexico is revealing political divisions. However, those fighting for a greener and more affordable future are persevering through the current crisis to continue alleviating energy poverty.

– Matthew Martinez
Photo: Flickr

Brightlife Brings Financial Inclusion
BrightLife is a program from FINCA, the microfinance organization. The program is a Uganda-based, social enterprise that pairs access to finance with access to energy. This allows for connections to financial inclusion for the “unbanked.” BrightLife brings financial inclusion to Ugandans and clean energy products to poor and impoverished areas through multiple initiatives and products. BrightLife ensures financial inclusion and wellbeing for those areas. People pay for their BrightLife products with a system called PAYGO. This allows people to pay for only the electricity they use as they go. This then allows BrightLife to build credit profiles for “unbanked” people and connect them with FINCA.

The Situation in Uganda

There are currently 1 billion people in the world living without electricity and 73% of the Ugandan population does not have access to electricity. People living without electricity must often use insufficient fuels to heat, light and energize their homes. This can then lead to indoor air pollution causing premature death. These energy uses are also dangerous in homes since they can cause fires.

Lack of energy in any area can cause a cycle of poverty since so many people cannot access the most basic necessities. This is why BrightLife brings financial inclusion to Ugandans. As FINCA states, the program “provides last-mile distribution and end-user financing for products that create healthier and safer homes, increase productivity, reduce household expenses and provide additional income-generating opportunities.”

BrightLife’s Impact

To date, BrightLife has impacted over 202,000 lives with clean energy. By providing education, distribution, financing and after-sale support, BrightLife is able to bring clean energy products like home appliances to people who cannot acquire them. However, access to energy is just the first step in FINCA’s BrightLife enterprise.

BrightLife announced a new product called “Prosper” in March 2019 to further its impact on the Ugandan people. Prosper is an initiative that helps Ugandans access the clean energy that BrightLife provides. Then, Prosper helps people transition from unbanked to FINCA Uganda where they can access savings and credit opportunities, increasing their financial inclusion.

A Better Tomorrow with BrightLife

Now, BrightLife is working to better understand the solar energy needs of their clients and is positioning itself to serve communities more efficiently. Through COVID-19, it has been able to grant access to solar lanterns and give students the ability to still get the education they need from home. Since BrightLife brings financial inclusion to Ugandans, it also won the Smart Communities Coalition Innovation Fund grant. As USAID reported, this grant will allow for the development of “a solar-powered hatchery” and small-scale solar systems used for poultry farming in Kiryandongo, Uganda.

– Grace Aprahamian
Photo: Flickr