A geographically and economically diverse country, Colombia experiences a high poverty rate, with around 39.3% of its 50 million inhabitants living in poverty as of 2021. Although the national poverty rate has declined from the 42.5% peak that it reached at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the country’s progress in reducing poverty has been limited to urban areas: according to the World Bank, poverty in rural Colombia in fact increased from 42.9% to 44.6% between 2020 and 2021. Difficulty in expanding the grid to reach the country’s remote rural communities has limited their access to electricity, among other resources, and exacerbated the rural-urban divide. However, renewable energy holds the potential to improve life and livelihoods in rural Colombian communities, foster equitable economic growth and reduce the country’s poverty rate as a whole.
Colombia’s Renewable Energy Potential
Colombia already embraces renewable energy, long relying on hydroelectric power for up to 77% of its energy needs, according to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Yet, changing weather patterns and climate shocks like droughts have increasingly compromised the reliability of hydroelectric power. Furthermore, the maintenance of such systems has posed a challenge.
For instance, in 2011, a school in the small rural village of San Antonio installed a micro-hydroelectric power plant in hopes of ensuring access to reliable and affordable power for students and teachers. Yet, due to insufficient servicing and installation, the plant’s efficiency fell short, providing only five hours of electricity per day. This highlights the need for proper implementation and ongoing maintenance for the sustained reliability of renewable energy sources. Moreover, diversifying energy profiles in rural Colombian communities could enhance reliability and establish long-term solutions for addressing poverty.
On the bright side, Colombia holds great potential for energy diversification, with many rural Colombian communities presenting ideal conditions for wind and solar energy generation. Since these communities are off-grid, renewable energy plants and infrastructure can be tailored to their specific strengths and needs, enabling rural Colombian communities to implement locally suitable and sustainable energy production methods, as is being done on Colombia’s Providencia Island.
Impact on Education
Implementing reliable renewable energy infrastructure could significantly help improve education in rural Colombian communities. For example, even the five-hour daily supply of electricity that the San Antonio school generated with its hydropower plant was unreliable due to ongoing work on dams in the area. Power outages frequently reduced planning time for teachers and study hours for students. Additionally, the school’s health center, a vital community resource, lacked sufficient power to refrigerate vaccines and anti-venom serum, putting the many students who boarded at the school and inhabitants of this geographically-isolated community at great risk.
Across rural Colombian communities, a lack of reliable electricity has hindered students’ learning, teachers’ teaching capabilities and schools’ ability to provide essential medical care, safe drinking water and basic sanitation services. Consequently, USAID and organizations like Tierra Grata have prioritized the implementation of reliable renewable energy resources in Colombia’s off-grid, rural regions. Already, the combined efforts from these organizations are making a significant impact on students, teachers and entire communities.
For instance, as part of a larger initiative “to develop renewable energy projects” in rural Colombian communities, USAID stepped in to help repair San Antonio’s hydropower plant, install supplementary renewable energy infrastructure and provide solar lamps for teachers’ home use. As one teacher noted, access to a solar lamp allowed him to prepare for classes at night, leading to more interactive classroom time. He also noted that, as a result of USAID’s interventions, children did not need to spend as much time gathering wood for energy, allowing them to devote more time to their studies. Overall, USAID’s interventions aim to reach more than 13,000 inhabitants across rural Colombia.
Impact on Local Economies
Implementing renewable energy production methods in rural Colombian communities could also contribute to poverty reduction by improving local economies. In addition to reducing energy consumption and costs, renewable energy can help create sustainable income opportunities, ensure environmental preservation, enhance efficiency and improve the quality of life in rural, off-grid communities.
For example, a common rice-drying practice involves laying rice out in the open, and this exposes the grains to animals who might consume it before it dries completely and is ready for sale. To address this issue, USAID is working to implement solar-powered grain dryers in communities that rely upon rice for income and sustenance. The initiative will allow for more efficient grain processing, minimizing product losses and allowing local economies to grow with increased production and sales of rice. As the rural development specialist of the USAID project summarized, this approach represents “rural development from the starting point of clean energy.”
Looking to the Future
Despite the inordinate poverty that Colombia’s rural communities face, such initiatives demonstrate how reliable access to renewable energy resources can help mitigate poverty and its many effects. Across these communities, the effective implementation and maintenance of renewable energy infrastructure could reduce energy and education-related inequality, foster growth in local economies through increased productivity and alleviate the disparities caused by geographic isolation.
– Ada Rose Wagar