Out of the Darkness and into the Light

In vulnerable pockets across the globe, women are benefiting themselves, their children, and their larger communities by learning how to harness renewable energy.

The barefoot solar engineers of Tinginaput, India (from left): Talsa Miniaka, Pulka Wadeka, Meenakshi Dewan, Bundei Hidreka

©Abbie Trayler-Smith/Panos Pictures/Department for International Development

Proponents of traditional energy often point to coal and other fossil fuels as cheap while denigrating renewables like solar as expensive and unreliable. But despite being the principal mode of electricity production for well over a century, our traditional, fossil fuel–based system has failed to provide households in large swaths of the world with enough energy to power even a single light bulb.

The global phenomenon of energy poverty stands as a powerful indictment of the traditional energy system, which relies on big, centralized power plants burning enormous inputs of coal. Amazingly and disturbingly, more than 1.2 billion people—16 percent of the planet’s population—lack any access whatsoever to electricity.

Women and girls are particularly impacted by energy poverty. In those places where women are responsible for household chores—including time-intensive responsibilities such as processing food or walking long distances to collect water and wood for cooking—they are left with little time to allocate to education, income generation, and leisure. This time burden, often referred to as “time poverty,” can be greatly alleviated by access to even small amounts of electricity, enough to run basic appliances that make domestic life more efficient and less labor-intensive. Electricity access is also linked to increased employment opportunity and other income-generating activities for women. For example, the simple ability to charge a cell phone can improve a woman’s life immeasurably by connecting her to the marketplace and allowing her to share and receive information more easily.

A single household light bulb can also make working after dark possible, unlocking additional hours in the day for productive activity. With increased available time and lighting at night to complete homework, girls can better keep up with their studies and remain in school. The United Nations Development Programme has linked rural electrification, girls’ school enrollment rates, and women’s literacy—in Brazil, for instance, girls with access to electricity were found to be nearly 60 percent more likely to complete primary education.

In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a schoolgirl is introduced to Little Sun, her first solar-powered light.

Merklit Mersha

Here in the United States, fossil fuels have utterly dominated our energy production for the past 100 years. With that monopoly, however, has come toxic air pollution and a rapidly changing climate that wreaks havoc on our communities by greatly intensifying the frequency and severity of droughts, floods, hurricanes, and other natural disasters.

In many parts of the world, families strain to access fossil fuels at even the smallest scale. More than 95 percent of those living in energy poverty reside in remote areas of sub-Saharan Africa and developing Asia. Families in these poor, largely rural communities are dependent on one fossil fuel in particular: kerosene, which they typically burn to light their lamps. Not only does burning kerosene create dangerous indoor air pollution and emit climate-warming black carbon, but for many households, spending on kerosene is one of their largest annual costs.

By contrast, renewables like solar offer a way out of the figurative and literal darkness. Recently, my NRDC colleague Kaitlin Brazill traveled to Tanzania to work with a local nonprofit called Barefoot College, which trains community members—and women, in particular—to be solar engineers. This inspiring organization teaches its enthusiastic recruits how to fabricate, install, and maintain household solar-electrification systems and portable solar-powered lanterns. These technologies are clean and cost-effective; even more important, they’re capable of reaching and serving the poor rural communities that have long been ignored or abandoned by the traditional energy system.

In India, an estimated 240 million people live without access to electricity. In the Gujarat desert, salt pan farmers bore wells and pump salt water in the remote Little Rann of Kutch, accounting for nearly 70 percent of India’s salt production. They work long, difficult days under the scorching desert sun, far from modern grid–connected electricity. They also spend up to 40 percent of their annual revenue on diesel fuel to power their water pumps. It’s here that a group known as the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) has piloted several pioneering off-grid energy projects designed to increase access to solar-powered pumps. NRDC, in partnership with SEWA, has evaluated these pilot projects and found that they have led to dramatic cost savings for participants and to a host of other socioeconomic, health, and environmental benefits.

In Tanzania, India, and elsewhere, women are being empowered as agents of change; they are at the forefront of these developments, helping to deploy renewable energy solutions and improve their lives. And not just their own lives are improving; their efforts have an enormous impact on the lives of their children and on the well-being of their larger communities. Evidence from countries as varied as Brazil, China, India, South Africa, and the United Kingdom shows that when women are empowered and control more of their household income, they invest that money in the next generation , benefiting children directly.

Fossil fuels have had more than a century to prove themselves the best way to provide us with energy. Back when they were our only means of generating electricity, they may have had a winning argument. But that argument is looking weaker and weaker. Not only is our fossil fuel–based system polluting the planet and causing it to warm, but it’s woefully insufficient to the task of providing electricity to everyone who needs it, leaving more than a billion people without power.

Thankfully, a better way is emerging—one that’s clean, affordable, and accessible to groups that have been disenfranchised for too long. The women of rural Tanzania and the Gujarat desert are showing the world what the future of energy production looks like in their communities. In our own communities, that transition may look different in terms of size and scale, but it’s no less overdue. It’s up to us to decide how quickly we make it.

Kaitlin Brazill contributed to this post.

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Sasha Stashwick

Senior Advocate, Energy & Transportation and Food & Agriculture programs

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