by Dexter Gauntlett
Gigawatts of grid-connected clean energy capacity are being brought online every year, which is good news for meeting new electricity demand from the billions of people now living in and around cities. But there are still roughly two billion people without access to electricity and easy access to potable water because they live in remote areas (often most at risk for the effects of climate change) for whom access to decentralized renewable energy will have the greatest impact on improving lives and livelihoods. Decentralized renewable also makes the most economic sense.
Integrating renewable energy into international development projects is exciting, difficult and time consuming – but that has not reduced the interest from the private and non-profit sectors and the engineers, students, and clean-energy professionals that are anxious to be involved in these kinds of projects. As someone who has worked at the nexus of clean energy and international development for eight years, I wanted to share three trends that I see in the field and one key piece of advice that should aid your company, organization or job search in this innovative sector:
1. Small-scale renewable energy systems are being deployed everywhere. By small scale, I am referring to village-level systems providing electricity or potable water for a few hundred people in a community. Even some of the most remote villages in Nepal, Afghanistan, Ecuador, Uganda, Philippines, Tanzania and literally over 100 other countries have some sort of renewable-energy activity at the village level. Technologies range from 100-watt solar home systems (enough to power two CFLs and radio and cell phone charging) to 15-kilowatt micro-hydro systems for small businesses and refrigeration, to 2-kilowatt solar water pumping and even 100-watt small wind systems. Why? The cost has come down for these technologies so considerably that they are more economical than the diesel generators that these renewable, non-polluting sources replace. And in some cases, the renewable technologies are providing power to for the first time.
2. We have entered the era of “The Big Idea.” The big donors — U.S. Agency for International Development, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, United Nations agencies and other organizations — increasingly only want to see proposals that can reach a minimum of 1 million people in a few years. Furthermore, donors are pushing aid agencies toward market-based approaches that leverage micro-credit and public-private partnerships. It makes perfect sense to want to stretch donor dollars as far as possible and to empower communities so they are not dependent of foreign aid dollars. There has been considerable success on this front (see SELCO, Grameen Shakti) but this inevitably leads to a focus on widgets and financing mechanisms instead of the community development component that is often the most important to a project’s long-term sustainability. Too much emphasis on the “innovation is the solution” approach also overlooks the current and historical injustices faced by many of these communities, which is often a leading contributor to their impoverished status.
3. NGOs are professional service organizations. Without actually having worked for an international NGO, or seeing a project yourself, it’s hard to get a sense of what ‘aid workers’ actually do on a daily basis. For the most part, these people are highly educated, committed and increasingly come from the private sector. That’s why manufacturers like SunPower and SolarWorld don’t hesitate to partner with NGOs to implement these kinds of projects. Paired with increasing demands for transparency and accountability on behalf of donors — you have some really innovative organizations that are creating more value per dollar than many would expect. A relatively small amount — $500 for example — goes a very long way when it comes to providing people with access to potable water or electricity in their homes.
The bottom line for those interested in this field: In my opinion, in order to break into international development or get a project off the ground, it’s increasingly about what resources, ideas, and funding you can bring to the table. If you already work in clean energy, can you get your company to sponsor a project with you as the project lead? What scholarship opportunities exist at your university? This partnership or joint-venture approach is potentially more rewarding as well. In the short term, it gives you the opportunity to play a more significant role in the project instead of an entry-level position you apply for online, or a token volunteer job. In the long term, this opens the door to gainful employment with that organization, should the opportunity arise in the future – or if you are the one to make it happen, because there is funding out there. This is both a challenge and an opportunity – but one that I have seen many creative and dynamic people rise to for years.
Dexter works at Green Empowerment and just returned from spending the past nine months in the Philippines to scale up renewable energy and water projects in remote villages there. Contact him at dexter.gauntlett (at) greenempowerment (dot) org. Read his blog Generation Fix.