Renewable Energy is a Catalyst for Social and Economic Advancement

Through the use of a solar-powered water purification system, students at a public school in a disadvantaged suburb of New Delhi, India are provided a clean, affordable supply of locally-sourced drinking water. (credit: Sunlabob Renewable Energy)

By Andy Schroeter

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made headlines during the recent UN General Assembly when he gave a boost to the United Nation’s “Sustainable Energy for All” initiative through the appointment of a new United Nations envoy to lead the program, as well as the establishment of an executive committee and advisory board to help the initiative achieve its goal of providing 1 billion people with access to modern energy services.

The Secretary-General said, “Sustainable energy is the golden thread that connects economic growth, social equity, and a climate and environment that enables the world to thrive.”

But what does Mr. Ban actually mean? Here are three instances that illustrate how sustainable energy isn’t only about the energy, but also about catalyzing the social and economic advancement of billions of people in developing nations.

Clean drinking water

There are hundreds of millions of people worldwide without access to clean, healthy drinking water. According to the United Nations, there are more than 1.5 million deaths per year attributed to diseases spread through unsafe water and poor sanitation. The majority of this challenge exists in developing countries like India, where Sunlabob recently employed a solar-powered water purification system in a school in a slum outside of New Delhi to provide its 800 students, staff and families members each with 2 liters of fresh drinking water every day. With the new water purification station, the school immediately had a reliable supply of locally-sourced fresh drinking water – an achievement that wouldn’t have been possible without the electricity of a rooftop solar array.

Community entrepreneurship

Providing renewable energy to off-grid communities is a key element of enabling expanded opportunities for economic development, both indirectly and directly. With a solar-powered lantern hanging in her fruit stand, a village woman no longer needs to close her business when darkness arrives each evening, allowing her to make more money. With a solar-hydro micro-grid powering his building, a villager can replace his time spent on collecting firewood and instead focus more time on running his business and generating more income.

Rural electrification can also drive entrepreneurship directly. Sunlabob’s Solar Lantern Rental System (SLRS), for example, hinges on the recruitment and training of micro-franchise entrepreneurs in the villages we work with throughout Southeast Asia and Africa. By employing a Village Technician and Village Energy Committee at the community level, the franchise system uses solar-powered lantern charging stations to “rent light” to villagers, providing reliable, affordable and clean lighting through an approach that is sustainable economically, socially and environmentally. Involving local individuals that become loyal and empowered is a crucial element for each of Sunlabob’s rural electrification initiatives.

Improved health standards

Sustainable energy access enables immediate health benefits in developing areas that are provided reliable access to electricity. Replacing outdated, dirty cookstoves with modern energy services can save the lives of 800,000 children who die each year around the world as a result of exposure to indoor smoke, according to the UN. A World Bank study of rural electrification in 11 developing nations also showed that ownership of refrigerators and televisions increases proportionately with access to electricity, both of which can be used as tools to aid in the improvement of health and hygiene practices. Reliable refrigeration allows proper storage of food and even more importantly, vaccines and medicines not previously available in remote, off-grid areas. Further, when ownership of television increases, the opportunity to receive proper public health and hygiene information increases as well. Increased energy access – when implemented in coordination with proper community training and capacity building – provides a gateway to improved health.

The Golden Thread

While the outcomes of high-reaching goals like universal energy access can be hard to grasp for people not “on the ground” in villages and rural communities, it is these “golden thread” benefits of widespread electrification – economic, social, health, education, among many others – that are the reasons why global initiatives like “Sustainable Energy for All are significant drivers of holistic and sustainable rural development.

Andy Schroeter is co-founder and CEO of Sunlabob Renewable Energy, Ltd., a Laos-based social enterprise that specializes in renewable energy and clean water projects in developing regions of the world. Mr. Schroeter – also a consultant to USAID, the Asian Development Bank and other rural development agencies – has more than 15 years experience undertaking sustainable development initiatives in remote, off-grid villages.

Note: A version of this article was also published in Earth & Industry.

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7 responses

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  2. This article is a revealing look at progressive politics. Energy policy isn’t about creating the cheapest and most efficient energy possible. It’s really about social equity and justice. What cr*p. And written by an advocate for the least efficient and most expensive energy source known, solar. Let these progressives run things and we will all be starving and hiding in caves. Cheap and abundant energy, not the solar utopia dream, is vital to prosperity and economic growth. You want to get people out of poverty, help them grow their economy with cheap energy. Not solar dreams.

    1. actually- for farm life solar is very much viable. pump water. it gets not very worthwhile when you want electricity (money…) from it. most product cycles are geared at a lifetime- so we will see lots of consumerist products- rather than solving problems.
      check glasspoint dot com for a reality check on solar costs vs. natural gas.
      Its evovlving.
      Again I ask- have you ever read ‘Lord of the Flies’?

    2. Mack Enchesee (Mac and Cheese) is not a real person but a US Republican troll with a fake facebook page and no desire to understand the revolution in small scale distributed energy delivery that projects such as this will deliver. The cheap and abundant energy will be renewables in the hands of the community that will improve quality of life for all. In the case above, clean water produced in situ without the need to run 300 km of power lines.

      1. Oh, but I am a real person. Sorry, progressive politics is as I described it. Cr*p. Progressives are good at spreading the poverty around and very poor at creating any productivity, growth or increasing standards of living.

  3. I just had a thought to share. How much good will it be to provide third world countries with electricity and clean water, or anyone for that matter, without first educating them in how to not be wasteful and as irresponsible as our country has become? Educate first, upgrade second. As we are experiencing at this moment, we achieved all this technology in coal and oil for power, only to be educated later that it’s bad for the environment and human health. Now we’re trying to back peddle to correct our wrongs.

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