05/29/2013 - 04:46

Alternative energy, empowered women

On the road that leads to the controversial nuclear energy facility at Kudankulam in India's southern state of Tamil Nadu, an unexpected sight greets the visitor -- mile after mile of giant windmills spinning indolently. It seems incongruous for so environmentally benign an energy source as windmills to lie so close to something as hazardous as a nuclear power plant.

If you talk to the hundreds of women in the region who have protested for years against the Kudankulam facility (even though their homes receive only a sporadic supply of electricity), they tell you that they would prefer further development of wind energy instead of nuclear. Why, they ask, is the government determined to pursue nuclear energy when less dangerous alternatives are available?

Chances are low in any event that these women will benefit from the power that the long-delayed nuclear plant will eventually generate -- because the electricity will be fed into the grid and used by people elsewhere. Indeed, millions of women and men living along India's coasts and rivers, or in forests that might be submerged by hydropower projects, ask the following question whenever a big-ticket energy project is to be built in their vicinity: For whose benefit?

The history of large projects in India has demonstrated time and again that the people who live closest to them -- those who may be displaced or suffer from pollution -- rarely reap any benefit. By the government's own admission, nearly half the people in India's villages have no access to electricity. Nationally, more than 400 million people lack access. Worst affected are women -- women who spend hours every day collecting wood for fuel, who are afraid to step outside after sunset because of the lack of electric lighting, and girls who drop out of school because studying after dark is impossible.

None of this seems to matter to the people who set India's energy policy. If it did, they would see the sense in developing alternative sources of energy. The country's centralized energy grid has not served the needs of 400 million people, nor is it likely to serve their needs in the near future. With increasing urbanization, demand for electricity is growing fast -- much faster than supply. Almost every city faces a substantial electricity deficit. Daily power cuts, extending during the summer months to the entire day, have become the norm in much of urban India. Meanwhile, even less electricity is available for the rest of the country.

For decades, solutions to these problems have been staring India in the face. Only now are some of them gaining traction -- but not enough to make a meaningful difference.

Take an obvious solution, solar energy. In a country that enjoys more than 300 days of sunshine per year across most of its territory, it seems a mystery that solar energy has not taken a larger role in the nation's energy mix. But it isn't actually such a mystery. Solar is best utilized as a decentralized energy source, and governments prefer centralized, capital-intensive methods of electricity generation.

Paradoxically, India prides itself on its decentralized system of governance. Moreover, the country has facilitated women's participation in village councils by reserving for women one-third to one-half of seats. Yet when it comes to an issue as crucial as energy policy, where a shift in priorities could transform the lives of millions of poor rural women, the government's approach remains centralized.

Experiments with solar energy in India have already demonstrated the benefits of drawing on an energy source that allows for local control. In the southern state of Karnataka, for instance, a private company called Selco has developed a workable, replicable model for solar energy use. Essentially, Selco's approach is to link technology with finance. Low-income households in small towns where people struggle with unreliable electricity supply can get bank loans to purchase solar panels. They pay off the loans in installments, meanwhile benefitting from much-needed power.

This sort of approach to energy provision has proved very useful for women vendors who live on their daily earnings and who are often organized into self-help groups. The company selects one woman to provide with financial assistance for setting up a solar-charged battery bank. Vendors then rent these batteries on a daily basis so they can extend their hours of business beyond sunset. The additional income they earn more than covers the rent they pay. Given that thousands of self-help groups exist across India, such an approach could be easily replicated.

In the desert state of Rajasthan, middle-aged village women are trained as solar mechanics through an initiative of Barefoot College, a decades-old nongovernmental organization that works on rural issues. The women learn how to install, maintain, and repair solar panels and lighting. These women, scores of them so far, have introduced solar energy to their villages. And by choosing to train women, Barefoot College has guaranteed that the expertise remains in the villages (men are more likely to go elsewhere to find work). For remote villages, whose chances of getting electricity through the grid are extremely poor, this decentralized approach is particularly appropriate.

One can make the criticism, and many people do, that small programs such as these cannot be scaled up past a certain level. But their small scale is the very point. Large-scale energy projects can leave holes so gaping that 400 million people fall through them. Decentralized energy systems, meanwhile, are adaptable to local needs -- and in the bargain, they empower women, demystify technology, and protect the environment.