TACOMA, Washington — Energy poverty is the lack of access to modern energy utilities and is typically indicated by a lack of access to electricity as well as dependence on biomass fuel for cooking and household energy. The World Energy Outlook estimates that 1.2 billion people currently live in energy poverty and accounting for population growth, 1.05 billion will still lack regular access to electricity by 2030. Those without access to electricity subsequently lack access to basic services such as communication and refrigeration. For millions of people, unsafe roads from lack of maintenance and lighting, challenging childbirth and educational obstacles are the norm as a result of living in energy scarce regions.
Additionally, approximately three million people, which accounts for almost half of the world’s population, utilize traditional biomass (wood, charcoal, dung and agricultural by-products, among others) and coal for household energy, both of which deteriorate the environment and human health. The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves reports that two million people around the world perish each year from exposure to cookstoves (stoves that use unsustainable and unhealthy biomass) and that smoke from coal stoves takes a life every 16 seconds.
Infrastructural Energy Poverty
Almost two-thirds of Sub-Saharan Africa’s population suffers from energy poverty, meaning the majority of the Sub-Saharan African population “remain in the dark.” In an interview with The Borgen Project, Peter Zdrojewski, a high school teacher at The Branson School in Ross, CA identified the challenging intersectionality of energy poverty, in that energy poverty directly impacts “politics, infrastructure and technology, healthcare, economies and available livelihoods, access to education, ongoing systems of oppression,” and more.
In her TedTalk on the requisite affordable and sustainable energy efforts in Africa, global energy researcher, Rose M. Mutiso discusses the importance of infrastructure when implementing change. Mutiso and Zdrojewski both call for public investment in energy-poor regions to directly leverage communities with a “systemic approach.”
Commitment from institutions in electrical infrastructure is also critical because to ensure accessible and affordable electricity and reduce energy poverty, there must first be a demand for electricity. Factories and commercial enterprises need to participate in large scale projects that will stimulate economic growth and will employ people in order to increase incomes, which will allow people to purchase and use appliances that rely on electricity.
We Care Solar: Addressing Energy Poverty in Impoverished Regions
Executive Director of We Care Solar, Dr. Laura Stachel, first experienced extreme energy poverty in a Nigerian hospital while researching maternal mortality in Africa in 2008. The lack of electricity and lighting in hospitals impaired the ability to provide lifesaving care—a clear factor in why every two minutes, a woman somewhere in the world dies from pregnancy and/or childbirth complications. Even providing consistent, reliable electricity to one hospital in an energy scarce region could save countless lives.
Around the world, the absence of technology in hospitals reduces access to essential healthcare resources. Doctors in rural regions of the world have to wait for daylight hours to perform life-saving surgeries and procedures or resort to the meek light of lamps, cell phones, flashlights and candles. Doctors and nurses must turn women away, no matter their state because they simply do not have the resources and instruments to provide help.
Shocked by the conditions in the hospital she observed in Nigeria and inspired to affect change, Dr. Stachel and her husband, Hal Aronson, designed a solution.
The “Solar System” Suitcases
The Solar Suitcases designed by Dr. Stachel and Hal Aronson contain a solar electrical system that fits inside a yellow carry-on suitcase. The system contains solar panels, a charge controller, a battery, four LED medical lights, two headlamps and phone charging equipment. They also include a fetal Doppler which is an instrument used to measure the fetal heartbeat.
We Care Solar works in partnership with governments and international NGOs creating educational programs to build local capacity on how to install, use and maintain the electrical systems. More recently, the suitcases became equipped with infrared thermometers which assist in screening patients who are at risk for COVID-19. To date, We Care Solar has reached more than 5,200 health centers worldwide, serving an estimated 6 million expectant mothers and newborns.
We Share Solar by We Care Solar
We Share Solar is a hands-on educational program sponsored by We Care Solar to teach students in America about energy poverty, as well as equip them with the tools to build blue solar suitcases that are shared with schools and refugee camps around the world. This program provides an educational classroom experience and simultaneously provides the electrical resources needed to have a classroom environment in regions suffering from energy poverty.
Already since 2010, We Share Solar has implemented 366 educational STEM programs in the US, trained 14,000 students in these programs and sent 715 solar suitcases to energy-poor regions. The real-world application of these STEM and engineering programs shows students the immense impact that they are able to have in solving global issues.
The Advanced Environmental Science class taught by Zdrojewski at The Branson School originally partnered with We Care Solar in 2018 and continues its partnership to this day. Zdrojewski praises the nonprofit company and reflects on how the project has benefited the classroom experience for himself and his students. He discusses the value of a multidisciplinary “student-driven learning that is looking at and answering authentic, real-world problems” and how it has “showed students that they have agency in animating change, regardless of age.” Zdrojewski says the best part of the project for him is “seeing students light up day in and day out as they work” on the suitcases.
With access to electricity, the quality of life improves for millions. Two-thirds of adult females in developing countries that suffer from lung cancer will see an increase in their physical and mental well-being. Students that otherwise had to study at gas stations or city streets at night for fear of walking home in the dark, can now study in their schools or houses and sleep in their own beds the night before a big exam.
As a direct result of We Share Solar, students in Africa who now have access to electricity at night have improved their testing “performance on national exams” and subsequently enhanced their educational opportunities. Midwives and doctors no longer have to turn away patients, and “can provide prompt, accurate care with great confidence.” Eliminating energy poverty through the implementation of reliable electricity is an integral step towards improving health standards, education and overall well-being.
– Nye Day
Photo: We Care Solar