by Fiona McDowell
Narmada. Chixoy. Bujagali. In recent years, the melodic names of these massive hydropower projects have become synonymous with the worst that Western-led development has to offer - environmental destruction, social upheaval, bloated bureaucracy, corruption and broken promises of prosperity and energy access for the world's poorest. They have also become battle cries of the anti-globalization movement, not only in the streets of cities like Seattle, Genoa and Washington, but also in the rural villages of India, Guatemala, Uganda and elsewhere.
Because the overwhelming majority of people in the developing world are not connect to grid electricity, no number of dams or coal plants will solve their energy needs in the present or near future. Most will continue to depend on rapidly diminishing resources like fuel wood for their energy needs. In Bangladesh, for example, the rural poor often burn cow dung to fuel their kitchen fires and kerosene to light their homes. Besides the obvious fire danger and pollution, these fuel sources create an unhealthy indoor environment and can lead to asthma and other health problems. Even those privileged few that have access to grid electricity do not have a dependable supply and must content with frequent blackouts.
Reliable, Sustainable Power
The challenge is to find a way to bring electricity to the poorest of the developing world in the most reliable and sustainable way possible. Grameen Shakti, a nonprofit organization in Bangladesh, has embraced this challenge with exciting results. Founded in 1996, Grameen Shakti is an offshoot of Grameen Bank, a pioneering micro-finance institution. Grameen Bank was established in 1976 as an experiment to see how a small amount of credit could affect the lives of the rural poor. It has since loaned over $3.7 billion, providing 2.4 million clients with access to financial services including loans, savings and insurance. Grameen borrowers, the majority of whom are women and make less than US$1 per day when they begin borrowing, use their loans to start small businesses that generate additional family income. Over time, most will emerge permanently from poverty. This simple, grassroots anti-poverty strategy has proven successful around the world.
As it has grown, Grameen Bank has spawned a family of companies that includes Grameen Shakti (GS), a rural power company. Grameen Shakti, which means "rural energy" in Bangla, seeks to supply renewable energy to un-electrified villages in Bangladesh, as well as to create employment and income-generation opportunities in rural areas.
The cornerstone project is the marketing of photovoltaic (PV) systems. Since its inception, GS has installed over 11,000 PV sytems in homes, schools and businesses. The total capacity of these systems is 600 kilowatts peak (kWp). GS anticipates reaching the one-megawatt milestone in 2003. Operating out of 56 offices around the country, GS installs more than 450 PV systems a month.
GS has gained the recognition and support of institutions like USAID, which committed roughly $4 million in local currency in 2000 to help expand its outreach. Building on the successful methodology of Grameen Bank, GS has developed several financing options that allow even the very poor to afford a PV system. Customers make a down payment of 15 or 25 percent and then pay the remainder and service charge within one or two years.
It would be difficult to overestimate the profound effect that access to electricity has on the lives of those who haven't had this luxury. Electric lights allow families to take advantage of simple pleasures people in the developed world take for granted. They can prepare and eat evening meals in a well-lit room, read or watch television before retiring for the night or enjoy a respite from stifling heat under the breeze of an electric fan. Businesses can extend operating hours and schoolchildren reap the benefits of computers and Internet access and complete their homework at night. Medical clinics operate a variety of life-saving machines, preserve medication that requires refrigeration and extend their services beyond daylight hours.
Perhaps most valuable is the wealth of entrepreneurial opportunities that energy access can create. With an electric sewing machine, a woman in rural Bangladesh can develop a lucrative business producing or tailoring clothes. Carpenters can use power tools to increase productivity and grocery stores can stock perishables and frozen items.
For example, TV and radio repair shop owner Manik Mia purchased a solar system through GS to power one lamp and a soldering iron. The lamp allows him to extend the operating hours of his shop. The extra income amounts to an additional $20 a month. Given that the average monthly income in Bangladesh is $20, this is not a trivial amount.