Energy for All

image credit: Kevin Connors

Original article written by Heather Hansen for Ode magazine, July/August 2011.

How the energy justice movement is empowering people to improve their health and earning potential.

It’s early winter in the high plains of southern Peru. At more than 13,000 feet, the air is cool but the sun beats down intensely. Jocelyn Jenks climbs into a four-wheel-drive truck and sets off into the countryside, as she’s done every day for the past few weeks. The truck bounces along deeply rutted dirt roads below the glassy peaks of the Andes.

Two hours from the regional capital of Ayaviri, Jenks reaches a remote ranch. A clutch of cows and alpacas raise their heads at the sound of her truck, then continue grazing. The ranch consists of two low, eight-square-foot (one-square-meter) structures made of mud and straw with earthen floors: one is the bedroom, piled with clothes and blankets to keep its residents warm; the other is kitchen, living room and dining room, its walls caked with soot from the adobe cookstove.

The ranchers who live here, like most people in this part of Peru, are subsistence farmers without access to electricity or clean water. Their main source of fuel: cow manure. The lack of modern energy services—specifically, household access to electricity and clean cooking facilities—poses serious dangers to physical and economic health. Cooking with biomass, as the Peruvian ranchers do, can be deadly.

Stoves like the one used by Peruvian ranchers cause the premature deaths of some 2 million women and children every year, from pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, lung cancer and asthma, according to the World Health Organization. Chronic respiratory illnesses afflict another 2 million individuals. “Indoor air pollution continues to ravage rural communities and poor urban dwellers,” states a 2010 World Health Organization report. “And it continues to be largely ignored by the world community.” Air pollution and deforestation are two other harmful side effects of relying on biomass.

Jenks, a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s School of Law, has come to help bring power to this remote region of Peru. “People have a very strong knowledge of health issues surrounding cooking the way they do,” she says. “They want a clean environment. They would like access to energy. But until now, they’ve had no other options. Access to modern energy sources is a basic human right.”

These Peruvian ranchers are part of the world’s “energy poor,” people who live without access to energy technologies that would enhance their safety and comfort and improve their health and earning potential. To heat and illuminate their homes, cook their meals, purify their water and power their farming equipment, they use biomass-based fuel, generally animal dung, raw coal, garbage, wood or rotting crops. Women and children are typically tasked with fuel collection, which is a time-consuming and strenuous process. With access to modern energy sources, however, women and children could spend their time doing far more productive things—like going to school or working. Jenks and others are part of a growing “energy justice” movement that seeks to help the world’s energy poor get access to the energy sources they need to lift themselves out of poverty.

“Energy justice is about applying the basic principles of fairness to the injustice being suffered by people without access to life-sustaining energy,” says Lakshman Guruswamy, the professor of international environmental law at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s School of Law who coined the term. While developed nations have progressed by burning fossil fuels, the energy poor lack that resource and have suffered economically as a result. The solution, according to Guruswamy: Get people the energy they need to spur economic growth and improve health, both their own and that of the environment. “We’re concentrating on the bottom third of the pyramid,” he says, “the over 2 billion people who are trapped in an energy time warp.”

In Ayaviri, Jenks experienced that energy time warp. Peruvian ranchers spend most daylight hours tending livestock on the plains. But they also devote at least several hours a week to collecting fuel, a laborious process that involves walking or riding on horseback for miles collecting manure, carrying it home, setting it on drying racks and piling it up for storage. How much fuel a family needs depends on how many people are in the household. The matriarch of one family of six told Jenks she uses 20 pounds of fuel a day.

Freed from the drudgery of collecting fuel, young girls could get educated. With a reliable source of light in their homes, women could weave wool or make handicrafts to supplement the family income. “Electricity can provide illumination to permit longer working hours and power for irrigation, both of which help yield high-value crops,” says Guruswamy.

The effect of energy justice can be seen in Namibia, where for the past two years, Elephant Energy, a Colorado-based non-profit, has worked with community-run nature conservancies in the Caprivi region to light rural communities. Residents had been spending large portions of their modest incomes on paraffin candles and batteries. After 1,000 solar-powered lights were installed in Caprivi, locals stopped using candles and instead starting working, studying and cooking by the solar-charged lights. Elephant Energy plans to expand the project to include cleaner and more efficient cookstoves as well.

Ideally, energy justice advocates would like to bring clean power to people through the delivery of “appropriate sustainable energy technologies” (ASETs) that don’t use fossil fuels. For example,EnviroFit, a spin-off of the Engines and Energy Conversion Lab (EECL) at Colorado State University, makes clean-burning stoves that consume a fraction of the fuel of conventional stoves. Other ASETs include SunNight’s solar-powered flashlights, the size and shape of a bottle of shower gel with a strip of photovoltaic panels on one side, and the Swach water filter (“swach” is Hindi for “clean”), the size of a toaster oven, which passes water through filters made of rice husk ash and silver nanoparticles to purify it.

ASETs deliver clear economic benefits. The Darfur Stoves Project at the University of California at Berkeley has distributed 15,000 clean-burning stoves in Sudan. Darfuri families that buy all of their firewood spend the equivalent of almost $300 per year. The Berkeley-Darfur stove halves the amount of firewood needed, so the stoves free up considerable disposable income.

In Ayaviri, ASETs give women the time—and at night, the light—to make products at home, which they can then sell at markets. ASETs can even create jobs, by catalyzing demand for workers able to construct and maintain the cookstoves. Ayaviri has a labor pool already available in the form of the metal workers who live in the region. In New Delhi, the Energy and Resources Institute built more than 200 cookstoves in four rural villages in Haryana in 2005. The Institute hired 50 women and nine masons to construct the cookstoves and install them correctly. Even if the energy technology is not completely green, it can provide a crucial boost to employment. Christian L’Orange, an engineer at Colorado State’s Engines and Energy Conversion Lab, points to the tuk-tuk in the center of his workspace. Tuk-tuks, part motorbike and part rickshaw, are widely used as taxis in countries like the Philippines, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Most drivers are private entrepreneurs living on about $5 a day. There are some 200 million tuk-tuks around the world, each churning out annual emissions equivalent to 50 cars, according to L’Orange. People “know the health problems of these bikes; they know the environmental problems; they know the poor fuel efficiency,” he says. “But they just can’t afford to change it or to buy new bikes.”

L’Orange’s colleagues have devised a solution. They adapted a retrofit kit, originally designed for snowmobiles, that when installed on a tuk-tuk decreases fuel consumption by 30 percent, cuts oil use by half and reduces emissions by 70 to 90 percent. This approach—cleaning up “dirty” technologies—can allow people to continue to improve their economic prospects until cleaner alternatives become more practical and cost efficient. Instead of introducing new stoves in Peru, engineers at the Engines and Energy Conversion Lab will provide a clean-burning combustion component, just as they did for the tuk-tuks. Each family will be paired with an engineering student from a partnering Peruvian university who will help build and operate the stove.

Clean stoves are clearly catching on. Last September, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a public-private partnership investing $51 million over the next five years to install clean, efficient stoves in 100 million energy-poor households by 2020. The Peruvian ranchers Jenks met with would not only welcome cleaner stoves, they would be happy to pay for them. Those not able to pay are working with Caritas Peru, a local Catholic relief organization, to contribute their labor to offset the cost of supply and installation.

Despite promising early results, the energy justice movement still faces three major challenges: corruption, culture and capital. In some countries, governments will withhold products as a negotiating tactic. Plus, without the proper education and training, some people won’t use their ASETs appropriately. That’s why it’s crucial to engineer and build the technology with local cultures in mind, as does the Engines and Energy Conversion Lab.

For Guruswamy, though, lack of capital to implement large-scale energy justice programs is probably the biggest obstacle. “If we don’t have the money, honey, nobody has the time,” he says. “People need to invest capital in these projects.” He wants international treaties like the Kyoto Protocol to include carbon credits for reducing emissions from biomass. If they could trade biomass credits, energy-poor countries would be in a better position to invest in clean energy technologies.
With the right ASETs, proponents of energy justice argue, people will finally have the time and the technology to develop their other assets.

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