On day three of the power outage, courtesy of hurricane Isabel, I got some things done. I cleaned, cooked, and showered, thanks to gas-powered appliances that worked off the grid. But that was about it. I got no work done after the laptop battery died. Laundry piled up, and upon sunset, the impromptu neighborhood party dissipated fast. With hours yet to bedtime, I was also incredibly bored.
In hindsight, I marvel that I made it to day three before boredom set it. Because the next time around, I was a parent with digital-native kids and a lot more laundry underfoot. Furthermore – good health aside – I was fortunate that both outages hit in the fall. We could easily have lost power during the height of summer or the dead of winter.
But the absolute killer, before and after parenthood? The inability to read. You know, that thing you tend to resort to when all appliances die. Because you tend to reserve candles in a multi-day outage that involves downed trees. And it is precisely this reality that the “energy poor” across the planet deal with daily, upon sunset.
The Energy Poor
Specifically, 1.2 billion people—nearly as many as the entire population of India—still live without access to electricity. They spend money they can ill-afford on common but expensive alternatives such as kerosene. And in an increasingly mobile world, they remain ever more isolated without the ability to charge a phone—something those of us affected by the sudden mid-Atlantic derecho last summer swiftly found out the second our iPhones died.
But the biggest downsides of available alternatives are health-related. In the absence of safe and reliable energy, “3.5 million people, mainly women and children, die each year from respiratory illness due to harmful indoor air pollution from wood and biomass cook stoves. That’s more than double the annual deaths attributed either to malaria (1.2 million) or to HIV/AIDS (1.5 million).”
It’s unsurprising that energy poverty can affect women and children more than men. Health apart, children can’t read or study much after dark, with everything that entails, especially for girls. And “women’s work” gets easier and safer the second power is more easily available—prepping and cooking dinner, caring for infants who don’t know that it’s not yet time to wake up, less need to gather fuel (frequently in unsafe places), being able to call for medical help or the midwife if labor pains or emergencies hit in the middle of the night, extra income from traditional handicrafts . . . it’s a long list. All for the lack of a reliable power supply.
Bringing the Sun’s Energy
Enter Shazia Khan’s EcoEnergy Finance, which currently serves customers primarily in rural Pakistan, and works to offer “solar energy for poverty alleviation and a sustainable future.” Specifically, Khan’s company offers solar-powered lanterns, which can give the energy poor the option of solar powered lanterns and mobile charging stations.
Khan has plenty of stories of how people’s lives have been improved by EcoEnergy. For example, communities can now continue with rice cultivation, a main source of income, well into the night—allowing them to generate more income and hence improve buying power.
Mobile phones can be charged whenever needed. Women, who are quite often not permitted to leave their homes in rural Pakistan, can continue to develop additional revenue streams from traditional handicrafts. Children can continue to read or do homework. Most of all, fewer people suffer burns or develop respiratory problems from the traditional kerosene or biomass-fueled alternatives. And the price is right, because once her customers are past the initial cost of purchase, solar power is free.
Khan has two favorite individual success stories. The first is Samina, who earned extra money for her family through embroidery—which no longer had to be limited to or squeezed into daylight hours. The second is Master Sahib—one night he tracked stray sheep back to the pen with the help of his lantern because he didn’t have to wait until daybreak to go look for them. And as the company’s Facebook page mentions, “recently a young Pakistani woman gave birth to her baby in the dead of the night. The only light available in her village came from the light of an EcoEnergy solar lantern.” These are stories Khan hopes will be replicated as EcoEnergy expands to serve the global need for safe, reliable, and inexpensive light.