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Roll Back the Darkness in a Sustainable, Cost-Effective Way

Authors: Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative; Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program, and Steve Israel, Representative, 2nd District, New York
July 13, 2009
Huffington Post


Imagine a U.S. development program that can dramatically improve global health -- even saving 4,000 lives a day. It can significantly reduce violence against women. It can help combat the effects of climate change. It can enable millions of poor girls to attend school. It can help the world's poorest save and earn more money. And these results can be achieved with relatively small amounts of money in some of the most unstable places like Pakistan and Somalia, where results are most needed.

We are talking about deploying small-scale solar devices through microfinance projects designed to empower woman as small business leaders. Funding solar villages can help meet the basic energy needs of the more than 3 billion people in the world with no reliable access to electricity and be one of the highest returns on investment for U.S. development assistance.

Every day, tens of thousands of people are burned by kerosene lamps. Not only are these lamps dangerous and dirty, they are expensive and provide poor lighting, which destroys eyesight. Solar-powered lanterns can replace the kerosene that billions of poor families rely on to light their homes. Most importantly, solar-powered lanterns and the hours of light they provide bring hours of increased safety and security for communities in dangerous areas. LED lanterns can even double as chargers to power up electrical devices. In terms of cost-effectiveness, an LED lantern pays for itself in less than a year.

Just a few years ago in rural India, a small group of women transformed their lives and their village with a small stock of solar lanterns. The housewives-turned-entrepreneurs sold solar and other renewable energy products; their main income generator was portable solar lamp rentals, which provided eight hours of light to families who rented the lanterns. The women turned a profit, improved their village, and demonstrated the demand for these devices in remote areas. Their success was made possible with a small grant from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a Department of Energy lab located in Colorado.

This is exactly the type of smart program we need to help recreate around the developing world. Other solar devices, such as solar cookers, can reduce the devastating environmental impact of chopping down trees to provide fuel for fires. The resulting deforestation leads to severe flooding and ruined soil quality. Leading climate scientists also contend that black soot from cooking stoves across the developing world is contributing as much as 18% of the planet's warming. The dangerous toxins from the cookers also cause respiratory illnesses which lead to 1.6 million deaths each year -- more than the number who die annually from malaria. Solar devices can be a cost-effective way to slow global warming and save lives. And we're giving people sustainable ways to improve their own lives, by owning businesses that create wealth.

Humanitarian aid and microfinance organizations have been among the first to embrace small-scale solar devices. Solar lanterns are providing increased security for communities. Solar-powered water-purification systems are providing clean drinking water to refugees. Camps in Sudan, Chad, and Nepal have all begun using solar devices and the results so far have been overwhelmingly positive.

One of the smartest foreign assistance initiatives the United States could undertake is to jump-start these promising solar-powered efforts around the world. There is currently a bill pending in Congress (sponsored by Congressman Israel) to help authorize five years' worth of funding starting with an initial $10 million investment in the deployment of these devices to the developing world, and another $90 million investment over the next four years to bring commercially viable and affordable renewable energy options to the world's poorest through microfinance programs targeted at empowering women. The House of Representatives has committed to the initial $10 million investment. If passed, this bill could create a long-standing program to provide financing for millions of LED lanterns to be distributed through microfinance organizations, as well as the development of next-generation solar cookers. It would also be a game-changer for U.S. businesses working to develop solar technology, providing them with new demand and competition to spur research and development.

Going green is no longer simply a luxury for wealthy countries. As these simple solar tools show us, exactly the opposite is true. People in impoverished, resource-scarce, conflict-ridden areas need renewable energy more than anyone. We now have the technology to light up the darkness in cost-effective, sustainable ways. Funding these innovations should be a priority for U.S. foreign assistance.

Congressman Steve Israel represents New York's 2nd Congressional District. Isobel Coleman is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and directs the Council's Women and Foreign Policy program.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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