How renewable energy empowers women in remote communities

Wednesday, Apr 27, 2016, 05:20 AM | Source: Pursuit

By Reihana Mohideen

How renewable energy empowers women in remote communities

I've always been interested in gender equity. When I did my electrical engineering degree at the University of Melbourne in the 1980s, the term 'gender equity' wasn't well known. At that time, we talked about women's rights and issues. I was active with the women's groups on campus while I was doing my degree.

We had a big campaign to get a women's room on campus. We managed to get a small corner space on the top floor of Union House. When I returned to Melbourne to do my PhD, I was delighted to see the women's room was thriving on the first floor and no longer tucked away.

My interest in developing countries and energy systems grew after a stint working for Oxfam Australia. After about a year with Oxfam I returned to Asia, where my family and my husband's were living, and started work around energy and development. Due to some of the key individuals I worked with, I was able to see the link between energy systems (especially renewable energy), poverty, social and gender equity.

About four years ago I had the chance to do a PhD on the implications of energy development for women's empowerment and gender equity in South Asia. I spoke to Professor Rob Evans, Head of the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Melbourne, who encouraged me to pursue my research interest.

Dr Reihana Mohideen returned to the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering to investigate the impact of energy development on women's empowerment and gender equity in South Asia. Picture: Sam Davison.

Now, I work for the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering as a Senior Research Fellow, investigating gender-friendly technologies for energy development and access. The notion of gender-friendly technologies is relatively new and involves a range of disciplines and approaches to the question of gender, technology and society. In my work, I'm applying the discussion to energy systems and trying to provide a framework to understand what gender-friendly technology is in the context of energy development in developing countries.

There is scope to extend the main grid in Asia, but renewable technologies are a vital part of the mix. While there is a margin to extend the main grid as far as it can go, at a certain point the cost becomes formidable, especially for poorer governments. So for example, in Bhutan, where you have villages on remote mountain tops, the cost to connect to the grid is prohibitive. This is where renewable technologies can play an important role.

Renewable energy is penetrating some of the most remote communities in developing countries. Solar home systems and micro-hydro systems are providing electricity for homes and for some level of industry for villages. We are finding these mini-grid systems are having significant impacts, ranging from reduction in maternal mortality rates to a range of other health benefits. Access to energy in the home helps women save a lot of time that would normally be spent on household chores, for example in food processing such as the grinding of grain and rice.

Solar panels are providing power to some of the remotest parts of the world. Picture: Richard Furlong/Flickr.

The benefits to women who have access to electricity are clear. In some communities where small micro-hydro systems have been set up, for example in Nepal, we have found maternal mortality rates have almost halved. Time spent on back-breaking food processing, like pounding grain and rice, has been reduced from six to eight hours a day to as little as two hours. This gives women time to get involved with community life and decision-making, allowing them to exploit other opportunities, like undertaking training, and participating in community organisations and activities. There are benefits in terms of health and well-being for the whole community, but also more specifically in regards to women's empowerment and social equity.

Access to electricity reduces the risks associated with cooking with biofuels. Another important health benefit is that women are no longer required to cook with traditional biofuels, such as twigs and cow dung, which are detrimental to health. A 2012 study found that there were 3.6 million premature deaths each year as a result of the household air pollution caused by using solid fuels for cooking.

Reaching 100% electrification for households is a target that governments in Asia are aiming for. In Sri Lanka they have achieved 94% electrification and Bhutan 97%. The Bhutan Power Corporation has agreed to extend its program to bring on board renewables, so that the 1-2,000 homes on top of the Himalayan mountains will have access to electricity. Similarly, the Ceylon Electricity Board in Sri Lanka has agreed to do off-grid systems on about five remote islands. Most governments, without getting into the debate about it, are in fact implementing a combination of extending the current centralised grid mixed with decentralised solutions. They are still trying to improve the main grid, but also to use distributed systems to mop up the last few villages or communities that don't have electricity.

Access to energy frees women of back-breaking household chores and the health risks associated with cooking with solid fuels. Picture: graham/flickr.

There are big changes in how energy is being produced and distributed. There is a transition taking place that is being acknowledged by leading organisations in the energy space. A big feature is the shift towards Asia. There is also a shift in renewable energy investments, where an increasingly significant proportion of investment in renewable energy is coming from the Asian economies. In India, for example, approximately 700 million households have been electrified in the last 20 years. But while massive strides have been made, there are still hundreds of millions of people without electricity. I am very interested in understanding how we can address this issue.

Recently, I was one of the main organisers of an important conference on energy in Asia and its links to social inclusion. Going Beyond the Meter: Inclusive Energy Solutions in South Asia was held in Jaipur, India, from April 11-12, 2016. The conference brought together leaders in the energy sector in South Asia. It was an opportunity to discuss a whole range of social issues, including gender equity, in relation to energy production and distribution in countries such as India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Bhutan. The conference was sponsored by the Asian Development Bank in partnership with the Indian Government and the University of Melbourne. We hope it will be the beginning of a partnership with these countries to help them find the energy solutions they need. The Melbourne School of Engineering will run a follow-up training workshop later this year and we also hope to build a 12-month program of online seminars, with scope to train international PhD students working in the energy sector.

- As told to Jennifer Thomas

Banner image: A Green Energy Project in Bhutan. Asian Development Bank/Flickr