Derek Newberry

Do You Have To Be Rich To Be Green?

TracyGuest blogger Tracy Smith is a communications officer for E+Co, an organization which empowers local SMEs that supply clean and affordable energy in developing countries. Tracy has an undergraduate degree in economics and a law degree from the University of Wisconsin Law School.

By Tracy Smith

A few days ago, my neighbor installed 20 feet of gleaming solar panels in her backyard. She assured me that over the next ten years the savings in energy costs would nearly pay for the panels and besides, she would be doing something good for the environment. I left her backyard thinking, you have to be rich to be green.

But as a member of the clean energy community, I should know better. I know, for example, that throughout the developing world, farmers, teachers, nurses – all kinds of people are installing solar panels on their roofs, lighting their homes with hydro electric energy, powering their equipment with biogas and generally catching onto the benefits of clean energy much more quickly than one might expect.

It’s interesting, because we tend to think that because the U.S., Canada and Europe are primarily responsible for the climate change mess, they should take the lead in cleaning it up. That does make sense. But on the other hand, if people in places like Tanzania, Honduras and Cambodia want to take charge, why not celebrate it? One delegate at the Bali Conference on Climate Change summed it up quite nicely when he said “If you’re not willing to lead, then get out of the way.”

Not only are people using clean energy around the world, there are businessmen and women who are making a living off of providing clean energy goods and services. Take Mohamed Parpia, for example. He is a Tanzanian businessman who converted his electrical equipment store into a full-service solar home system supply shop. Or, maybe it’s more of an empire.
Parpia sells, installs, maintains and repairs solar home systems throughout Tanzania at a price that regular people can afford. His customers range from taxi drivers to teachers – from orphanages and hospitals. He’s lighting over 10,000 homes, cleanly, creating jobs and supporting his family. This, in a region with a surprisingly low 5.9 percent electrification rate and a very high incidence of rural poverty.

His public recognition is becoming difficult to keep up with: last year Al Gore presented him with the International Ashden Award for Sustainability, this year it was the World Bank Lighting Africa Competition followed closely by the Energy Globe Award. All those awards, just for doing good business. As impressive as his business is, it is just one of many small enterprises selling clean energy. In fact, the Financial Times just recognized E+Co, an organization that has invested in over 180 small energy businesses, as the “Sustainable Investor of the Year.”

E+Co’s investee-enterprises supply clean, modern energy to more than 4 million people throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America and offset over 3.3 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Mohamed Parpia is one of its clients and because of him, it is possible that there are more solar systems in the Lake Region of Tanzania than there are in New York.

Which begs the question, if subsistence farmers in Africa are lighting their homes using clean energy, why don’t more of us in the U.S. do so as well?