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Feature: Solving Energy Poverty with Simon Doble
DECEMBER 7, 2020
As an inventor and humanitarian, Simon Doble is a champion of human-centered design. He has spent a week in a wheelchair to try and understand what it feels like. For three months, he lived in a humanitarian tent to experience having no access to clean or reliable energy. Since then, Simon has become a key figure in the fight against energy poverty.
Simon has designed a solar street lamp for use in refugee camps (it is now a UN core relief item) and founded several global energy initiatives. A few years ago, he set up the charity SolarBuddy, which aims to gift 6 million solar-powered lights to children living in energy poverty by 2030.
As if that wasn’t enough, he is also a key-note speaker and the author of several books.
We were lucky enough to talk to Simon about what drives his desire to tackle energy poverty, the incredible work of SolarBuddy and the potential of solar technology to transform energy issues in developing communities.
The Issue and Your Inspiration
Hi Simon, thanks so much for chatting to us. To start off, can you just explain what energy poverty is?
Of course. So energy poverty affects around 1.4 billion people worldwide, with about 850 million people experiencing its most extreme form. It means not having access to an adequate power supply and so restricts services like lighting, heating and cooking facilities.
Communities either have to get by without these things, or are forced to burn primitive fuels such as charcoal, firewood and kerosene (a by-product of oil) in lanterns.
There are lots of problems associated with this – children not being able to study in the evenings because it’s too dark, health issues from inhaling toxic fumes, the money and time spent on gathering fuel… it all perpetuates the cycle of poverty. It’s a huge problem but one that many people have never heard of.
It doesn’t seem to get as much attention as other forms of poverty. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s because energy is such a standardised, tangible asset in the Western World. We all have running water in our taps, we all have lights to turn on when we walk into our homes. These are given commodities that we expect.
SolarBuddy goes into schools all over the world to educate children on energy poverty. One of the first questions we ask is: “what would you miss if you didn’t have energy?”. Out of hundreds and thousands of children, I could count on one hand the number that have said “light”. It’s iPods – [laughing] sorry, I’m showing my age – it’s iPads, iPhones, laptops, Xboxes that they’d miss. It shows this inbuilt notion that light just appears – that is a barrier to solving energy poverty and why we need to raise greater awareness.
That’s really interesting. So why did the issue of energy poverty capture you so much?
This is a topic that’s a bit raw to me but I’ll go there. Back in 2011, I was going through a tough time – I’d been through a difficult divorce and wasn’t able to see my children as much as every parent wants to. After really enjoying my time travelling in my 20s and then setting up a fairly successful construction business here in Australia, it was quite a shock and I took it quite hard.
So I was in this metaphorical ‘dark place’ and then I read an article about energy poverty and it really spoke to me. It made me realise that hundreds of millions of people were literally in a dark place, and experiencing suffering far greater than I was. That was the pull for me.
Skipping forwards a few years then… It’s 2016 and you are fully immersed in the humanitarian space. Since learning about energy poverty, you’ve done some amazing work for the UN in refugee camps and been a founding member of several other global initiatives. Then you decide to set up SolarBuddy.
Let’s start with the lights. How do they work?
The lights were designed specifically for children. Most children that we donate to walk between 10 and 15 km every day to get to school. That walk provides the perfect time to charge the lights – the children just hang them on their rucksacks to expose them to the sun.
Eight hours of sunlight gives 16 hours of solar light use. The lights are used at school (as many of the schools are un-powered), hung up at home, and even worn around children’s necks when they walk around their villages in the evenings. It was important to me that the lights were easy to carry and use for children not familiar with this kind of technology.
And how do you decide which communities the lights go to?
Good question. We’re very focused on the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the 17th goal – which is all about partnerships – is a key one for us. SolarBuddy partners with NGOs that have long-term relationships in countries, established health and education programmes, recognised monitoring and evaluation standards. We provide our lights to them and they select the schools and communities most in need. We stick to what we’re good at, and we empower our partners to be good at what they’re good at. It means we support each other and no-one has to double up on workload.
Do you have any other plans for using solar technology to combat energy poverty?
I really see solar blowing up on a global scale. I’m particularly interested in the way renewable energy can ‘reverse fortunes’. Let me explain. In the countries that SolarBuddy works in, rural communities are often so impoverished because much of the nation’s power goes to the cities. I’d like to develop community-based mini-grid systems that feed power back to cities. Land is obviously a requirement for renewable energy generation, so subsistence farmers in small, remote villages are well set up for producing renewable energy.
Photo credit: ipsionline.it
The cities would buy the power off of the villagers, lifting them out of poverty. This would help in terms of emissions but could also reduce the need for farmers to earn a living from environmentally damaging agricultural practises such as palm oil production. It’s more of an economic model than what SolarBuddy does right now, but I think we could really make some headway with it. We’re calling it CommunityBuddy. It’s early stages but I’m excited!
You’ve also mentioned carbon offsetting before, is that something you’re looking to implement within SolarBuddy?
Yes, we’re actually going through the process now of becoming carbon neutral! Over the past 2.5 years, the carbon we’ve offset by replacing fossil fuel based energy sources with solar power is equivalent to planting over half a million trees. I’m really happy about that, but we need to do more. So we’re investing in a rainforest regeneration program here in North Queensland, and then we’ll follow that up with some work in Madagascar as well.
We’re also working on a program that will enable SolarBuddy donors to go carbon neutral themselves. The average Australian produces about 16 tonnes of carbon per year and it costs about $240 to offset that. So donors can invest $240 dollars into SolarBuddy, a carbon neutral company, and in return we offset their emissions by providing solar technology for other communities. Our aim is to get 10-15,000 people signed up to this carbon program next year.
SolarBuddy seems to be going from strength to strength. If you could recruit anybody in the world to work for the charity, who would it be and what role would you give them?
Sounds like he’d be well suited to SolarBuddy. Just to finish up then, how can anyone reading this learn more about your company, follow your journey, support you?
Amazing, thanks so much for your time. It’s been eye-opening to hear about energy poverty and SolarBuddy’s incredible work. Best of luck with all your future plans!