“Sustainable development” is a buzzword tossed around by the UN and global NGOs. Typically it’s no more than a buzzword or, at best, a distant goal. Anyone who can actually promote development in a way that’s sustainable deserves a prize.
That’s why Dipal Barua just got one.
Barua is managing director of Grameen Shakti, a nonprofit in Bangladesh that adeptly marries two goals: helping people escape poverty and protecting the planet.
This week, Barua was named the winner of the first $1.5 million Zayed Future Energy Prize, an annual award established last year by the government of Abu Dhabi in an attempt to promote energy innovation.
Grameen Shakti—the word comes from a Sanskrit root meaning energy, force or empowerment—has enabled as many as 2 million people in Bangladesh to light their homes using solar power. It has helped thousands more use chicken or cow dung either to make electricity or as a fuel in cook stoves that are efficient, safe and clean.
Like the new president of the United States, Barua also sees renewable energy as a way to create jobs.
“One hundred thousand green jobs is my dream,” he told me, when we met during the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi.
Barua, who is 54, started Grameen Shakti in 1996. A self-sustaining nonprofit that runs like a business, Grameen Shakti was spun off from the better-known Grameen Bank, which with its founder, Muhammad Yunus, was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 2006. Barua, who has been with Grameen Bank since its beginnings in the 1970s, remains an executive there.
Barua told me that about 70% of the 150 million people who live in Bangladesh have no electricity. They typically use polluting kerosene lamps to light their homes at night.
“I tell them that for the cost of kerosene, you can buy a solar system,” he said.
The economics work like this: Total cost of a rooftop solar photovoltaic panel (imported from Japan), a battery and the required electronics is about $350 to $400. Customers typically put 10-15% down and pay the rest in monthly payments for three years. By then, they own a system that should last 20 years, without fuel costs. The panel makes enough electricity to power a few lights, a black-and-white TV and, most important, a cell phone. “Everyone wants a mobile phone,” Barua says.
Some systems are shared by several homes, while others are used to power small businesses. About 200,000 have been installed, and the business is growing fast. A $750,000 loan from the World Bank helped get Grameen Shakti started, but the operation now pays for itself.
“Any profits, we recycle,” says Barua.
Grameen Shakti has about 3,000 employees, most of them women who are trained to maintain and repair the solar systems. Several years ago, the NGO expanded to offer a biogas program, which uses cow dung or poultry waste to make electricity. The organization also makes and sells cooking stoves that reduce indoor air pollution and burn less wood, reducing deforestation.
Barua told me that Grameen Shakti is exploring the business of carbon finance, as an additional revenue source. The nonprofit would sell carbon credits–based on how many tons of CO2 its products prevent from entering the atmosphere–to companies or people in the west who want to offset their own production of greenhouse gases. Grameen Shakti has talked with the World Bank and with Climate Care, a carbon developer now owned by JP Morgan Chase, about selling credits either into the voluntary or regulated market.
So is this really sustainable development? Up to a point. Of course it’s a good thing for poor people get electricity from solar power. The thing is, the electricity powers a mobile phone or TV that isn’t sustainable, and then one thing then leads to another and, before you know it, Grameen Shakti’s customers will be wanting iPods and dishwashers and cars, just like the rest of us. No wonder sustainable development remains such an elusive goal.