In our imperfect world, there is no shortage of charitable causes that demand our attention. One component that seems consistently absent from our compassion, however, is consideration of factors that might elevate these impaired communities to a state of self-sufficiency, thus empowering them continue autonomously on a trend of growth.
It’s a complex puzzle, but one that SolarCity’s GivePower Foundation has begun attempting to solve. By supplying schools in developing nations with solar power installations and batteries, SolarCity hopes to provide a firm foundation from which struggling communities can build themselves upward. We caught up with Barrett Raftery, executive director for the GivePower Foundation, to learn more.
gb&d: Countries on the receiving end of the GivePower Foundation’s charity have spent a lifetime struggling to develop. When did SolarCity launch the GivePower foundation and what was its impetus?
Raftery: GivePower is about two-and-a-half years old, we formally launched in late 2014. Everyone in the solar space to some degree has a connection to the transformative aspects of solar, which is giving electricity to people for the first time. GivePower was an expression of SolarCity’s collective desire to figure out how to help people most with solar. I know there are an immense amount of personal experiences from different people in the organization that went into that process of forming the GivePower Foundation, but I think it was ultimately a collective motion. When we launched GivePower, we said, “Okay, for every megawatt of power that SolarCity deploys in America, we will donate a solar power system to a school without electricity in the developing world.”
gb&d: When we think of the urgent remedies of poverty, food and clothing are the two that most reflexively come to mind. How do you make a compelling case for the importance of renewable energy?
Raftery: My experience thus far has been that most people, because of the way that billing for electricity is handled in the developed world, don’t understand that the vast majority of the energy that they consume is not just residential consumption in their house but throughout the city or town they live in. Electricity is what enables the infrastructure we have and allows us to live at the standard that we are used to. So if you don’t have access to energy, your health care, food security, water security, education, and ability to earn income will all be severely degraded.
gb&d: “Energy poverty” is virtually always linked to poverty in the broader sense. How can nations use solar energy to spark the domino effect of enriching their quality of life in other respects?
Raftery: Think of it this way: right now, solar power is a much more low-cost and quick way to provide power to people than trying to expand centralized infrastructure. So if I’m working in rural villages and trying to expand the grid to connect to a village of a hundred households, I’m going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and more time extending those transmission lines, then putting in distribution lines and putting in meters and doing that whole process. Using solar, it’s just fabulously cheaper and faster to put in than working with a massive, centralized infrastructure that totally exceeds the power supply necessary by those communities at this point in history.
gb&d: What is usually standing in between impoverished nations and wealth?
Raftery: Infrastructure, education, which I consider part of infrastructure, and health care as well. I don’t only mean it in roads, plumbing, and power lines. You don’t think about the fact that every time you buy a vegetable at the grocery store, that there were inherent energy costs to create that opportunity: refrigerating it, transporting it to you, or transporting it back to your house. Everything we buy includes an energy component, and if that energy component can’t be facilitated, then that good is not available to you.
gb&d: While developed nations work to transform our energy structures, poorer countries are merely vying for access to power. The communities that have been reached by GivePower Foundation are starting in the lane we’re meanwhile trying to merge to. What are the advantages to beginning green?
Raftery: There is a huge obstacle to the deployment of new infrastructure in America: the investment in existing infrastructure. We can’t change everything overnight because we already spent huge amounts of money and time creating the power grid in that way. But, in most of the communities where we work, there is no existing infrastructure, and there is no historical investment that will become nullified if we switch to renewables. There is no coal power plant going out of business when everyone switches over to solar in developing communities. And right now in the U.S., one of the biggest obstacles is the battle between utilities, who typically favor old infrastructure, and those trying to modernize the grid such as solar providers. Most everything we see happening in the domestic market is trying to balance and transition an incumbent system to a modern, forward-looking system, while I do believe we’ll see a leapfrogging effect in the developing world because they never invested in that incumbent system. Our biggest obstacles they don’t have, because they’re not there to get rid of, and this presents a great opportunity.
gb&d: Why did you guys decide to focus on schools initially?
Raftery: Why we started with schools is manifold. You kind of get a double-win with schools. You provide better education to kids because the school has better ability to remain open in the early morning and evening and attract top teachers and talent. In schools, you also expose people to the idea of renewables early, and in many cases it’s the first way they have ever accessed power, which is incredibly valuable. I think that level of tactile, experiential learning is fundamentally important for children. The schools often serve as community centers and gathering places for the villages we provide light too as well, so even adults in the community can take advantage of night classes or simply a building with light in evenings.
gb&d: What are some of your proudest examples of GivePower making a positive impact on a struggling community?
Raftery: I think Nepal will always touch me. Nepal was racked by a double earthquake. I was there for the second of them; it was quite bad. Unfortunately, potentially millions of dollars have been raised for assistance and very little has been used on the ground. In the absence of a functional, larger, NGO community, we were able to provide power to a number of displaced communities. When you look at the transformative effect of letting displaced peoples know that they are not forgotten, and in spite of massive tragedy and loss, that good things can still happen, you can be surprised by generosity the same way you can tragedy.
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