By Harriet Lamb, Ashden CEO
Coronavirus has rocked clean energy enterprises across the world. They have been struck both by a deadly threat to their staff and customers, but also the far-reaching economic disaster triggered by the pandemic.
Organisations are adapting fast, exploring new business models and ways of working, so they can continue their efforts to build a more resilient, fair and connected world. Crucially, they are also finding ways to support health services and spread important messaging about the virus.
Talking to many members of the Ashden network – which includes more than 200 energy and climate pioneers – gave us insights into the key challenges they face and the innovations they are driving on the Coronavirus frontline.
In India, electric rickshaw company SMV Green is exploring ways to use its vehicles to deliver essential supplies – and hopes that by equipping all drivers with face masks and hand gel, it can promote behaviours that improve community health.
In Pakistan’s villages, hydroelectric power schemes created by the Sarhad Rural Support Programme are boosting resilience at a critical time. Their network of staff and volunteers is embedded in local communities, where they have years of experience helping people earn a better living. Now the programme is passing on information that helps people prevent virus transmission. Its campaigns in schools, mosques, markets and elsewhere to encourage handwashing and social distancing have reached about 250,000 people.
This work is possible because of the programme’s connection to the poorest and most marginalised. As we face this unprecedented crisis, such clean energy enterprises and organisations are a vital link with those most vulnerable to the pandemic – a link which must be protected.
Financial support could be a lifeline
However, frontline innovators have warned us that the adaptations needed come at significant cost – at a time when many organisations have seen cash flow dry up and the communities they serve face intense hardship. For years, clean energy enterprises have been focused on becoming sustainable businesses by reaching paying customers, rather than relying on grants and philanthropy.
Paradoxically, those who have been most successful in this effort are now at most immediate risk. Many are reliant on monthly payments from customers who have invested in solar home systems or similar products – many of these customers will now struggle to pay.
But support from donors and philanthropists is also expected to come under severe pressure, pulled towards growing need in other areas – particularly healthcare. So with income of every kind under threat, organisations urgently need investment and financial relief, as well as pro-bono business support and opportunities to forge innovative partnerships that will get them through the difficult times ahead.
In the world’s richest countries, even huge brands such as airlines to oil companies are scrabbling to find the cash and help to stay afloat. So it’s no surprise that smaller, upstart clean energy companies who seek to serve the poorest, from Mumbai to Mombasa and Mexico City, also need support.
The rapid changes they must make bring huge challenges. For example, digital connections are more important than ever. But in countries where communication infrastructure is weak, and the poorest of the poor do not always have the tools to go online, this becomes impossible. So for a company normally reliant on door-to-door selling, a quick transition to e-commerce is extremely tough.
Government action is also crucial. This includes developing-world governments ensuring that off-grid energy companies and others are classified as essential services. We need to keep on the lights in villages as in cities. Donor governments should recognise how frontline enterprises are delivering important services now while also creating the low-carbon future, as well as their ability to pivot to a role fighting the pandemic. With these factors in mind, it is vital support is maintained.
Powering healthcare innovation
Karuna Trust is one organisation showing the importance of clean energy in times of crisis. The trust provides healthcare and other essential services to poor communities in five Indian states. I spoke to its joint secretary Venkat Chekuri a few weeks into the coronovirus crisis, who told me the organisation has 5,000 people working in health centres across the five states working 24/7 to respond to the crisis. “We’re running health centres where we screen everyone,” he said. “We’ve worked providing a public health service in the community – including to very remote communities – for decades, so we know the communities very well.”
Sustainable energy is at the heart of its healthcare delivery. Reliable electricity leads to safer procedures – for example keeping medicines and vaccines at the right temperature or providing light for night-time emergency operations – and solar power allows it to take services into the heart of off -grid communities.
Now the trust is responsible for protecting 1.5 million people from the effects of coronavirus. Its response includes a host of digital innovations – from an updated electronic patient record system to an app that tracks supplies of medicine and personal protective equipment. The use of teleconsultations makes sure people are assessed quickly, while reducing the risk to others. All these tools demand reliable, affordable energy.
The links between sustainable energy, health and community resilience are clearer than ever. For a safer today and a better tomorrow, we must back such grassroots organisations playing an essential role in responding to today’s crisis and in ensuring that we can indeed build back better.
As Venkat Chekuri pointed out: “This crisis tells us that we can return to our roots and reduce consumption. We have increased consumption exponentially, pushed by globalisation – now we need to rethink what we spend on core needs such as our health and wellbeing.”