In China's mountainous Gansu province, far from the teeming cities of Shanghai and Beijing, Bob Freling watched a family switch on a light bulb for the first time.
"As the fixtures were about to be plugged in, we waited breathlessly," said Freling, who was working then as Chinese-English interpreter in Taiwan. He quoted a letter from a farmer who witnessed the event 15 years ago: "In a flash, the lights came on, and as they did an old man from the village said ... 'What a beautiful sight to behold.'"
Solar panels had allowed electricity to travel far from the centralized power grid. That meant people in that village could continue activities into the night, offering a chance to improve public health, agriculture, education and commerce.
And it meant Freling, now 49 and executive director of the Washington-based nonprofit Solar Electric Light Fund, or SELF, had discovered his life's mission.
His organization has helped bring solar-powered electricity to villages in more than 20 countries on four continents. SELF runs on a $2.5 million annual budget with six full-time employees and a host of contractors -- including the United Nations, the Clinton HIV/AIDS Initiative and the Department of Energy.
For his work, Freling was recently given the King Hussein Leadership Prize -- an award whose previous recipients include the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and the nonprofit Doctors without Borders. Jordan's Queen Noor gave Freling his award in a ceremony last month at Colorado's Aspen Institute.
His getting the award, Freling said, shows growing recognition of energy's role in battling poverty and disease.
"It says a lot about how the dots are being connected between energy and poverty and security and human rights around the world, not to mention climate change," Freling said. "Energy, especially electricity, is a foundation of modern civilization."
He added, "Think about what it would be like to live your whole life essentially groping in the dark after the sun goes down. There's very little opportunity to read or study or engage in any productive activity during the evening hours."
Without electricity, he said, there is no way to refrigerate vaccines, no practical way to irrigate crops. And connecting with the outside world is all but impossible without radios, satellite televisions or wireless communications.
Ironically, providing villagers with what Freling sees as the key to a healthier, more productive life is not expensive.
A $500 microloan can buy a 50-watt solar home system with 12-volt battery storage -- enough to power a family for decades, Freling said. And enhanced productivity in the home or on the farm allows recipients to pay their loans and allows others to buy their own power systems.
Solar is an alternative to the more common development strategy of distributing diesel generators, which are both polluting and prone to expensive breakdowns, said Freling, who grew up in Dallas and graduated from Yale University. Though it has limitations, he said, solar is gaining favor as a more sustainable solution to meeting energy needs in the developing world.
In India, for example, the Solar Electric Light Co., a for-profit company spun off by SELF in 1997, has sold more than 95,000 solar home systems through financing programs offered by local banks.
Powering the developing world
The U.N. Development Programme lists eight "millennium development goals" critical to empowering impoverished communities. Crucial to each, Freling said, is electricity.
U.N. energy specialist Stephen Gitonga agreed. Transformations in communities that gain access to electricity for the first time "are enormous by all standards," he said.
In U.N. developmental programs, electricity is a catalyst for farm production, increased commerce and market enterprise, Gitonga said. In health clinics, electricity allows for safer night deliveries of babies and contributes to improved maternal health.
Electricity can also promote gender equality where women are usually required to do the most tedious jobs, such as gathering firewood and water for crops.
"Many children, especially girls, do not attend primary schools in order to carry wood and water to meet family subsistence needs," Gitonga said. "[Electricity] thus aids transformation by creating generations of new adult women who are educated with new opportunities in the society."
One of SELF's most recent projects uses grants from a nongovernmental organization to install low-cost, solar-powered water pumps in two villages in the West African country of Benin for irrigation, enabling a women's farming cooperative to grow vegetables during the dry seasons and sell surplus produce for a profit.
The Kalale Solar Electrification Project in Benin aims to boost crop yields so future participants can repay loans with interest, creating an attractive market for micro-lenders.
"If we can demonstrate the ability of these farmers to earn enough income from the sale of this produce they can actually pay for the water pumping and the drip irrigation, then we don't need to rely on grant funding to continue," Freling said. "Our hope is that this will eventually become a new business model that can be scaled up to the private sector."
Initial results are promising, according to Stanford University's Program on Food Security and the Environment, which is monitoring the project's crop yields. Initial results suggest productivity rose nearly four times what it had been a year before in the wake of the pumps' installation.
"The Benin project has been very successful," said Jen Burney, a Stanford researcher. "The women have been making quite a bit of money, and for many of them this is the first income that they've ever earned."
Without solar-powered irrigation, the women would normally have to pump the water from a bore well and carry 5-gallon jugs for 500 meters to the field. That labor curbs what can be grown without rain -- not to mention the back-breaking labor it involves.
"When we consider the amount of land they can water now compared to then, it's 20 times the size," Burney said, "with virtually none of the labor."
Of course, solar-powered irrigation is only one component of what SELF calls the "whole village model," in which solar power is extended to settlement households, clinics, schools and micro-enterprises.
The exciting thing about bringing distributed solar generation to Africa is that it is more welcomed than in much of the industrialized world, Freling said.
Studies have shown that industrialized countries have a harder time integrating intermittent solar energy, a "disruptive technology," into an existing centralized electric grid system. By contrast, developing countries with no history of electrification can more easily adapt to the technology's intermittent power.
With relatively few competing transmission systems, solar power is uniquely positioned to take a leading role in supplying the energy needs of Africa, Freling said.
"The good news is that they don't have to repeat the whole patterns of development that we went through," Freling said, referring to the developed world's reliance on fossil fuels.
"They have an opportunity to leapfrog the whole world of fossil fuels and centralized power plants," he added, "and move directly into a 20th-century economy based on clean, distributive technologies."