Energy transition transforming women's lives

If you use the term 'energy transition' in Australia, people are likely to think about electric cars or replacing coal generation with renewable energy.

In rural Asia – where women can spend hours every day collecting firewood or cow dung for fuel, manually hauling water or grinding grain – energy transition can transform women’s lives.

In some villages in Nepal, women
spend several hours a day
pounding and grinding grain.

Reihana Mohideen has seen this transition first hand. Following a degree in electrical engineering, Dr Mohideen worked in developing countries for Oxfam Australia and the Asian Development Bank, and then embarked on a research career exploring the social and gender implications of energy innovation in South Asia.

Access to clean, modern, sustainable energy is integral to the sustainable development goals of the United Nations and is vital for improving the lives of billions of people around the world. Dr Mohideen has worked on improving energy access and social inclusion in India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka. She explains that women in these countries traditionally manage the household chores of food processing and collecting fuel and water, which is back-breaking and time-consuming work. Access to modern energy can dramatically cut this workload.

“The typical rural scene is women walking down the road with massive loads of firewood on their heads. Similarly, with water, some women spend four hours a day walking back and forth carrying large pots filled with water on their heads.”

In some villages in Nepal, women spend several hours a day pounding and grinding grain. This can be significantly cut with powered food processing equipment.

Dr Mohideen, a senior research fellow at the Melbourne Energy Institute, is developing frameworks and decision making tools to ensure the energy systems implemented benefit and empower women and by extension, their communities. For some communities, transformation comes with expansion of a country’s existing electricity grid.

For more isolated or less populated communities, options may be limited to stand-alone solar, wind and micro-hydro systems, sometimes backed with diesel generators.

“When you provide a modern energy system you’re locking a community into that system for up to 20 to 25 years,” says Dr Mohideen.

“I have seen so many lovely little solar PV systems that only power two light bulbs and a phone charger, but that can’t expand or evolve to use later innovations.

“These small systems don’t necessarily enable women to have pumped water, to have food processing machines or mechanical equipment to contribute to the local economy.”

In addition to flexible long-term planning, Dr Mohideen says communities need to consider their specific energy needs and priorities, and be provided the information necessary to make informed choices.

“We have to make sure that the gender implications are understood,” says Dr Mohideen.

“If not, what we invariably find is that women’s tasks are not prioritised, and the tasks men do get prioritised in technology choices.

“We want to solve the access problem by giving the community the most advanced and innovative technology choices and make sure the community has enough energy to be productive.”

In developing countries, just 365 kilowatt hours a year per household, enterprise or community institution – the Tier 3 minimum energy of the World Bank’s multi-tier approach to providing sustainable energy access – is enough to power lighting and televisions, charge mobile phones and computers, pump water, provide mechanised food processing, basic refrigeration, washing machines and rice cookers.

“That’s less than the amount of electricity used by the typical old ‘beer’ fridge in an Australian garage.”

This level of access to modern energy reduces the amount of back-breaking manual labour women do and creates opportunities for economic empowerment. The less time women spend on household chores, the more time they can spend on income-raising activities. And with modern energy, these enterprises become more productive.

Local clinics in electrified communities can also stay open for longer hours, get modern equipment, and provide better diagnostics and services. Indeed, international data shows a clear decline in maternal mortality rates when energy consumption increases from very low to moderate levels. Cooking with electricity instead of firewood or cow dung also makes the air in homes healthier. The World Health Organization estimates that over 4 million people die prematurely every year due to indoor air pollution related to cooking with solid fuels such as these.

Dr Mohideen has partnered with government agencies and utilities in various Asian countries. She has designed templates, specifications, and a reference energy system to help them consider the implications of energy technology and system innovations for women.

“The standard teams that I would lead or work with would typically include mechanical and electrical engineers, economists to do the cost estimates, environmental specialists to do the environmental impact assessment, social specialists to do social due diligence, and so on,” says Dr Mohideen.

“You can’t work on a power system in the real world without a cross-disciplinary team.”

The next stage of the research is to pilot the reference energy system in a rural community, either in India or Bangladesh.

“The technology exists, the knowhow exists, and there is a good business case.”

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Picture: India at night satellite image, showing electrification (Source: NASA).