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Women Working Together to Lead the Clean Energy Future

Women's leadership in clean energy may be key to ensuring energy access for all

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Author: Caroline McGregor, Initiative Lead for the Clean Energy Ministerial’s C3E (Clean Energy Education & Empowerment) initiative 

Closing the energy access gap is a grand challenge of the modern era, and women’s empowerment may hold the key to unlock a solution.

Closing the energy access gap is a grand challenge of the modern era, and women’s empowerment may hold the key to unlock a solution.

Worldwide, about 1.6 billion people lack access to electricity, and the vast majority of those rely on kerosene lanterns for lighting. More than 3 billion also rely on biomass for cooking and heating. This lack of clean and affordable sources of energy, most often in rural areas, affects women and children the most. They are the ones who may spend hours foraging for firewood or other biomass to burn, and they are primarily the ones who tend the fire. Kerosene is expensive and dangerous, a frequent cause of house fires and poisonings when children mistake the clear liquid for water, as well as a source of pollution. The burning of both biomass and kerosene has also been found to be a significant source of black carbon, a potent pollutant and contributor to global warming. Worldwide, about 3.5 million deaths each year are attributed to indoor air pollution, more than from AIDS and malaria combined.

Clean energy holds enormous promise for closing the energy access gap as well as addressing the health and safety issues related to these dirtier sources of energy, particularly as technologies improve and innovative business models and financing structures emerge. Reducing the capital cost of cleaner technologies such as solar lanterns, clean cookstoves, and solar based off-grid household lighting systems removes the main barrier to entry for families who may pay a large part of their incomes each day for kerosene, but who can’t save enough for the upfront cost to purchase a product or system.  

Energy plays an essential role in human and economic development. For women, the benefits from access to clean energy can be profound, opening the door to better health as well as opportunities for education and entrepreneurial activities. 

To ensure that women and men benefit equally from the expansion of clean energy—that the rising tide lifts all boats—programs and policies have to be well designed and inclusive.

On the other side of the energy equation, those working in the energy sector worldwide are disproportionately men. The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women) estimates that “the share of female employees in the energy industry is only 20 percent, [with] most working in non-technical fields.” There’s particularly a dearth of women in leadership roles in energy.  

The disconnect between those who are creating policies and working in the energy sector and those who may be most impacted by their energy decisions could have profound ramifications. South Africa’s former Energy Minister Elizabeth Dipuo Peters, one of only a handful of women energy ministers around the world, highlighted the fact that for policy makers to adequately address the issues affecting women, they must first “understand the interests and needs of women.”  

South Africa’s former Energy Minister Elizabeth Dipuo Peters speaks at the Women in Clean Energy event at CEM4 in New Delhi.
In India, Dr Syeda Hameed of the India Planning Commission recently gave remarks noting that steps had been taken to include gender sensitivity in clean energy programs in India. “The traditional approach to policy and planning assumed gender neutrality and that the trickle-down effect would benefit both women and men,” said Dr. Hameed. She highlighted India’s 12th Five Year Plan, which includes several important innovations to address the needs of women and increase their participation in decision making. 

Dr Hameed made these remarks during a high-level discussion on the role of women in clean energy and innovation that was part of the fourth Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM4), recently held in New Delhi. The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), a research institute based in India and where many women in India working in clean energy got their start, hosted the event. 

Of the 23 governments represented at CEM4, Minister Peters was the only female energy minister attending. Minister Peters has been a strong supporter of C3E, the Clean Energy Ministerial’s women in clean energy initiative, since its launch in 2010. Minister Peters also spoke at CEM4, stressing the need for women to not be content with their own energy empowerment and to instead keep working for change until women everywhere are empowered. 

Nine CEM governments—Australia, Denmark, Mexico, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States—collaborated to launch C3E and made a commitment to undertake meaningful activities to advance women in clean energy and close the gender gap in their own national contexts. 

The United States implemented an ambitious national C3E program in 2012 with three main pillars, focused on empowering women on a professional level: (1) senior‐executive‐level Ambassadors who are role models and champions for the next generation, (2) an awards program to recognize mid‐career leadership, and (3) an annual symposium on clean energy to promote networking by professionals working across the clean energy spectrum. To internationalize the C3E efforts and connect women around the world who were working in clean energy, a global online community forum,, was recently launched.  

The C3E Ambassadors program has also gone global. In addition to Minister Peters, four new international C3E Ambassadors were named at CEM4 by Mexico and Finland. These international C3E Ambassadors will act as role models and continue to prioritize women’s leadership in the clean energy sector.

C3E isn’t the only program that recognizes the need to include women in expanding the reach of clean energy. The U.S. State Department launched a program called wPOWER to advance women entrepreneurs in clean energy. And now in India, wPOWER is being implemented by the Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP), which is setting up a network of 1,000 women village-level entrepreneurs (sakhis) in Bihar and Maharashtra. 

Empowering women at a community level is also a key piece of the solution. In the social enterprise domain, Solar Sister is building networks of women sales representatives who sell modern lighting and cooking devices to their communities.

Women have much to gain from clean energy and much to contribute to clean energy. Having a voice as policies and programs are designed or implemented, with women in leadership roles in the clean energy sector or as community-based entrepreneurs, can help ensure women throughout the world benefit from access to clean energy.


A version of this article originally appeared in the August edition of Energy Next [subscription required]:

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