Small steps are making energy sector more inclusive for women

Members of a women-led group, most involved in farming, in front of solar panels powering irrigation in Jharkhand. Photo by Srikant Chaudhary/Mongabay.

Members of a women-led group, most involved in farming, in front of solar panels powering irrigation in Jharkhand. Photo by Srikant Chaudhary/Mongabay.

  • Mainstreaming women in the energy sector will require analysis of the existing gender gaps which in turn requires data collected and tabulated separately for women and men, something which is still largely missing.
  • Women are underrepresented in the energy sector. Entry-level barriers exist for women’s participation in modern energy access and management and also while transitioning from off-grid, household systems to grid electricity-based renewable energy projects.
  • Training women in STEM subjects at an early age could also pave the way for more women in leadership roles in the new and renewable energy sector ensuring gender justice.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened disparities which, if not addressed, may be a setback to reach the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all” by 2030.

Thirty-one-year-old Nagarathna gingerly maneuvers a trolley-like contraption across the dairy shed with solar panel fixtures gleaming in the sun. The contraption – a solar-powered milking machine – saves Nagarathna, a dairy farmer in southern India, an hour each day.

When quizzed how she spends her saved time, Nagarathna, with an embarrassed child-like laugh, tells Mongabay-India over the phone from Byndoor in Karnataka that she packs in more time to sleep in the morning than before she started using the solar-powered milking machine. She also manages the saved hour to arrange for fodder for her cattle. “Eventually, I plan to expand the cowshed to have more cows and produce more milk in less time through the milking machine,” she said. Nagarathna is among the 50,000 entrepreneurs trained and supported by the Bharathiya Vikas Trust to widen access to energy.

The Manipal-based organisation received the Ashden Award 2021 in the ‘Energy Access Skills’ category at an official ceremony held at the United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow earlier this month. Working mainly in Karnataka, BVT’s training and support particularly help marginalised groups including women, young people and people with disabilities.

Nagarathna received a loan of Rs. 50,000 from the bank to finance her solar-powered milking machine earlier this year and has showcased the technological intervention to her peers in her village. “We have erratic electricity supply in the village which is why I rely on the solar-powered device to speed up the milk collection.”

Apart from training grassroots entrepreneurs like Nagarathna, BVT also trains financiers (bank staff and managers) giving them the knowledge and confidence to lend to renewable energy enterprises. It has coached 15000 financiers so far. “This approach closes a ‘finance gap’ limiting the spread of clean energy as a means of making a living. If we have to make renewable energy successful 50 years down the road, we have to create the required human resource and develop relevant skills,” Sudhir Kulkarni, BVT’s Master Trainer explained.

Even as electricity is within reach of 96.7% of Indian households connected to the grid, reliability of power supply and opportunity cost of losing out active livelihood hours have emerged as challenges in the livelihood context. “Off-grid household solar energy has made it comfortable for the women to work in the evening after doing their chores despite the erratic supply of electricity. When we talk of expanding access to new and renewable energy (RE), we need to think in terms of equity of access to the resource; we keep talking of replacement of one source of energy with another,” BVT’s Sudipta Ghosh told Mongabay-India. “Unless equitable access is built into the program, bridging the equity gap in (modern) energy access will be difficult.”

Energy and social transformation researcher Shonali Pachauri sees a “huge opportunity” to increase employment for women in renewable sectors and related energy supply value chains too, but reveals entry barriers for women that must be overcome: low valuation of women’s time and work, existing gender and social norms, cultural practices that support men’s control of finances and access to markets.

Removing the barriers would require empowerment, skills training and capacity enhancements, and providing conducive working environments (e.g. flexible work hours, parental leave and day-care facilities) that enable gender-inclusive employment opportunities.

“We know that women are underrepresented in the energy sector. But mainstreaming women in the energy sector will require analysis of the existing gender gaps that, in turn, requires gender-disaggregated data, which is still largely missing,” Pachauri, research group leader of the Transformative Institutional and Social Solutions in the Energy, Climate, and Environment program at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Austria, told Mongabay-India.

Holding that gender mainstreaming should benefit the genders involved in using renewables, researcher Manjushree Banerjee who has explored gender mainstreaming in India-Africa partnership in energy access in an Observer Research Foundation brief says women’s participation in decentralised (such as off-grid, home-based systems) renewable energy (RE) is significant and more than men.

But in the transition to grid-electrification and involvement in big projects, women’s participation takes a hit in India and Africa, limiting the achievement of the long-term objective of grid electrification, within United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 7, i.e., of affordable and clean energy.

“Like any other industry, participation of women is low in big renewable energy projects, especially in decision-making roles and leadership. And the roles for women in big projects are STEM-associated. If we want more women to participate in the transition to grid electrification and RE-based power plants we have to orient women in STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education from the beginning,” Banerjee told Mongabay-India.

Globally, women account for 32% of all full-time jobs in the RE sector, and only 22 % in oil and gas. This number declines further in countries or societies with more stringent gender roles, she stressed. Banerjee expands that gender-mainstreaming should be incorporated at all levels, i.e. policy, planning, implementation, and maintenance.

India, the world’s third-largest greenhouse gas emitter and highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, announced, at the climate conference in Glasgow, that it would achieve net-zero by 2070.

According to the online application Gender Climate Tracker, India’s contribution (original Nationally Determined Contribution) takes into account its commitment to the conservation of nature as well as the imperatives of meeting the competing demand of resources for addressing the challenges of (inter alia) gender equality and women empowerment.

Nagarathna uses a solar-powered milking machine which saves her an hour in a workday. Photo by Bharathiya Vikas Trust.
Nagarathna uses a solar-powered milking machine which saves her an hour in a workday. Photo by Bharathiya Vikas Trust.

While the pledges suggest desired goals, they do not as yet provide details or a road map to how they will be achieved. The energy transition that will need to occur to meet the stated goals offers major opportunities and risks to greater social justice and gender equity, notes Pachauri.

“Roadmaps and plans to meet the stated goals will need to include a gender perspective and spell out gender equity-related priorities and objectives. These will subsequently then need to be evaluated against these to track impacts in terms of gender outcomes through tools such as gender audits to determine whether the transitions have been gender-just,” said Pachauri.

Aiming for gender-just transitions could also be placed in the context of building on existing India-Africa cooperation in training programmes in RE technologies and project management under the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) Programme, a bilateral programme of assistance, initiated in 1964. India has partnerships with 161 countries, including those in Africa. Tailored, gender-inclusive courses on energy access and transition to clean energy may also be introduced (or reintroduced) as energy access issues gain a stronger focus in these countries, writes Banerjee in the brief.

These trainings can be diversified to include women in grid-electrification work. One example, says Banerjee, is the involvement of women SHGs in the electricity meter reading and charge collection activity in rural Odisha which could be replicated and amplified for RE-based grid electrification. Women SHGs are engaged by distribution companies (DISCOMs) of GRIDCO Limited under the Energy Department across the state.

The Tracking SDG7 report (2021) warns that while 90 % of the global population now has access to electricity, if disparities exacerbated by the pandemic (COVID-19’s economic fall out making basic electricity services unaffordable for 30 million more people) are not addressed, they may keep us away from reaching SDG7, affecting other SDGs and the Paris Agreement’s objectives.

“Early evidence suggests that the pandemic is having an adverse impact on access to modern energy services and is exacerbating energy poverty. Job and income losses as a consequence of the pandemic have meant that households are moving down the energy ladder and using more biomass and other solid fuels because they are no longer able to afford cleaner cooking options (e.g. LPG) and because supplies of these have become more unreliable and irregular and also more expensive, in some instances,” explained Pachauri referring to recent research where she and her colleagues have documented some of this early literature.

“We have also carried out a scenario study recently that shows that without urgent efforts to make clean cooking options more easily available and affordable to low-income and remote regions and the poorest households, slow recovery from the pandemic could result in a huge setback to efforts to achieve clean cooking by 2030 as targeted by SDG7,” she said.

Banner image: Members of a women-led group, most involved in farming, in front of solar panels powering irrigation in Jharkhand. Photo by Srikant Chaudhary/Mongabay.

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