During The Aspen Environment Forum Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan presented the King Hussein Leadership Prize which recognizes outstanding leadership in promoting human rights, sustainability and world peace. And the winner was Bob Freling, Executive Director of an American nonprofit called SELF -- the Solar Electric Light Fund, which has been solar-powering villages around the world.

Queen Noor, when presenting the award, said:

Mr. Freling is a visionary leader working at the intersection of environmental stewardship and sustainable human development, whose work has had a transformative impact on the quality of life, opportunity, and the security and stability of communities around the world. SELF helps whole villages leapfrog from no reliable energy to affordable, green power that in turn provides access to other basic rights – clean water, education, healthcare, and economic empowerment.

I had a chance to sit down with Bob Freling and learn more about the amazing work his organization has been doing, in particular his work in Benin, where SELF developed and installed the country's first solar-powered drip irrigation system (video above).

Mr. Freling joined SELF in 1994, just a few years after it was founded by Neville Williams when the organization received its first Rockefeller grant to solar power villages in China. Bob's ability to speak Chinese, his working knowledge of solar energy, and a passion for rural economic development, landed him a role as director of SELF's first major project in a remote village in the mountains of China.

It was in China that he got "turned on" (so to speak) to the power of solar energy:

It was there that I got to observe families flip a switch and have an electric light come on for the first time in their lives.  They were blown away and I was blown away…And I was hooked. 
SELF, which later spun off a for-profit power company in India called SELCO, brought to the developing world a major innovation in financing solar projects. Many village families live on a few dollars per day, and for $5-10 per month they purchase just enough kerosene to get by. The $500 required upfront to pay for for a basic 50 watt home solar system is typically out of reach for most every village homeowner. 

But the economics are there... within 4-5 years the system could be paid off in kerosene savings alone (without the carcinogenic side-effects of that hazardous fuel), and then for 20+ years could provide that home with essentially "free" clean electricity.

That's where SELF's innovative microfinance program came to the rescue. Instead of using grant money to give away solar panels, a model that is inherently unsustainable, SELF used those grants to create a revolving loan program from which village homeowners could borrow to pay for their panels.

The project was a huge success and as Bob said, "We demonstrated in country after country the willingness and ability of rural families to pay for solar electricity at the household level if you can provide access to credit."

With SELCO up and running, Bob Freling looked at expanding the scope of SELF to solar power entire villages, thereby providing access to social services that were previously out of reach -- water purification, vaccine storage, powering schools & computers, water pumping, lighting small businesses and public areas, and providing internet voice & data.

As Bill Clinton described in his recent talk (VIDEO) at Fortune Green, solar power is the keystone technology that enables all of the United Nations Millennium Goals, like access to food and medicine. But as Mr. Freling pointed out, it is ironic that energy itself is not listed as a Millennium goal: 

Access to modern energy was not included as a Millennium goal even though if you look carefully at each and everyone one of these eight development goals without an energy component none of these Millennium goals are achievable. Energy for too long has been neglected and overlooked in terms of what it can and should do... in the development process.
I asked Mr. Freling why he thought that was so, and his answer his both surprising and dead-on. We in the western world take energy for granted. Electricity, as he describes it, is an "invisible commodity." It's almost impossible for us to imagine what it really means to grow up in the dark, or have to walk miles to fetch water, or to be totally stranded with no access to the outside world during a medical emergency.

It is for this reason that Mr. Freling is especially pleased that SELF's work has been recognized by the King Hussein Foundation. It is not a "green" award per se, but rather is intended to reward visionary enterprises that promote peace, prosperity and global security. The award acknowledges that solar power has a major role to play in uplifting the lives of millions. As Bob put it:

More and more people are waking up to the... essential role of clean energy in not only addressing climate change and combating extreme poverty, but also ultimately making the world more secure, and more peaceful, and more equitable.
This same philosophy, Mr. Freling believes, should also be applied to wealthy countries like the U.S. Solar energy he feels is our best ally in the quest for a stable economy and strengthened national security. As he explains:
Our energy system is too centralized and too vulnerable to disruption from natural disaster or acts of terrorism. Imagine if everybody had a solar panel on their roof, how much more secure we would be as a nation.
A side note... SELF’s projects, in addition to combating poverty in the developing world, also generate carbon offsets by virtue of displacing the use of kerosene and/or diesel fuel. So individuals, companies, and conferences can offset their carbon footprint by helping to finance more solar electrification in rural areas around the globe.

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