The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) published a report earlier this year highlighting the potential for renewable energy to alleviate some of the world’s most pressing social and environmental challenges. Their work aligns with Cornerstone’s thinking about the intersectional nature of these issues, as expressed by our Access Impact FrameworkTM. Below is an excerpt from IRENA’s report, republished with permission and lightly edited for length.
The ongoing energy transformation, driven by renewables, is bringing far-reaching, systemic change to our societies. This offers important opportunities for greater inclusion and equality.
Accelerating the deployment of renewables can alleviate poverty, create jobs, improve welfare and strengthen gender equality. Still, to fully realise this potential, the renewables industry has to tap a wider pool of talent – notably that of women, who have been largely underrepresented, depriving the energy transition of critical capacities.
Renewable Energy: A Gender Perspective provides new insights on women’s role in renewable energy employment and decision-making globally. This key report aims to help fill the knowledge gap in this field. Based on a ground-breaking, first-of-its-kind online survey combined with in-depth research, the study highlights the importance of women’s contributions in the energy transformation, the barriers and challenges they face, and measures that governments and companies can take to address these.
Adopting a gender perspective to renewable energy development is critically important to ensure that women’s contributions – their skills and views – represent an integral part of the growing industry. Increased women’s engagement expands the talent pool for the renewables sector. In the context of energy access, engaging women as active agents in deploying off-grid renewable energy solutions is known to improve sustainability and gender outcomes.
In recognition of these opportunities, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted in 2015 introduced a dedicated goal on gender equality (SDG 5), noting that the “systematic mainstreaming of a gender perspective in the implementation of the Agenda is crucial”.
Women in Renewable Energy: Access Context
Energy access and gender are deeply entwined components of the global development agenda. The transformative effect on women of gaining access to affordable, reliable and sustainable modern energy is well-known. Energy access frees up time for women who otherwise may spend an average of 100 hours a year collecting fuel wood and gives them more flexibility in sequencing tasks, since lighting allows them to do more at night. It also improves access to public services and opens new opportunities for part-time work and income-generating activities.
The distributed nature of off-grid renewable energy solutions offers tremendous opportunities for women’s engagement along multiple segments of the value chain. Many of the skills needed to take advantage of those opportunities can be developed locally and women are ideally placed to lead and support the delivery of energy solutions, especially in view of their role as primary energy users and their social networks.
Organisations have found it difficult to ignore the value of involving women in the renewable energy supply chain. SELCO India, for instance, trained female solar technicians in the early 2000s simply (at least initially) as a means to accomplish its business goals: technicians were needed to enter the homes of customers to repair solar lanterns and cookstoves. As women become engaged in delivering energy solutions, they take on more active roles in their communities and consequently facilitate a gradual shift in the social and cultural norms that previously acted as barriers to their agency.
Barriers to engagement
Over two-thirds of survey respondents noted that women face barriers to participation in the renewables-based energy access sector. Cultural and social norms were cited by respondents as the most common barrier, followed by lack of gender-sensitive policies and training opportunities and inequality in ownership of assets. Security and the remoteness of field locations were also mentioned as other barriers to participation.
Policies and solutions
Training is often an integral part of energy access programmes, but greater efforts are needed to make them more accessible to women. Training sessions must be tailored and scheduled around women’s childcare responsibilities and be sensitive to mobility constraints, security concerns and social restrictions that may prohibit women from participating.
Dedicated financing schemes are particularly important if women are to play an active role in the off-grid renewables value chain (e.g., as technology distributors) and tap into the entire spectrum of opportunities created by modern energy access (e.g., investments in productive appliances). The Self-Employed Women’s Association in India, for instance, connects women to financing options through the Thrift and Credit Cooperative, providing affordable payment options so that women can invest in livelihood options, family education and household safety. SEWA also provides a special energy loan product and has set up a company that employs women to market, sell, install and service solar home lighting solutions that benefit over 20 000 people.
Opportunities and gaps will become evident if gender is mainstreamed at the level of energy access policies, programmes and projects. In 2013, the Economic Community of West African States established a programme to mainstream gender in the formulation of energy access policy and in the design and implementation of energy projects and programmes. A dedicated policy for mainstreaming gender in energy access, endorsed in 2015, aims to ensure that women are part of the solution and leverage their role as energy users, community members, business owners and policy makers.
Gender audits, as tools, can ensure due consideration of the known gender differences in household decision-making, preferences and priorities. These have been used in Botswana, India and Senegal, among other countries, to support the integration of gender into energy access projects. The socio-economic dividends of gender mainstreaming are immense; several examples covered in the report suggest improvements in women’s self-perception and empowerment within the community. In Indonesia, for instance, over 500 “wonder women” have been trained as social entrepreneurs, selling clean energy technologies that have reached over 250 000 people. It is estimated that around 20% of women became more empowered within their families – taking on a greater role in household decision making – and almost half of them perceived an improvement in their status.
Advancing equality and diversity in the energy sector is a compelling proposition rather than a zero-sum game. Establishing gender as a pillar of energy strategies at the national and global levels will produce a swifter and more-inclusive transition to renewable energy while accelerating the attainment of multiple Sustainable Development Goals.
 For the purposes of this report, gender refers to men and women.