Solar Energy and Social Justice

Solar Energy and Social Justice

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By Emily Peterson, Summer Intern 2019

Are you interested in an internship with the Honnold Foundation? We offer remote and office-based internships on a semester schedule. Follow us on social media or join the mailing list to be the first to hear about new opportunities.

 

At the Honnold Foundation, we believe the people most affected by climate change are those already disadvantaged in some way because of factors like race, income, and gender. Increasing energy access using solar can help change the trajectory of climate change worldwide while increasing resiliency and power on a community level. 

The community of Adjuntas celebrating a solar-powered future for Puerto Rico. Photo by Ruben Salgado Escudero

Typically, regions that have boomed economically have done so at a high environmental cost: burning coal to power factories, clearcutting forests and draining wetlands to build homes and shopping centers, and using gasoline to fuel cars. In areas that have not undergone this economic boom, an opportunity exists to change the parallel relationship between economic growth and environmental degradation. In Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, the Honnold Foundation is partnering with Casa Pueblo, a community-based organization focused on environmental conservation and sustainable development, to create a community-owned solar microgrid.

Powered by solar energy since 1999, Casa Pueblo understands the power of solar to drive economic and environmental change. In Adjuntas, businesses typically spend about a third of their operational costs on energy. “Energy independence means that people will be able to produce their own energy for their own productive activities… instead of paying someone else” says Arturo Massol-Deyá, Associate Director of Casa Pueblo. “And when they’re doing that, we’re promoting economic activation. Now we can talk about dealing with poverty levels in the area… And the beauty of this is that instead of us generating greenhouse gases and hurting nature that eventually pays back with hurricanes or droughts or other issues related to climate change, now we can reduce our ecological footprint.” 

A volunteer installer at work on a GRID Alternatives project in the Navajo Nation. Photo by Irene Yee.

For longtime Honnold Foundation partner GRID Alternatives, solar education also has measurable social justice implications. In addition to installing solar on homes to reduce energy costs and dependence on electric utilities, the organization teaches community members how to install and repair solar panels themselves. A similar model is in the works with a new Foundation partner, the North End Woodward Community Coalition (NEWCC) in Detroit. Long after the initial solar panels are installed, members of these communities have technical skills that can continue to make their neighborhoods more self-sufficient and environmentally resilient. 

At the Honnold Foundation, we believe that solar energy can create a more equitable world– by increasing the economic resiliency of marginalized communities, supporting education and health for communities of color, and creating inexpensive power for homes who wouldn’t be able to pay for electricity otherwise. Increasing solar energy access is a powerful tool to address both environmental and social justice issues, and the Honnold Foundation partners with organizations who utilize solar to its full potential.  

 
 

Alex's Holiday Reading List

Alex's Holiday Reading List

Books about the environment, energy access, the economy, and outdoor exploration have all influenced the creation of the Honnold Foundation, and the evolution of Alex's approach to the world. For Alex and the rest of the HF team, one of the best ways to spend a mandatory rest day is sitting down with a good book.

“I read all these books during my Free Solo movie tour,” Alex says about his newest book recommendations. “So at least being a movie star is good for something! I'm getting an education!”

 

 

Homo Deus, by Yuval Noah Harari

Alex says: “Brad Gobright recommended this to me a long time ago and I finally read it while flying too much for Free Solo screenings. I didn't really love it— it felt too futuristic and speculative. Too far out and unfounded. But gives you things to think about for sure.”

IndieBound / Amazon

The Long Walk, by Sławomir Rawicz

Alex says: “This is an epic story about a Polish POW escaping a Russian labor camp during World War II. I thought this was amazing as I read it until I mentioned it to Jimmy Chin, who told me that it was all fake. Sadly, after researching it a bit, i discovered that Jimmy was right. I wouldn't encourage anyone to read it, since it's fake…”

IndieBound / Amazon

21 Lessons for the 21st Century, by Yuval Noah Harari

Alex says: “I liked this book much more than Homo Deus. In fact, it felt like it was the book that I was expecting from Homo Deus. It seemed more relevant and more important for my own life. I rather enjoyed it.”

IndieBound / Amazon

The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander

Alex says: “This book was given to me by a friend whose copy had tons of underlined and highlighted passages. It made an already incredibly powerful book even more meaningful.  This book fundamentally changed the way I think about crime and incarceration in the United States. I'd strongly encourage every US citizen to read it.”

IndieBound / Amazon

Are Prisons Obsolete, by Angela Davis

Alex says: “Short answer: yes. This was a good follow up to The New Jim Crow and posed more questions about the United States justice system. Or lack thereof.”

IndieBound / Amazon

Karakoram, by Steve Swenson

Alex says: “Steve is one of the kindest men in climbing, and it was a pleasure to read his book about 30 years or so of climbing experience in the Karakoram. His expeditions and climbs are inspiring in their own right, but the life he's lived outside of climbing is maybe more impressive. And I'm hoping to climb in Pakistan this year so this was a great primer.”

IndieBound / Amazon

Measure What Matters, by John Doerr

Alex says: “This was given to me at a business event. I found it not super useful for my personal life— it probably means more to someone starting a tech company. It's all about Objectives and Key Results, which help organizations like Google align around goals. But for an individual, I think it's probably easier to just write a to do list in a journal.”

IndieBound / Amazon

Winners Take All, by Anand Giridharadas

Alex says: “This was given to me at an event by someone who thought it would be important for me to read. It was his library book, so I plowed through it in three days to make sure he could return it on time. As he predicted, it was thought provoking and relevant for me. Definitely worth a read for anyone in a position of privilege. “

IndieBound / Amazon

Prisoners of Geography, by Tim Marshall 

Alex says: “Geography determines much about global politics, and this book helps untangle the mess. I really enjoyed it and felt like I learned a lot. Made me want to learn more about geopolitics.”

IndieBound / Amazon

Factfulness, by Hans Rosling

Alex says: “I think this is a pretty darn good book. My biggest take away is probably to think about the world in terms of 4 levels of development, instead of trying to break it down into west/global south or developed/developing or whatever else. It has plenty of good ideas that are well presented.”

IndieBound / Amazon

Energy and Civilization: A History, by Vaclav Smil

Alex says: “This seems like it should be extremely boring since it's basically a textbook about energy use through the ages. But it's actually surprisingly readable and interesting. It's the first Smil book that I've read, I doubt it will be the last.”

IndieBound / Amazon

 

Want more?

If you’ve already powered through this reading list and are hungry for more, never fear! Alex and the HF team have plenty more recommendations for you. Or, if there’s a recommendation you’re dying to share with Alex, pass it along! If he likes it enough, your title might make its way onto the next book list.

 

Alex's Reading List

Alex's Reading List

Books about the environment, energy access, the economy, and the way we eat have all influenced the creation of the Honnold Foundation, and the evolution of Alex's approach to the world. Here at HF, we're strong believers in the power of a good book-- and so we've selected 23 of Alex's favorites (and some color commentary) to give you a peek behind the scenes.

"If you look at all the books together," Alex says, "it gives a pretty good sense of how my brain works now.”

Looking for more recommendations? We’re adding new titles all the time! Click here to explore fresh picks from Alex’s Book List.

 

 

CLIMATE & ENVIRONMENT

THE WORLD WITHOUT US, BY ALAN WEISMAN

Alex says: "I think about this book a lot. It’s interesting to imagine how the world would heal without us..."

IndieBound / Amazon

 

THE SIXTH EXTINCTION, BY ELIZABETH KOLBERT

Alex says: "Very depressing. Educational, but depressing."

IndieBoundAmazon

 

OVERVIEW: A NEW PERSPECTIVE OF EARTH, BY BENJAMIN GRANT

Alex says: "I loved this book, and follow @dailyoverview on Instagram. It helps give a global perspective."

IndieBound / Amazon

 

THE RAMBUNCTIOUS GARDEN: SAVING NATURE IN A POST-WILD WORLD, BY EMMA MARRIS

Alex says: "I actually think of this book more than I expected to when I first read it - the idea of our random extra spaces (think highway medians) being nature really sunk in.

IndieBound / Amazon




MONEY AND HOW WE SPEND IT

THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING: CAPITALISM VS CLIMATE, BY NAOMI KLEIN

Alex says: "Depressing. Good, but grim. Kind of like the economic version of The Sixth Extinction."

IndieBound / Amazon

 

THE BETTER WORLD SHOPPING GUIDE: HOW EVERY DOLLAR CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE, BY ELLIS JONES

Alex says: "My sister bought this for me and signed it with the inscription: For Alex - In case you ever start giving a shit. Love, Stasia.” It was the beginning of a long process in which I’ve given more and more shits.

IndieBound / Amazon

 

BUILT TO LAST: SUCCESSFUL HABITS OF VISIONARY COMPANIES, BY JIM COLLINS

Alex says: "I read Jim’s books because I once saw a quote where Tommy Caldwell said that Jim was his favorite author. That was before I knew Tommy really well so I couldn’t ask him about it - all I could do was read all the books. It's also worth saying that Jim Collins, besides being the best selling business author of all time or something like that, has also free soloed The Naked Edge (5 pitch 5.11c). Whoa!""

IndieBound / Amazon

 

LET MY PEOPLE GO SURFING: THE EDUCATION OF A RELUCTANT BUSINESSMAN, BY YVON CHOUINARD

Alex says: "I have a ton of respect for Yvon both as a climber and a businessman. He’s definitely lived his life correctly."

IndieBound / Amazon






WHAT WE EAT

IN DEFENSE OF FOOD: AN EATER’S MANIFESTO, BY MICHAEL POLLAN

Alex says: “Eat real food, mostly plants, not too much.” I think of that all the time. Words to live by."

IndieBoundAmazon

 

EAT AND RUN: MY UNLIKELY JOURNEY TO ULTRAMARATHON GREATNESS, BY SCOTT JUREK

Alex says: “I’m good friends with Scott and his wife so I’m biased, but I found this book to be an inspiring tale of veganhood. Scott’s the man!”

IndieBound / Amazon

 

EATING ANIMALS, BY JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER

Alex says: “This book made me care more about animal rights than anything else I’ve read. I’d already been vegetarian for years when I read it, but it made me appreciate the suffering of animals a lot more.”

IndieBound / Amazon

 

THE DORITO EFFECT: THE SURPRISING NEW TRUTH ABOUT FOOD AND FLAVOR, BY MARK SCHATZKER

Alex says: "I remember nothing about this. Maybe the book is as empty as a Dorito..."

IndieBound / Amazon

 

ADVENTURE & EXPLORATION

BARBARIAN DAYS, BY WILLIAM FINNEGAN

Alex says: "A true surfing lifer! Makes me hope that I can have that kind of love for climbing my whole life. This book was Jimmy Chin’s - I borrowed it in Antarctica after I finished all of mine... the beauty of real, paper books."

IndieBound / Amazon

 

WITH BARE HANDS: THE TRUE STORY OF ALAIN ROBERT, THE REAL-LIFE SPIDERMAN, BY ALAIN ROBERT

Alex says: "This book was either translated to English by Google or by someone who didn’t actually speak English. But thankfully I speak French, so it made some sense anyway. But the climbing is amazing."

IndieBound / Amazon

 

TO BE BRAVE, BY ROYAL ROBBINS

Alex says: "Royal is a total legend and I bought this book at a talk that he gave. It’s too bad that he didn’t have enough time to write more of his story before he died."

Amazon

 

THE ENDURANCE: SHACKELTON’S LEGENDARY ANTARCTIC EXPEDITION, BY CAROLINE ALEXANDER

Alex says: "This is possibly the greatest adventure tale of all time. Must read!"

IndieBound / Amazon

 

NO PICNIC ON MT. KENYA, BY FELICE BENUZZI

Alex says: "I read this right before climbing Mt Kenya. It was the proper primer. Made me grateful that I didn’t have to escape from a POW camp before undertaking my climb..."

IndieBound / Amazon

 

QUEEN MAUD LAND ANTARCTICA, BY IVAR TOLLEFSEN

Alex says: "I read this in Antarctica and we referenced the photos all the time for beta and route descriptions. It’s a great, readable account of the first climbing trip to Queen Maud Land."

Amazon

EVERYTHING ELSE

LIGHTING THE WORLD, BY JIM ROGERS AND STEPHEN P. WILLIAMS

Alex says: "A good reminder that there are 1 billion people on earth without access to power and that we should be doing something about it. Which is a big part of why I started the Honnold Foundation."

IndieBound / Amazon

 

LETTER TO A CHRISTIAN NATION, BY SAM HARRIS

Alex says: "I loved this book - I wish I could give a copy to everyone in America. It’s freakin’ genius. I read it in a sitting. Two different times."

IndieBound / Amazon

 

WEEP NOT, CHILD, BY NGUGI WA THIONG’O

Alex says: "I rarely read fiction. When I do, I make sure it’s depressing African fiction while on an expedition in Africa. But it was quite moving."

IndieBound / Amazon

 

RULES FOR A KNIGHT, BY ETHAN HAWKE

Alex says: "Conrad Anker gave me this book and it’s freakin’ great. I’ve read it several times and given a few copies to friends. It makes me want to be a better knight."

IndieBound / Amazon

 

ASTROPHYSICS FOR PEOPLE IN A HURRY, BY NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON

Alex says: "Fun, easy reading that reminds us of our place in the universe."

IndieBound / Amazon

 
Photo by Stephen Trimble
 

WANT MORE?

Download Alex's complete reading list, including 80 additional titles not listed here.

Building a Solar Powered Ethiopia

Building a Solar Powered Ethiopia

By Brittany Gibbons, Director of Programs

 

In the summer of 2017, Honnold Foundation Director of Programs Brittany Gibbons received a grant from Stanford University to travel to Ethiopia and work with the Solar Energy Foundation (SEF), a longtime partner of the Honnold Foundation. During her time in Addis Ababa, Brittany worked closely with SEF Ethiopia’s Director, Samson Tsegaye.

 

 

Rain tapped on the window as Samson, my supervisor at the Solar Energy Foundation, brewed coffee and prepared a plate of kolo, a snack mix made of roasted grains, for us to share. The aromatic coffee roast wafted through the air as I listened to the water collect in the streets and reflected on my experience in Ethiopia. I had arrived three months earlier and this was my last week as a software developer with the SEF team. In addition to learning more about computer programming, my favorite part of my experience was hearing about my teammates' life stories. When Samson returned with the snacks, I realized that I had not heard about his experiences. So as he poured coffee from the clay jebena I asked him, "how did it all begin?" He passed me the warm cup and then graciously told his story -- a journey from engineer, to detainee, to taxi driver, and finally to leader of one of the first pay-as-you-go solar organizations in Africa.

Samsom Tsegaye, SEF Ethiopia Country Director, at work in Addis Ababa (Photo: Brittany Gibbons)

Samsom Tsegaye, SEF Ethiopia Country Director, at work in Addis Ababa (Photo: Brittany Gibbons)

Living in Addis as a child, Samson constantly fiddled with electronic devices, fixing (and sometimes destroying) radios, watches, and televisions. His passion for technology continued when he enlisted in the military and attended civil engineering classes so that he could use his technical skills in a job that protected his country. Before his 25th birthday, Samson excelled and was quickly promoted to an officer role. However, Samson's life and the country as a whole were both about to undergo a drastic change, as the regime of then-leader Mengitsu Haile Mariam began to unravel.

Starting in the early 1970’s, the Mengitsu government murdered tens of thousands of people in the Ethiopian genocide, and stifled unrest via the forcible resettlement of over 700,000 people. By the early 1990’s, the resistance against the Mengitsu regime reached a tipping point, and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) overthrew the government in the Ethiopian Revolution. The EPRDF leaders feared that servicemen remained loyal to the Mengitsu family, so they detained and imprisoned military officers -- including Samson.

Samson was released 8 months later with no documentation to prove his skills in engineering. In addition, the government blacklisted Samson from numerous jobs because of his previous affiliation with the Mengitsu military. To support himself and his family, he purchased a vehicle and started his own taxi business. He continued to drive for nine years until the government relaxed employment restrictions and he found a job at a construction company.

Abune Yemata Guh, a rock-hewn church in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. (Photo: Brittany Gibbons)

Abune Yemata Guh, a rock-hewn church in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. (Photo: Brittany Gibbons)

Things were going well -- Samson loved using his technical skills again, and the company leadership was impressed by his work. Several years after he started, the construction firm sent Samson to represent the company at a conference in Paris. Unfortunately, Samson was not a fan of France-- in our conversation, he described its  “unwelcoming environment.” He thought back to his days as a taxicab driver, and remembered a European friend who was more to his taste-- a German who often visited Addis for business, and would call Samson to drive him around. Samson hadn’t seen his friend since he stopped driving his taxi, so-- hoping to hear a familiar voice--he gave him a call. As they chatted about life, Samson mentioned how he disliked France and his friend urged him to abandon the remainder of the conference and to instead visit him in Germany, where an international solar exhibition was happening.

Easily persuaded, Samson took the advice and eagerly made his way to Germany. When he arrived at the expo he was astonished by the innovation and potential of solar energy-- this could be the future of Ethiopia, he thought. At this time, nearly 85% of the Ethiopian population lived in rural regions and only 1% had access to electricity in those areas. He asked himself, was he doing the right thing if he stayed in construction? Or should he make a transition into the solar industry?

Inspired by the expo, but unable to afford to leave his construction job, Samson returned to Ethiopia and spent his spare time teaching himself about electrical engineering and solar technology. One contact at a time, he began reaching out to solar companies, hoping to establish business connections for himself-- with varying degrees of success.

Despite the difficulties of working long hours at the construction firm and advancing his solar business, after several months Samson felt he had learned everything he needed to in order to sell solar systems. He created a business plan, and then set out to execute a proof of concept with the Guji tribe in the western part of Ethiopia, where some of his friends and their families were going to celebrate the Ethiopian Orthodox holiday, Meskel (translated literally as “The Finding of the True Cross.”)

When he arrived, Samson spoke to his friends about how solar lanterns could provide brighter and cleaner lighting and are an improved alternative to kerosene lanterns that emit pollutants that are health hazards. He attempted to persuade his friends to purchase solar kits as an alternative to the traditional Meskel holiday purchase-- a cow for slaughter. Samson told his friends’ families that although this Meskel would be a little different, the benefits from solar would last for years. After Samson gave his pitch, his friends said they were interested in the solar kits… but they also wanted a cow. It took a couple of days of discussions, but eventually five families forewent tradition and purchased Samson’s solar kits to celebrate Meskel.

Samson installed the solar systems on their homes free of charge. When he turned the light on in the house, he still remembers seeing “pure happiness” in his friends’ faces as the bright electric light filled their living quarters. He realized that he had found his true calling -- to promote electrification in Ethiopia with solar energy.

Women in the town of Rema gather at an SEF-funded solar pumping facility. Before the solar pump was installed, these women walked 6 miles each day to collect water. (Photo: Brittany Gibbons)

Women in the town of Rema gather at an SEF-funded solar pumping facility. Before the solar pump was installed, these women walked 6 miles each day to collect water. (Photo: Brittany Gibbons)

His solar business began to take off. Along with his full time job at the construction firm, he spent his weekends selling solar and installing the systems himself (at no cost to families) on 52 homes. By 2005, Samson had developed an international reputation for persistence. Dr. Harald Schützeichel, the founder of Solar Energy Foundation in Germany, reached out to Samson, seeking a collaborator for SEF’s work to alleviating energy poverty in Ethiopia. After a pilot project in the North Shewa region,  Dr. Schützeichel asked Samson to join SEF as the Country Founder and Director in Ethiopia. Samson accepted the offer and-- at last! -- quit his job at the construction company.

A decade later, Samson and his team have constructed solar projects in four villages, distributed over 35,000 solar systems throughout the country, and trained over 65 solar technicians. Inspired by Samson’s achievements, the Honnold Foundation established a partnership and awarded a $50,000 grant to SEF in 2017. Today, Samson and his team intend to open additional branches in other regions of Ethiopia (particularly one in Arba Minch) and seek to expand SEF's services in other parts of the country.

By the end of our conversation, with just coffee grounds remaining at the bottom of my cup, all of the struggles that he experienced made me realize how deeply personal the entire SEF organization was for him. He fought for decades to help families in rural parts of Ethiopia gain access to clean electricity-- and he’s still fighting.

 

Exploring Solar in Angola

Exploring Solar in Angola

by Maury Birdwell, former Executive Director & Board chair

Angola is a stark, harsh country in many ways. Like much of the developing world it lacks the infrastructure - both technologically and democratically - to provide equal opportunity across its vast social and physical geography. The capital of Luanda grants a striking visual metaphor: gazing from the rooftops at night one sees mud-brick hovels next door to ostentatious night clubs and five star hotels. The countryside is ravaged of any wildlife, and everywhere we drove it was ablaze with field clearance burning. At first blush its easy to greet this with despondence and pessimism; however, when viewed in the context of a country barely a decade free from thirty four years of civil war things take on a rosier glow.

Pause on that for a second: many Angolans lived a practical lifetime in a constant state of unrest, wherein the present state of peace has become the exception to their existence. For those of us in the western world we cannot and will not ever know what that really means. Our de facto team leader Stacy Bare had spent nearly a year clearing land mines, simply aiming to return the countryside to a basic state of usability. How many times have you scouted what looks to be a promising climbing destination only to abandon it because the approach was too threatened by the possibility of land mines?

On August 30, Alex Honnold, Stacy Bare, Ted Hesser, and myself boarded flights to Luanda with some audacious goals for a two week trip: we sought to sample the climbing, see the state of affairs 10 years after Stacy's last visit, and initiate a pilot program for off grid solar entrepreneurship. Ted in particular (with what help I could offer) had been pushing hard and fast on the latter goal for the better part of six months. We had made great strides but hit many roadblocks - in fact our solar products were still stuck in customs when we arrived in country. Nonetheless, we had come as far as we could from our computer screens and Skype, the only thing left to do was get on the ground and figure out if all the other off grid solar companies who refused to enter Angola thus far were right after all.

This is where the horizon begins to look bright. Not only did we establish a handful of routes from 5.7 to 5.13c, we learned that the HALO Trust (Stacy's former employer) and other similar organizations just passed the halfway mark to clearing the roughly 1,500 documented minefields across the country, and it appears that by importing just 100 home solar systems we've convinced the Energy Minister to order another 3,000 units as part of a broader market test. It is far too early to say whether Angola will see the type of micro-grid solar explosion that is sweeping East Africa, but it's heartening to know that a country with a traditional mono-economy of oil and gas is investigating these kinds of alternatives. Our partners at organizations like SolarAid and Elephant Energy have been eyeing Angola for years, perhaps our devil-may-care effort will remove the mystique and enable them to come in equipped for success.

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These last two weeks were a blur of climbing rocks, spontaneous dance battles with the locals, and late night debates about the efficacy and approaches of bridging the energy gap. There were ups and downs, setbacks, and triumphs. Just like everywhere in the world we learned that at its most basic level Angola is full of good, decent people who see and strive for a better future for their country; except these people are starting the race 10 meters back and without the starting blocks available to many of us. While our impact may be minor in scale, we at the Honnold Foundation believe that only by refusing to accept current realities can we bridge those gaps. More than anything, we hope that you believe the same thing, too.

Huge thanks to partners The North Face, VICE Sports, and Goal Zero for believing in and supporting this trip.

Be sure to tune in to VICE Sports this fall for the feature on Alex, Stacy, and the Honnold Foundation's trip to Angola.