A Great Falls nonprofit has spent the last decade helping bring clean energy to rural homes in Africa, and that work has now earned it global recognition courtesy of an international award for projects and organizations dedicated to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Solar Sister is one of two winners of the 2019 Keeling Curve Prize for energy access, an honor that comes with $25,000 that the nonprofit plans to use to continue supporting local, female entrepreneurs with clean energy businesses in Africa.

“We were so excited and honored and humbled. It's an incredible recognition,” Solar Sister CEO Katherine Lucey said. “…The Keeling Curve Prize is acknowledging those who are working to take action to combat climate change. For Solar Sister, what that really means for us was an acknowledgement that we all have a part to play.”

Named after scientist Charles David Keeling, who started a program in the 1950s that measures the amount of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere, the Keeling Curve Prize launched in the fall of 2017 and announced its 2019 recipients on June 28 at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado.

The 2019 Keeling Curve Prize went to 10 projects in five categories that an international, nine-person judging panel determined show significant promise for addressing global warming.

Solar Sister won in the energy access category alongside a Dutch-South African company called African Clean Energy that manufactures and distributes a smokeless, biomass-powered cook stove to households in sub-Saharan Africa and southeast Asia.

Awards for carbon capture and utilization went to two California-based organizations: Opus 12, a start-up developing technology to recycle carbon dioxide into cost-competitive chemicals and fuels, and WILDCOAST, a nonprofit dedicated to conserving coastal ecosystems and wildlife in the Gulf of California.

The finance category winners were Clean Energy Works for its pay-as-you-save financing system that supports transportation companies transitioning to electric buses and the California Clean Energy Fund for creating a qualified clean energy opportunity zone fund to incentivize clean energy adoption.

The Mexican company Jetty and the India-based Three Wheels United won in the transportation category for using technology to, respectively, impose stricter standards on private suppliers of local shuttle services and to reduce carbon emissions from rickshaws.

In the social and cultural impacts category, which deals with how human behavior affects the use of clean energy, the Keeling Curve Prize recognized the World Council of Churches for helping houses of worship provide tools and information for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and Science Based Targets for assisting financial institutions in keeping their investments and portfolios in line with the 2016 United Nations Paris Agreement.

The judges, who represent a cross-section of the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, selected this year’s 10 winners out of almost 150 applicants.

“The applications were extraordinarily impressive, reflecting the wide variety of ways determined people around the world are tackling the climate crisis,” Keeling Curve Prize judge Brenda Ekwurzel, director of climate science for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said. “We must take immediate action to address global warming, and the Keeling Curve Prize is shining a spotlight on practical solutions that can reduce heat-trapping emissions, increase carbon uptake, and slow climate change.”

Lucey founded Solar Sister about 10 years ago after working in Uganda to install solar energy in local schools and clinics.

The households in the area where Lucey worked had no easy access to an electric power grid and instead depended on kerosene, even though the oil releases toxic fumes when burned and costs some families up to 25 percent of their income.

Wondering why people did not use solar lamps as a cheaper, cleaner substitute, Lucey realized that the main obstacle to transitioning for many was the products’ limited distribution in the rural villages that could benefit from them.

“What we needed was some way to get the product to the people right at their doorstep in a way that they trusted the product enough to buy it,” Lucey said.

Rather than simply handing out solar lamps to people, Solar Sister recruits, trains, and supports local, primarily female entrepreneurs and supplies them with solar-powered products and more efficient cooking stoves.

The nonprofit’s model not only improves the distribution of clean energy, but also builds up the local economy by giving women the ability to earn income, which in turn leads to improvements in health, education, and financial stability, according to Solar Sister.

While Solar Sister closed its Ugandan operations in 2017, the nonprofit has worked in Tanzania since 2013 and Nigeria since 2014. It has spread solar energy to more than 1.6 million people, sold 292,567 products, and trained over 4,000 entrepreneurs, 83 percent of whom are women.

Keeling Curve Prize founder and director Jacquelyn Francis says the energy access category is intended to specifically acknowledge projects that target underserved communities, making Solar Sister a perfect fit.

“They are taking that really important leap into markets that aren't necessarily very accessible,” Francis aid. “They also show an ability to help with diversification with how they address female empowerment, how they create accessibility in underserved nations, and how they show this ability for being able to scale up, and that's really important in what we award prize money to.”

According to Lucey, the lack of existing power infrastructure in places like Tanzania and Nigeria actually make it easier for them to adopt clean energy technology than people in the U.S., where electricity distribution is much more centralized and still largely tied to fossil fuels.

Solar Sister’s current goal is to bring clean energy to 10 million people and help 10,000 women start businesses by 2025.

“Our focus from the very beginning has really been to support women entrepreneurs in local communities across sub-Saharan Africa to build their clean energy businesses, to reach more people so that more people have access,” Lucey said. “The [Keeling Curve] Prize will go right back into that and help us reach and scale up even more.”

The application period for the 2020 Keeling Curve Prize will open this fall, and Francis says that any organization actively working on projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is welcome to enter for consideration.

Lucey and Francis expressed optimism about the viability of clean energy in the U.S. with the cost of wind, solar, and other alternatives to fossil fuels decreasing significantly, but they say policymakers need to stop subsidizing carbon fuels and start incentivizing renewable sources to speed up the transition and curb climate change.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in October 2018 that, at the current rate of warming, the global average temperature will increase 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels by 2040. More than a fifth of the global population lives in regions that have already experienced those temperatures in at least one season.

In addition to raising global temperatures, higher carbon emissions in the atmosphere contribute to rising sea levels, increased ocean acidification, and more extreme weather events, including floods, droughts, and heat waves.

“It's really necessary that the world understands that this isn't an “us-against-them” kind of thing. All of us really need to see a cleaner energy future because it's important for the survival of humanity,” Francis said. “…I think that it's time to move past arguing and move towards solving problems and pointing at these solutions that are going on everywhere around the world like Solar Sister.”

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