North Korea’s so­lar boom giv­ing power to peo­ple

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In a coun­try no­to­ri­ous for a lack of elec­tric­ity, many North Kore­ans are tak­ing power into their hands by in­stalling cheap house­hold so­lar pan­els to charge mo­bile phones and light up their homes.

Apart­ment blocks in Py­ongyang and other cities are in­creas­ingly adorned with the pan­els, hung from bal­conies and win­dows, ac­cord­ing to re­cent vis­i­tors to the iso­lated coun­try and pho­to­graphs ob­tained by Reuters.

“There must be at least a three­fold in­crease in so­lar pan­els com­pared to last year,” Simon Cock­erell, who vis­its North Korea reg­u­larly as gen­eral manager of Bei­jing-based Ko­ryo Tours, told Reuters from Py­ongyang. “Some are do­mes­ti­cally made, so that may have driven prices down.”

North Korea has long suf­fered from elec­tric­ity short­ages which plunge large parts of the coun­try into dark­ness, pro­vid­ing a stark con­trast in night-time pho­tos taken from space to pros­per­ous and power-thirsty South Korea.

The soar­ing sales of cheap and eas­ily-in­stalled so­lar pan­els re­flect ris­ing de­mand for elec­tric­ity in North Korea as in­comes rise and peo­ple buy elec­tronic goods like mo­bile phones and the “no­tel” me­dia player that need regular charg­ing. North Korea, one of the poor­est coun­tries in the world, is home to 2.5 mil­lion mo­bile phone users, about 10 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion.

Once re­served for Work­ers’ Party cadres, so­lar pan­els and volt­age sta­bi­liz­ers are now sold openly both in mar­kets and the hard­ware sec­tion of Py­ongyang depart­ment stores, where small 20 watt pan­els cost just un­der 350,000 won - $44 at the widely-used black mar­ket ex­change rate where a dollar is about 8,000 won, in­stead of the of­fi­cial 96 won.

Ob­tain­ing ac­cu­rate data from North Korea is dif­fi­cult, but roughly 10-15 per­cent of ur­ban apart­ments in a se­ries of re­cent pho­to­graphs in North Korean cities ob­tained by Reuters ap­peared to have small so­lar pan­els at­tached to win­dows or bal­conies.

Whether that num­ber trans­lates na­tion­ally is un­clear, but regular vis­i­tors have noted a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in so­lar panel use across the coun­try in re­cent months, ei­ther in ur­ban ar­eas or in one case in the backyard veg­etable plot of a ru­ral­lar pan­el­sREUTERS/ Jo Yong-HakA view shows a so­lar power plant of Korea South East Power Co. (KOSEP) in In­cheon, about 90 km (55 miles) west of Seoul, Septem­ber 30, 2010. Money is power Pri­vate so­lar pan­els are not il­le­gal in au­thor­i­tar­ian North Korea, where in re­cent years the gov­ern­ment has tac­itly al­lowed greater eco­nomic free­doms. How­ever, some lo­cal au­thor­i­ties may de­mand a bribe for per­mis­sion to in­stall them, a de­fec­tor said.

Elec­tric­ity sup­ply in North Korea is pri­or­i­tized for fac­to­ries or ar­eas of po­lit­i­cal im­por­tance, but those with money or con­nec­tions are of­ten able to tap those lines il­le­gally.

The coun­try could be gen­er­at­ing about 33 ter­awatt-hours of elec­tric­ity a year, or just 7 per­cent of what South Korea gen­er­ates, ac­cord­ing to Tris­tan Webb, a for­mer Bri­tish For­eign Of­fice an­a­lyst who vis­ited North Korean power plants in 2013.

North Korea suf­fers from dry win­ters where Siberian winds can keep tem­per­a­tures be­low freez­ing for months. The state ex­ports much of its mined coal and re­lies heav­ily on hy­dro power, mean­ing elec­tric­ity is in es­pe­cially short sup­ply in win­ter.

“We can heat our homes with a heater pow­ered by a so­lar panel,” said Kim Yeong-mi, a North Korean de­fec­tor who came to the South in 2012.

Py­ongyang is home to a so­lar panel fac­tory, and state pro­pa­ganda has said the tech­nol­ogy is in “ef­fec­tive use” in so­lar-pow­ered lamp posts in other cities. North Korea is try­ing to use re­new­able en­ergy to “make up the short­age of elec­tric­ity,” state me­dia said on Tues­day.

“De­velop and make ef­fec­tive use of wind, ti­dal, geo­ther­mal and so­lar en­ergy!,” was one of a bar­rage of slo­gans re­leased by the rul­ing party in Fe­bru­ary.

A typ­i­cal so­lar power set-up in­cludes a panel, bat­tery, and in­verter for charg­ing phones or pow­er­ing ap­pli­ances. Pri­vate car own­er­ship re­mains rare in North Korea, but car bat­ter­ies are popular in house­holds to store power for black­outs.

In the Chi­nese city of Dan­dong on the fron­tier with North Korea, large red signs out­side shops advertise so­lar panel and bat­tery kits, aimed at traders from across the bor­der. At one shop, the largest set-up on sale pro­duces enough power to run a TV, lap­top, mo­bile phone, fridge, wash­ing ma­chine, rice cooker and even an elec­tric blan­ket - all in­creas­ingly com­mon house­hold goods for mon­eyed North Kore­ans.

“North Kore­ans didn’t re­ally buy so­lar pan­els from us un­til two years ago,” said Yang Yan­meng, a trader in China’s Shan­dong prov­ince who has been sell­ing so­lar pan­els since 2012.

“Now, up to 80-90 per­cent of our com­pany’s prod­ucts are sold to North Kore­ans,” he told Reuters by phone.

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