Let There Be Light

Bangladesh has sur­prised ev­ery­one with its high pen­e­tra­tion rate for so­lar home sys­tems.

Southasia - - SOLAR ENERGY BANGLADESH - By Fa­tima Siraj

Since 2007, the World Bank has been con­sis­tently in­creas­ing the per­cent­age of its to­tal en­ergy fi­nanc­ing to­wards non-re­new­able pro­jects. No coun­try has shown the kind of re­cep­tive­ness to th­ese pro­jects as Bangladesh. The In­fra­struc­ture Devel­op­ment Com­pany Ltd (IDCOL), which is owned by the gov­ern­ment of Bangladesh, has im­ple­mented a mas­sive Ru­ral Elec­tri­fi­ca­tion and Re­new­able En­ergy Devel­op­ment Project (RERED) with fund­ing pro­vided by the World Bank. Un­der the project, around 3 mil­lion home so­lar sys­tems (SHS) have been in­stalled in the coun­try.

The IDCOL op­er­ates with the help of 30 lo­cal part­ner or­ga­ni­za­tions that sell and in­stall the sys­tems as well as carry out their main­te­nance. A typ­i­cal 50 watt so­lar home sys­tem costs around 25,000 Takkas which equals to less than 250 Eu­ros. One so­lar home sys­tem pro­duces enough en­ergy to run low-power DC ap­pli­ances, such as lights, ra­dios, sock­ets for bat­tery recharg­ers and even small TVs for about three to five hours a day.

Mu­nawar Mis­bah Moi works as man­ag­ing direc­tor of a Dhak­abased com­pany that man­u­fac­tures pho­to­voltaic units. He be­lieves that be­ing able to power even th­ese rel­a­tively small ap­pli­ances makes a huge dif­fer­ence to the peo­ple’s lives. “It’s un­be­liev­able, and un­til you see

it, it’s very dif­fi­cult to ex­plain. Let’s say, you go to a re­mote ru­ral home where they’re burn­ing kerosene lights. Sud­denly, overnight ( be­cause it only takes four hours to in­stall a typ­i­cal sys­tem), that home has proper lights and a con­nec­tion to TV – it’s trans­for­ma­tional. And the qual­ity of life keeps on im­prov­ing, es­pe­cially in terms of late hour ed­u­ca­tion,” says Moin.

Those who want to buy so­lar home sys­tems ei­ther pay cash or use the op­tion of pay­ing monthly in­stall­ments through mi­cro­cre­dit schemes that make so­lar home sys­tems an af­ford­able op­tion for the av­er­age ru­ral fam­ily. The great­est ben­e­fit of the pro­gram is its eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble part­ner or­ga­ni­za­tions that have a per­ma­nent pres­ence in ru­ral ar­eas. They of­fer mi­cro­cre­dit fa­cil­i­ties as well as tech­ni­cal as­sis­tance. In­ter­est­ingly, most of their tech­ni­cians are women who in­stall the sys­tem, of­fer guar­an­tees and per­form free main­te­nance.

The suc­cess of this well-es­tab­lished net­work has prompted the World Bank to lend fur­ther sup­port to the gov­ern­ment of Bangladesh. It has of­fered $78.4 mil­lion in or­der to fi­nance some 480,000 so­lar home sys­tems.

So­lar home sys­tems are stand­alone equip­ment that use bat­ter­ies pow­ered by pho­to­voltaic units. Th­ese units con­sist of so­lar cells that di­rectly con­vert sun­light into elec­tric­ity. This has proved a cost-effective method of sup­ply­ing elec­tric­ity to re­mote house­holds that are out of the grid’s reach.

Nearly 60 per­cent of Bangladeshis do not have ac­cess to elec­tric­ity gen­er­ated by the grid. The gov­ern­ment aims to bring this num­ber down to zero by pro­vid­ing 100 per­cent ac­cess to elec­tric­ity through so­lar home sys­tems by 2021.

The so­lar home sys­tems have sig­nif­i­cantly con­trib­uted to­wards the im­prove­ment of the stan­dard of liv­ing of Bangladeshis by fa­cil­i­tat­ing ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Many clin­ics use them to pro­vide elec­tric­ity dur­ing check-ups and even surg­eries. Women ben­e­fit the most from own­ing a so­lar home sys­tem. They feel safer af­ter dark and it also in­creases their mo­bil­ity.

Apart from so­cial ben­e­fits, the so­lar home sys­tems also of­fer sig­nif­i­cant in­come-gen­er­a­tion av­enues. Many women have used the in­creased work­ing time pro­vided by so­lar home sys­tems to start small busi­nesses such as hand­i­crafts and poul­try. Many busi­nesses can re­main open for longer du­ra­tions, in­clud­ing gro­cery shops, restau­rants and tai­lor­ing shops. Th­ese sys­tems have also in­creased pro­duc­tion in ar­eas such as rice pro­cess­ing, fish­ing and poul­try farm­ing.

Fur­ther­more, they have re­sulted in the cre­ation of a mul­ti­tude of jobs, rang­ing from those which deal with as­sem­bling so­lar pan­els to the ones that in­volve sell­ing, in­stalling and main­tain­ing them. The num­ber of so­lar home sys­tems in Bangladesh has jumped from 25,000 to 2.8 mil­lion in the last ten years, re­sult­ing in the cre­ation of over 114,000 jobs. In fact, the num­ber of jobs re­lated to this in­dus­try has dou­bled in the last two years. It is ex­pected that the in­dus­try will fur­ther ex­pand in the com­ing years.

How­ever, this high pen­e­tra­tion rate is a re­cent phe­nom­e­non and be­came pos­si­ble largely due to the sup­port of the World Bank. In 1996, when so­lar sys­tems were first in­tro­duced in Bangladesh via the Grameen Shakti pro­gram, spear­headed by the Grameen Bank, the cost of the so­lar mod­ules was US$7 per watt - far too high for the av­er­age ru­ral per­son to af­ford. But as the cost re­duced and fi­nanc­ing be­came eas­ier, the in­ter­est in so­lar home sys­tems grew. The Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Grameen Shakti, Di­pal Barua said that the key fac­tor was bring­ing the amount spent on a so­lar home sys­tem closer to the cost of kerosene used ev­ery week. The prices did not have to match be­cause the so­lar home sys­tem pro­vided ben­e­fits that kerosene didn’t. “You can’t watch tele­vi­sion on kerosene,” said Barua.

By 2003, there were 20,000 so­lar home sys­tems in Bangladesh but the pen­e­tra­tion rate was still min­i­mal, con­sid­er­ing the large pop­u­la­tion of more than 150 mil­lion peo­ple. It was dur­ing this time that the World Bank, look­ing at the grow­ing in­ter­est in so­lar-pow­ered en­ergy, started grant­ing soft loans to NGOs and mi­crofi­nance or­ga­ni­za­tions. By 2011, about 30 or­ga­ni­za­tions were in­stalling more than 40,000 so­lar home sys­tems a month. To­day, this fig­ure stands at more than 70,000 - the high­est pen­e­tra­tion rate for so­lar home sys­tems in the world.

Do­mes­tic manufacturing, part­ner­ships with lo­cal or­ga­ni­za­tions and es­tab­lish­ment of mi­crofi­nance fa­cil­i­ties have con­trib­uted to­wards this over­whelm­ing suc­cess of so­lar home sys­tems in Bangladesh. While do­mes­tic manufacturing helps in keep­ing the costs low, the in­volve­ment of lo­cal or­ga­ni­za­tions and the in­tro­duc­tion of mi­crofi­nance help in the im­ple­men­ta­tion and reach of th­ese sys­tems. Such a model can be repli­cated in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries and across the world to en­sure a more sus­tain­able and cost effective future in terms of ful­fill­ing en­ergy re­quire­ments.

The writer is cur­rently pur­su­ing a BBA de­gree. She fo­cuses on mar­ket­ing and so­cial is­sues.

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