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  • Focus on Poverty: We can create solar nations

Dieter Telemans / Panos

Speed read

  • Off-grid solar energy can be a great way to get power to isolated rural areas

  • A Bangladeshi solar project has brought affordable energy to 1.5 million homes

  • What are needed are ambitious national plans and decisive leadership

Solar power makes sense — if you can get it right. For many isolated rural communities, off-grid solutions are the best chance of accessing electricity. We assume too readily that such solutions have to be small-scale and expensive. Two major national projects from different world regions suggest this doesn't have to be the case.

Peru recently announced a programme to supply solar power to two million of its six million people without access to electricity. The emphasis will be on poor rural areas, and the solar programme will contribute to the overall target of providing electricity to 95 per cent of Peru's population of 30 million by 2016, up from 66 per cent now. [1]

The World Bank considers Peru to be "a country committed to poverty reduction and shared prosperity", [2] but there is a major gap between urban and rural poverty rates — 18 and 56 per cent respectively. [3]

“Ambitious leadership and realistic financing plans make solar a genuine alternative for villages in hard-to-reach development contexts.”

Roger Williamson










The new National Photovoltaic Household Electrification Programme is partly a response to an International Finance Corporation report in 2011 that concluded that less than one per cent of the country's possible solar power resources were being exploited . However, the national regulatory framework was updated to encourage use of renewable energy in the same year. [4]  

In addition, there clearly is support at the top for the new drive, as Jorge Merino, the energy and mining minister, has featured prominently in the programme's launch and subsequent publicity.

My awareness of the potential for solar energy to reach poor communities with little prospect of being connected to the grid was heightened some years ago when I met Dipal Barua, one of the founders of Grameen Bank, who has since branched out into an ambitious programme to make Bangladesh one of the first solar nations.

His vision is to provide solar power to rural families at no more than the cost of the kerosene that they would otherwise use for power. [5]

Bangladesh now has a renewable energy association [6] and Barua has updated his presentation: he told an international 'off-grid' conference in Ghana last year that 1.5 million home solar installations have now been made in Bangladesh, benefiting 15 million people. [7]

Of course, one must be cautious in evaluating plans and promises. I have visited neither Peru nor Bangladesh, so am unable to assess the reality of these programmes. But these two stories suggest that ambitious leadership and realistic financing plans make solar a genuine alternative for villages in hard-to-reach development contexts.

Roger Williamson is an independent consultant and visiting fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom. Previous positions include organising nearly 80 international policy conferences for the UK Foreign Office and being head of policy and campaigns at Christian Aid. 

References

[1] Choudhury, N. Peru aims to deliver solar to 95% of country by 2016 (Responding to Climate Change, 1 August 2013)
 
[2] World Bank Peru: A Country Committed to Poverty Reduction and Shared Prosperity (World Bank, 28 June 2013)

[3] World Bank Peru Overview (World Bank, accessed 21 August 2013)

[4] International Finance Corporation Assessment of the Peruvian Market for Sustainable Energy Finance (International Finance Corporation, October 2011) 

[5] Andani, A.A. Dipal Chandra Barua on How they are Covering 50% of Bangladeshi Population through Innovative Solar Project (Vimeo, video posted November 2012)

[6] Tordesillas  C. Bangladesh launches renewable energy platform (Asian Power.com, 9 April 2012)
 
[7] Barua, D. Creating A Solar World for 1.6 Billion energy starved people around the world (International Off-Grid Renewable Energy Conference & Exhibition, November 2012)