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[KUALA LUMPUR] Access to energy can spur development. Yet in the emerging economies of South-East Asia, almost 140 million people live in rural communities without electricity. Thailand bucks the trend: 98.5 per cent of Thai rural communities enjoy electricity.

Providing electricity to rural communities goes beyond installing power generators, says Usa Boonbumroong and Sumate Tanchareon, both researchers at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi, Thailand. They believe it is more important to “incubate technical and management capacity within rural communities” to run electricity service.

Boonbumroong and Tanchareon should know — they have been powering up rural communities in Thailand for over 20 years. They shared their experience at the Workshop on Energy For Off-Grid Villages in Southeast Asia held in Kuching, Malaysia on 27-29 January 2015.

Know community needs first

Boonbumroong begins each rural electrification project with comprehensive studies of the community’s needs and environment. Twenty years ago, when he was tasked with improving electricity supply to communities in Phu Kradueng National Park, Thailand, his team spent the first year collecting micro-climate data, talking to park officers who lived there and forecasting the park’s future electricity demand.

At that time, tubs of diesel — 20,000 litres a year — had to be carried up a 6-kilometre trail. Boonbumroong decided that a hybrid system of solar, wind and diesel generators best suited the park’s community.

Today, Boonbumroong’s hybrid system still powers the park and its communities. Officers were trained to operate and maintain the generators.

An old man’s invention

Sometimes, however, villagers themselves devised innovative solutions out of limited resources, as Boonbumroong discovered in Kiriwong village.

The farmers of Kiriwong needed better electricity for cottages in their orchards up in the hills. Diesel generators were costly and unpleasant. As Boonbumroong was surveying the area, he heard of an old man who had built a strange machine: a bicycle wheel and sardine cans were pieced together to make a hydropower generator by a creek.

The makeshift generator inspired Boonbumroong. Creeks ran by each cottage, and small hydropower generators less than five kilowatts attached to each cottage would seem the most suitable energy solution for the farmers. Boonbumroong and his team measured the old man’s wheel-and-can generator running at 10 per cent efficiency and improved the design.

A year later, Boonbumroong installed his pico hydropower generator at the old man’s cottage. Villagers gathered to witness the generator harnessing the creek’s energy at 50 per cent efficiency. Impressed, the villagers bought the generator for their cottages.

“The old man was happy,” says Boonbumroong with a smile.

Boonbumroong trained the locals to assemble and maintain the generators. The pico hydropower generator, borne out of a local innovation, now generates income for Kiriwong villagers who sell the machine to other villages.

“It is very helpful to train locals to be the agents of change,” Tanchareon says during the workshop.

Harnessing community commitment

Introducing technology, however, is often a minor challenge in rural electrification. The lack of community commitment to electrification presents a larger hurdle.

When the fishing community on Chik Island demanded that the Thai government connect their village to the national power grid, they refused other energy alternatives. Yet, grid extension would cost too much. Boonbumroong was tasked again to electrify the off-grid village.

Aware of the villagers’ sentiment, Boonbumroong and his team focused on engaging the almost hundred families on Chik Island. “We started off with workshops to build understanding and relationship with the villagers,” Tanchareon narrates.

Months of workshops and meetings with the villagers were spent to explain alternative ways of generating electricity. The team also knocked on the doors of villagers, listened to them and addressed their doubts. In the end, the villagers chose to install a solar-wind-diesel hybrid system to power their community.

Before the installation began, Boonbumroong trained the island villagers to manage electricity services. The villagers formed the Rural Energy Services Committee (RESCO).

This cooperative has since been operating the hybrid system and collecting payment for its use. Through RESCO, the community owns the electricity service, and as owners, they have become committed to securing their assets.

Many rural electrification projects fizzle after a few years. But for more than a decade now, the electricity systems set up by Boonbumroong and Tanchareon are still running at Phu Kradueng National Park, Kiriwong Village and Chik Island.

Tanchareon credit their success to their dogged efforts at preparing rural communities for the technical and management needs of electrification. Engaging the villagers to win their support has been just as crucial, he says.

“Our work is like long-term or post-sales services,” Tanchareon adds. “We grow up with the villagers.”

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net’s South-East Asia & Pacific desk.