Daily Star Editorial – Is solar energy the way?

BANGLADESH is one of the success stories in solar home lighting systems. More than 400,000 units have been installed since 2002, generating more than 11 MW of electric power across the country. The lives and livelihoods of millions of villagers, shopkeepers and school children have been transformed by access to electricity, and lights at night. At the same time, the health of millions has been improved through decreased reliance on polluting kerosene lanterns that add to Bangladesh's greenhouse gas emissions. But, despite this rapid progress, Bangladesh needs to move to the next level of solar technology in order to provide reliable and affordable power for her growing population. Existing individual Solar Home Lighting Systems (SHS) are simple packages -- a 50-watt solar panel, a charge controller, four light bulbs, an electrical outlet and a battery. Such a system costs on average Tk.25,000 to acquire but, because most users must buy on 80% credit at an average interest rate of 6%, the cost of electricity consumed is around Tk.125 per kilowatt-hour for the first four to five years after making the down payment of Tk.5,000. The cost of electricity in urban areas is Tk.4 per kilowatt-hour. The difference is due to two factors. First, with individual SHS systems, each villager must pay the fixed costs of acquiring the system over a period of four years, and then the replacement cost of batteries every five years over a 20-year life span of the SHS system. Second, because most individuals use electricity only at night from the batteries which have built-in losses, and there is no daytime use when the sun is shining, the cost of electricity on a per kilowatt-hour basis is very high. This leads to an ethical dilemma: Can we really say that forcing the poorest members of society to pay electricity costs over 30 times those paid by city dwellers is equitable simply because they don't use much electricity? The way to address this inequality is to rethink about how solar energy is generated and used in rural areas. One promising model is called a "micro-grid." In the solar context, a micro-grid would be a collection of multiple solar panels that produce thousands of watts at a time rather than the 40-50 watts produced by one conventional SHS. These panels combined with batteries and small generators, if available, and simple computer software that optimises electricity consumption, would power not only homes in a village, but irrigation pumps, schools, clinics, small industries and shops as well. By diversifying the users of this solar energy -- some of whom would be using the energy during the day -- the overall utilisation of the electricity produced by the system increases significantly and the per-kilowatt-hr cost of electricity will fall by a factor of three or more. Beyond the cost benefits, micro-grids increase the total electricity available to a community and "power" the economic activity and growth in the area. Moving away from an individual to a community-based generation model is not without its challenges. One of the first issues that arise is individual electricity use. What is to keep one individual from using more electricity than normally allocated to him at the expense of others? Metering individual homes might be one solution, but given the very low energy use by most individuals (on the order of a few hundred watt-hours per day versus thousands of watt-hours daily by commercial or institutional users), the cost of monitoring each individual user might be greater than the revenue. Instead, a fixed amount of electricity could be sold each month for a fixed price to most users while commercial and institutional users would be metered based on their anticipated higher usage. Another issue is ownership of such systems. At present, each individual SHS is owned and operated by one household -- its inhabitants are solely responsible, and are the sole beneficiaries of the electricity produced. In the case of the community-based micro-grid, the management responsibility will fall on the community. Here, the ongoing water cooperative management and delivery system model operating in rural Bangladesh may be explored. The Small Scale Water Resources Development Sector Projects run by the Local Government Engineering Department (LGED) as membership cooperatives could be exploited to operate the electricity cooperatives. Villages could create solar coops in which all villagers who want electricity would be member-owners of the cooperative that would own the micro-grid. These coops could be run as non-profit institutions, with a board directed by the community making decisions about pricing, technology used, etc. Just as micro-finance revolutionised Bangladesh, and indeed finance around the world, so too can community owned micro-grids expand access to electricity for millions at more affordable rates than conventional SHS. Doing so would build upon the success of SHS in a way that increases utilisation of the electricity produced while lowering costs overall. Professor Saifur Rahman is Director, Advanced Research Institute, Virginia Tech, USA, and Chairman of the Board of Akash Solar Engineering Ltd. E-mail: srahman@akashsolar.com.

Contact Details

USA

Akash Solar Ventures, LLC
Saifur Rahman, CEO
+1-202-713-5049

Bangladesh

Akash Solar Engineering, Ltd.
+880-2-985-6287
Saidur Rahman, Senior Project Manager
+880-171-542-6215
Hafizul Hasan, Manager (Sales & Technical, dept.)
+880-172-096-2589
+880-168-194-3460