3-9 July 2015 #765

The sun to the rescue

Rural solar systems will not just help quake survivors meet immediate power needs, but also help us build a renewable energy future
Kishor Rimal


Two months after the devastating earthquake, Nepal has proved to the world that despite the death and destruction it can rise up with the energy of youth volunteers, politicians and government to promote innovative approaches to cooperation in relief delivery.

The 2.5 million affected people are all trying to get back to normal life. As with housing, education, health, in energy too we need to think about building back better. Access to energy for lighting and heating is an immediate requirement for many families living in shelters.

National-level hydropower plants were damaged and some will be delayed, most micro-hydro plants in the 15 affected districts were destroyed. Here is where local entrepreneurs can step in with village grids and other renewable energy sources like solar and wind.

After basic needs like food and shelter are taken care of, earthquake survivors need energy. This doesn’t just help them get back to normal life, but can also boost the economy. Access to national grid was always a question even before the earthquake happened. However, this void opens up opportunities for another source of energy: solar power, which is free and reliable at least during the daytime.

Solar electricity can be used for Productive End Use systems that are stand alone photo-voltaic arrays designed to power specific equipments. They can power grinding mills, dairy chilling units, vaccine fridges or water pumps. Local entrepreneurs can privately own these systems for businesses and serve local communities.

Nano Grids are centralised DC system typically set up to power clusters of communities for lights, mobile chargers and tv. A typical community consists of 20-25 households and each pays a monthly charge. In northern India, MeraGao Power has successfully implemented Nano Grid models. Although its service is limited to lights and we have more demand here, the concept is somewhat the same. Access to energy at household and community level at affordable prices that are cheaper fossil fuels should be the main goal.

Productive End Use systems and Nano Grids help entrepreneurs to scale up their businesses and side-by-side serve the local community to expand the economy. Agro-processing mills, water pumps, and water purifiers benefit entrepreneurs as well as serve the entire community. The plan for sustainable energy is an immediate need at this point of time. We can’t afford to buy fossil fuel and diesel generators again to serve the needs of people in rural areas.

We have many challenges to implement these systems for local business and communities. We first need to encourage demand-driven markets rather than the donor-driven ones. For the moment, the solar industry cannot move ahead without subsidies from outside. Government line agencies and aid agencies must realise that a subsidy driven market cannot achieve sustainability. Donors can provide funds to pilot sustainable models that can be scaled up. If they need to be perpetually bank-rolled they will not be feasible.

The next challenge here is to develop effective financial models to deploy the systems in remote areas who have the most pressing needs for lighting and energy. They will not be able to afford the solar systems, and it is crucial for banks and micro finance institutes to come to the rescue.

Longer-term financing for Nano Grids and Productive End Use system will encourage people to switch to renewable, enabling them to not just deal with their short-term rehabilitation but wean themselves away from diesel generators in the longer term.

When people start making money from generating solar energy, then sustainability takes care of itself. We focused so much on lighting from solar panels that we forgot to demonstrate that solar energy is more than LEDs and mobile chargers. A centralised fund to finance Productive End Use and Nano Grid System could take Nepal on a path to sustainable energy development.  

This article is part of a monthly series prepared jointly with the Energy Development Council of which Kishor Rimal is a member.


Read also:

Back to the dark age, Om Astha Rai

No alternative to alternative energy, Bhrikuti Rai

Here comes the sun

Bring home the sunshine, Paavan Mathema

Age of enlightment, Ahmad Iskandar