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12 June 2013

Solar power illuminates Bangladesh villages

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A quiet revolution is under way in rural areas outside the national electricity grid. Alternative energy sources are bringing new light and new opportunities to millions.

By Shahriar Sharif

Dhaka: For Laboni Akhter, a housewife in remote southeastern Kolapara upazila, it used to be a struggle each evening to keep her two daughters focused on school homework. Without electrical lighting, the girls had to study by the dim glow of a kerosene lantern.

Six months ago, she installed a solar panel on her tin-roofed home. It generates enough electricity to light three rooms.

"It's such a big relief! My daughters no longer complain and they now happily finish their homework every day," Akhter told Khabar South Asia, referring to her ninth and seventh graders Mamita and Moumita.

"It was a daily hassle before as I had to clean up the lantern, buy kerosene and above all, worry constantly about causing accidental fire."

Akhter is one of nearly 10 million people benefitting from a government programme launched a decade ago to provide alternative energy sources to remote areas cut off from the national electricity grid. It is being implemented by the state-run Infrastructure Development Company Limited (IDCOL).

Easy and affordable

The Solar Home System programme, launched in 2003 with assistance from the World Bank, seeks to reach some 20 million villagers by 2015. Authorities are confident they can reach that goal, though more than 40% of Bangladesh's population does not have access to electricity.

Their confidence stems largely because solar electricity is so easy to install and affordable for most rural residents.

Each consumer makes an initial payment of Taka 4,500 ($57.82) to obtain a panel, which lasts for 20 years, and a battery to operate it. After that, he or she must pay Taka 750 ($9.63) monthly for up to 36 months. One panel enables a user to light four bulbs and operate a black-and-white television.

"So far, we are harnessing 90MW electricity every day from 2.2m solar panels and we hope to generate 170MW by 2015," said Abul Kalam Azad, chairman of IDCOL. With 2,000 panels being installed every day, the goal seems achievable.

On May 12th, the programme reached the milestone of having installed 2m solar panels. At an event in Dhaka marking the achievement, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said the "increasing use of renewable energy would help ease poverty in the country through rural development and job creation".

Economic benefits

"We can already see the economic benefits spawned by this programme," Toufiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, energy adviser to the prime minister, told Khabar. "Each year we are saving [Taka 9.3 billion] $120m from the import of kerosene because of its falling demand in villages."

That is a big sum for a country like Bangladesh, and the government can divert the money for rural infrastructure development, IDCOL Executive Director Mahmood Malik told Khabar.

"This would unleash job opportunities in rural areas and help the government's poverty alleviation efforts," he said. Encouraged by the programme's success, IDCOL has taken up new projects to provide biogas plants and improved cooking ovens in rural areas.

"Biogas not only relieves the users from buying and collecting firewood but more importantly, it helps the environment as rural people would not cut trees for cooking purposes," said Malik. So far, nearly 150,000 villagers are benefiting from biogas plants and IDCOL plans to reach 350,000 people by 2016.

(Courtesy: Khabar South Asia)

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