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Solar Home Systems: Lighting up Bangladesh's Countryside

Naomi Ahmad's picture

Lives no longer interrupted by the setting sun…

We were walking towards the small bridge over the canal. The sun had already set and dusk was gradually fading into darkness. The winter air was quiet and still. Approaching the highest point of the bridge, I could sense the excitement in our quickening footsteps - we were almost there.

The project officials had told us that we could see it all, if we stood and looked out from the highest point of the bridge. So we leaned over the railings and waited, straining to see. But there was nothing – just the fuzzy darkness, gradually thickening and settling quietly on the land. I was left wondering whether we were just on a wild goose chase.

Then down below, a faint light suddenly flickered to life. A bulb was turned on in the darkness. Then another glowed – and yet another! In a few minutes, the area lying below us was glimmering with the tiny dots of faint white light bulbs. And from our high vantage point we could clearly see that the sleepy little rural marketplace - Garjon Bunia Bazaar – had woken up; ready for another evening.

At present, only about 30% of the rural households in Bangladesh have access to grid electricity. For the rest of the areas not connected to the grid, life comes to almost a standstill after sun-set. But Garjon Bunia Bazaar at Naltona Union of Barguna district is one of the many villages now enjoying electricity generated by solar panels. Located down at the very southern tip of Bangladesh and overlooking the Bay of Bengal, the coastal district of Barguna is isolated and includes remote, hard-to-reach villages where grid electricity is not feasible.

The Rural Electrification and Renewable Energy Development (RERED) Project, supported by The World Bank, is promoting renewable energy options to provide electricity to these remote areas. Implemented by IDCOL, the project has made solar home systems available to households and village markets. IDCOL partners with NGOs and private sector companies to implement this project.

More than 750,000 remote households and rural shops have already been connected to Solar Home Systems. Every month, 30,000 systems are being installed. Access to electricity is changing people’s lives and transforming places like Garjon Bunia Bazaar into thriving centers. Under the program, NGOs and partner organizations (POs) procure and install the systems in rural households as per the standards set by IDCOL. The households pay 10% of the down payment, while 90% is repaid in installments over a period of 3-5 years.

After the systems are installed, the POs apply for re-financing from IDCOL. This refinancing provides the POs with funds to install more systems. The program is in the process of being registered under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) to receive carbon revenues.

We entered a tea stall cum small restaurant at the Bazaar. Rows of tables occupied one corner, a crowd of men talked animatedly about their day, exchanging news, while the owner of the small restaurant, Mussarat Farida Begum worked along with her husband to make tea and serve local snacks to her patrons. Over them all, hung two white bulbs, powered by the electricity generated by Farida’s solar panels.

Farida told us how NGOs participating in the RERED project extend micro-credit for consumers in her village to buy solar home systems. She had bought her solar home system for Taka 32,000 (approx USD $457), initially paying an amount of Taka 4000 (approx USD $57). The rest is being paid through weekly installments of Taka 700, equivalent to USD 10. She moved aside the curtains hanging on one corner of the room and showed me the battery for the solar home system, which stores the electricity generated by the panels during the day.

I take really good care of this battery; it is the apple of my eye! I can use three bulbs at my small restaurant and home from the electricity generated by the panel and the battery” said Farida. Now I can keep my small restaurant open even during the evenings and till late at night. My business is booming and my family lives much more comfortably with our increased income. But most importantly I now have electricity at home and my children can study at night. They are doing much better at school.”

Farida’s family lives right behind the small restaurant. Invited inside, we found her daughter Shati and son Towhid, doing their homework by the light of a solitary bulb. A stern tutor sat marking yesterday’s homework and overseeing their studies.

We spent the rest of our evening in Garjon Bunia Bazaar, enjoying the vibrancy of the place and visiting the myriad shops lining the main walk-way: tailoring shops, grocery shops with colorful packets of biscuits and candies hanging around, the local barbershop with posters of celebrities lining the walls, a tiny one-room health care center selling generic medicines and many more interesting enterprises.

A man came forward - he wanted us to visit his motorcycle repair shop. Having electricity at his shop now allows him to carry on repair work during the evening, increasing the number of jobs he can take on. At another tea-stall, men and boys huddled around a small black and white TV run by the solar home system, engrossed in the drama playing out on the flickering screen. Men played chess under the light of a bulb; some debated life and politics, trading local gossip and relaxing after a hard day’s labor. The evening was on in full swing at Garjon Bunia Bazaar.

An old man standing slightly apart from the crowd, aptly summarized it all when he whispered softly: “Life in Garjon Bunia Bazaar now goes on even after dark - our lives no longer interrupted by the setting sun…”


 For more information on the RERED project, please visit the project information page here.

Comments

Submitted by Adam on
One more person calling on @WorldBank to 'Free Us From #fossilfuels' #WBDayOfAction

Submitted by J.D. Gibbard on
Why has fossil fuel lending has increased 400% since 2006. When will the World Bank update its energy strategy to match its rhetoric? Do you spend more on renewables than on fossil foolishness yet?

Submitted by Anonymous on
The IEA predicts that for universal electrification to take place 70% of rural areas will rely on decentralized renewable energy. When will the World Bank stop funding massive coal plants like the Medupi loan in South Africa, and focus only on investments that help the poor and the climate?

Submitted by Joe Qian on
In my humble opinion, a multifaceted approach needs to be adopted in tackling the problem of providing access to electricity to rural residents. How can the other 70% of the residents in rural Bangladesh have access to electricity so they can improve their lives as quickly as possible? The average American emits the same amount of greenhouse gas as 63 Bangladeshis! Unless we're willing to make sacrifices and live in the dark, I think the goal of electrifying communities as quickly as possible using a combination of renewables and clean fossil fuels may be the best solution. I predict a natural progression towards renewables as the technology matures and costs decrease.

Submitted by Paul on
This is a nice story, thank you for posting. But Bangladesh's power needs are huge - you can't grow an economy based on solar power panels. Light industry (textiles) in Bangladesh needs massive amounts of power, and this means the the GoB and the WB need to make difficult choices. Bangladesh sits on a lot of gas - which could provide the cheap and clean(ish) power they need. THAT would make a difference to Bangladesh - though the story may not read as well as this one. J.D. GIBBARD needs to join the real world, and stop telling poor Bangladeshis how they should get their power, while (no doubt) he sits in a big house somewhere watching TV, all powered by coal based power (still the cheapest power source globally).

Submitted by Sohag on
In Bangladesh, is there nothing in priority before electrifying Garjon Bunia?

Submitted by Adzoa Kafui on
Development will only be sustainable if done with renewable energy. Solar collectors, wind generators, and geothermal systems, once installed, have a long life-span with relatively low maintenance costs, whereas coal-fired power plants and diesel powered generators have to be fed forever to be useful. The costs of electrification based on fossil fuels are not abstract, not even to the beneficiaries. Bangladesh in particular is in an especially vulnerable location when it comes to rising sea levels. The price of renewable energy IS coming down, and will come down even more if we create more demand for it by cutting investments in fossil-fuel based systems. As for the assertion that Westerners like myself are hypocritical to make this suggestion when we ourselves benefit from cheap coal-fired electrification, I would like to say that I purchase 100% wind power, and do everything in my power to reduce my own fossil fuel footprint, such as walking or biking to work and taking public transit. It exasperates me no end that I cannot do more. I feel trapped that live in a society where fossil fuels are such an addiction. The developing world must learn from our mistakes and develop along a more sustainable path. They will be the ones to teach us the way.

Submitted by K G Misra on
I visit Mussorie (in hills of India) at least once in year. People of this town used to collect dried branches of trees which are too many, for fuel purposes and for making homes warm in chilly winter. These people plant trees and take a small part of it and maintain good human -nature balance. Government came uninvited and in name of development, started making cooking gas market for town, and placed restrictions on collection of tree parts for fuel. Government in garb of development, made such a publicity that any one collecting dried branches of trees as seen as thieves, and self neglect for what they did for past centuries. Government gleefully controls gas supply, and created norm of corruption for getting gas cylinders, and controls price which is not in hand of these poor people who were cut off from mother nature. People are found in rows for getting gas cylinders and lost their natural independence and free-will. Costs of gas rises and these people without choice are forced to do work for money, and money is thus more important than care for nature and ecosystem. Like Rawan, Indian Government find a way to give them a job of cutting of forest for making income and so called economic development. Forest department now owner of natural resources auctions the trees and businessmen from big cities paid money to get this right. Poor people of this town are offered livelihood by working at saw mills for cutting trees they have worshiped from millions of years. This attitude made the people hostile to nature because they cannot fight with cruel government but express anguish on mother nature. Bamboo is another story of economics taking toll of natural - human relationship. Bamboo is called tree by idiot government of India, forest regulation. Government has a right on bamboo which grows by itself and is used by people making house, fuel and other sustainable ways. May be government wants them to use steel and cement and bricks for housing, and gas for cooking and, they loosing a delicate ballance with nature and fall in mouse trap of Government. Think about it.

Submitted by GPOBA on
The Global Partnership on Output-Based Aid (GPOBA) is one of the partner organizations working to increase access to affordable electricity through the RERED project. GPOBA grant funding will extend electricity access to 140,000 households by paying one-off subsidies to reduce the cost of SHS for target households. Output-Based Aid (OBA) is a results-based approach which ties the payment of aid to the delivery of specific services or "outputs", in this case the installation of an SHS.The OBA subsidy is “pro-poor” in that poorer consumers will receive a relatively higher level of subsidy. GPOBA is a multi-donor trust fund administered by the World Bank. Learn more: www.gpoba.org

This is a very good idea. This will help the very most people who we're far away from lighting. They will not suffer anymore for lights.

Submitted by K G Misra on
PV solar system and Heat collectors are best means of natural freedom and living scientifically with economics as little partner. Food, Energy, and Knowledge of Law of nature .... all includes freedom. You take from nature and give back to nature, and not involve Government's prowling eyes taking away your freedom and natural sustainable society.

I know still one third of Bangladesh is not under electricity so I think solar power home system truly important for Bangladeshi people. I hope bd government will give more subsidy to install solar panels in the rural area of Bangladesh.

Bangladeshi is developing country that needs huge energy to establish it's infrastructure so far I know this country still not under good supply of electricity so I think this solar power facilities will help this country to develop quickly.

Submitted by Profulla Banarjee on
Actually I want a solar panel for a small family @ Gopalgong District, PS, Kotalipara,Vill, Suagram. If possible just contact with me. Cell# Profulla Banarjee. Thanks Profulla Banarjee

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