How Bangladesh became the world’s biggest off-grid solar user
Over the past decade, since the Bangladesh government launched a rural electrification programme supported by the World Bank and other international aid bodies, the number of off-grid installations in the country has rocketed. In 2002, installations rates stood at 7000; today that figure has exploded to nearly 2 million and counting, with average installation rates now topping 80,000 a month.
Bangladesh is a classic example of a country that could really benefit from micro-renewable generation technologies such as solar. Around half the predominantly rural population still lacks access to electricity. While off-grid generation technologies are not seen as particularly well suited to the high energy intensity countries of the West, in Bangladesh, where electricity demands at the moment are relatively modest, they are ideal.
The explosive deployment of off-grid solar in Bangladesh has been helped by a combination of two factors: the dramatic fall in the price of small PV systems and a well organised micro-credit scheme that allows even those in relatively impoverished areas to cover the up-front costs of installing a system.
One of the leading players in Bangladesh’s off-grid solar revolution is Rahimafrooz Solar, a Dhaka-based company that manufactures and installs PV systems. Speaking to PV Tech (see video), the company’s managing director Munawar Misbah Moin explains how micro-credit has brought the reality of domestic electricity within the reach of millions of Bangladeshis.
“A typical customer would give a 15% down payment, and then the balance would be made over a period of 24-36 months,” he says. “A typical system would be 50W – for LED lights, a black and white TV connection and mobile phone charger, with four-hour back-up up every day. The cost of everything would be US$300-325, and a household would typically pay US$8-10 for that every month.”
Moin says that even being able to power these relatively modest appliances makes a big difference to people’s lives. “It’s unbelievable, and until you see it, it’s very difficult to explain. Let’s say you go to a rural remote home and they’re burning kerosene lights, suddenly overnight (because it only takes four hours to install a typical system) that home has proper lights and connection to TV – it’s transformational. And the quality of life keeps on improving – in terms of late hour education, and even in shops, they’re keeping them open later into the night.”
And Moin is confident that model can be replicated elsewhere in the developing world. “It’s a win-win proposition: it’s clean energy, it makes money, it serves a part of the population that didn’t have energy access. So it’s a model that we in Bangladesh think we are ready to replicate around the world. In our opinion if there is an energy need anywhere in the world and credit works, then the rest of the thing, technically, is proven.”
Because the off-grid programme is relatively mature now in Bangladesh, it has had time to spawn a local supply chain; all the equipment Rahimafrooz Solar uses it manufacturers itself in Bangladesh, meaning it is able to keep costs down. Another advantage of local manufacturing is that it benefits the local economy; Moin says his company employs up to 4,000 rural people in areas such as installation and servicing.
Although developing this local supply chain has been a key part of the success of the Bangladesh programme, Moin says other countries looking to follow its example should not get too hung up on localisation initially.
“Do exactly what we did,” Moin advises. “Have the initial pilot phase, don’t worry about localisation, build it up to 40-50,000 installations, and then at the same time make sure the localisation happens as the volume increases. Once you hit 50-100,000 systems in a market, and the market gives you consistently 10-20,000 a month, localisation is absolutely feasible.”
Moin is already beginning to travel the globe advising other countries on how they could develop a programme along similar lines to Bangladesh’s: “The idea is to show to the world that there are south-to-south models that can be replicated; the traditional model is north-to-south, but we believe there are models, especially with bottom-of-the-pyramid rural energy access needs, which can be done on a south-to-south model. So let’s look forward.”