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Rental Model Brings Solar Power to Rural Laos

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Project Stories

Rental Model Brings Solar Power to Rural Laos

Ban Heung, LAOS -- This area, a cluster of three tiny villages along the Sekong River hours from the closest road, is home to a DM project bringing solar power to communities that have never had electricity before.

Sunlabob Rural Energy Systems began its work in 2000 as a supplier of solar panels and electricity equipment to corporate customers and development projects working in areas not covered by the national power network. But, with 60 percent of the country living off the grid, the project team quickly realized that the household market for reliable electricity services in rural areas of Laos was far greater than the commercial operations and development projects.

asd"We saw that families easily spent $3 to $5 or even more per month on poor and inefficient lighting and basic electricity supply," said Andy Schroeter, project team leader, referring to kerosene lighting. What we could offer was lighting and other electricity services at similar or lower costs than before but at much better quality and reliability. Most importantly, the service was commercially viable and could be extended to all households and villages which were interested."

Sunlabob technicians installing a solar system.


Buying Sunlabob's solar system would cost $500 or more ? a price unaffordable to poor villagers. So the company devised a franchise model that leases the solar systems to households or groups of households. This makes the equipment affordable to poor clients and generates employment for the franchisees, who earn commissions from leasing fees and are trained as technicians to market, install and repair the systems.

In 2005, Sunlabob won $150,000 from the DM to cover the cost of 120 solar equipment units and train franchisees in one province. But the project has taken off: today it operates more than 3,400 household systems supported by 17 franchises in eight of Laos' 17 provinces.

By leasing to groups rather than individuals, the project spreads the benefit and electricity and lowers the monthly rental fees to $3-$5 among several people. Now children can study in the evening and workers can extend their productive hours. For some the social benefit is even more valuable.

"A real benefit is that I can invite guests for dinner in a nice and bright environment," says Mrs. Noi, the owner of a 100 Watt panel, speaking of her joy at being able to open her home to neighbors to come and watch videos.

Villagers also have said that they feel safer walking around at night. And services like health clinics have improved and are more capable of serving patients.

In Ban Guoay, in Sangthong district, a five-bed clinic was constructed in 2003. Doctor Sonexay said the clinic could not exist without solar power, since vital medical supplies could not be stored without proper cooling facilities. The clinic's 200 Watt peak solar panel generates the needed power supply and area residents from four surrounding villages can now get immediate treatment without making the two to three hour car ride to Vientiane.

As the DM grant kicked in, Sunlabob also introduced a new product line: piped water supply. Two villages are testing this, while a few others are testing a solar-powered water pump irrigation system. In yet another village, Sunlabob recently installed a small power generation unit that combines solar power with hydropower from a nearby stream in order to increase the electricity capacity.

Sunlabob's project was recognized this year through the prestigious UK-based Ashden Award for Sustainable Energy in the light and power category.

Herb Wade, an independent renewable energy consultant with 30 years experience is quoted by Ashden Awards as saying: "I personally have been directly involved in rural electrification through solar photovoltaics in more than 25 countries. The Sunlabob project is easily the one that stands out as the best at integrating PV based rural electrification, rural business development and lifestyle improvement for rural dwellers and, most remarkably, has done so with no support from the government and with the apparently achievable goal of full cost recovery."

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Larsen Morten contributed this story 

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