Solar energy use sees major growth

http://www.thefinancialexpress-bd.com/more.php?news_id=124464&date=2011-01-30

Solar energy use sees major growth

People enjoying TV powered by a Grameen Shakti Solar Power System. Source: http://www.gshakti.org/

Mushir Ahmed

The country is making a big stride in the use of renewable energy with companies and charities doubling the number of solar-powered houses to nearly 800,000 last year.

Soft-credit by a government-owned financiers, stepped-up marketing and a longing for a better life by millions of rural poor are powering the growth of solar energy use, officials said Saturday.

Grameen Shakti (GS), a sister company of Grameen Bank, is leading the surge, aided by more than two dozen firms and non-government organisations, in what experts describe as a major private sector push in power sector.

With 50 per cent of the country’s households still remaining outside the power grid such firms have now unveiled an ambitious plan to bring 35 million people under the coverage of renewable energy by 2015.

“When the GS started 14 years back, I never imagined that a day would come when we can add 1,000 solar home system (SHS) a day,” said Ruhul Quddus who now heads Rural Services Foundation (RSF), a for-profit charity owned by Rahimafrooz.

Quddus was at the helm of GS when the firm sold only 228 SHSs in fiscal 1996-97. Last year 29 firms and charities sold 400,000 SHSs to take countrywide solar-powered homes to nearly 800,000.

“It took us 10 years to cross the 10,000 threshold. And now we are in a position to power a million households every year,” he said.

Emboldened by its recent success, the GS aims to cover five million households under solar power, making the renewable energy available to some 25 million people in the next five years and other firms and charities hope to power the rest 10 million.

Last year alone the GS powered some 200,600 households with solar system, taking its tally to half a million. The RSF sold more than 50,000 and Brac, Srizony, Ubomus, Hilful Fuzul and other charities, the rest 130,000.

Officials said a 5.0-8.0 per cent soft credit lent to the solar firms by state-owned renewable energy financier, IDCOL, sparked the growth four years back, making the SHS affordable to villages not connected to the national grid.

Development of a monthly payment package and 20-year product maturity and service period made the system financially attractive to poor and middle income clients.

It means a rural poor can now buy a basic 20-50 watt SHS just at the cost of his monthly kerosene or candle bill.

“A 50 watt SHS is most popular because it powers four lights and a black and white television set. And the cost is around Tk 25,000, which can be paid back in small installments in three years,” said Abser Kamal, chief executive officer of the GS.

Kamal said his company has set a target to double SHS clients to one million in 2011 — a feat it had earlier hoped to achieve by 2015.

“We also revised our long term plan following success in 2010. By 2015, we want to sell solar system to five million households. And we think it is achievable,” he said.

He said people in the coastal areas, migration-prone districts and wealthy villages in Chittagong and Sylhet were first to convert to solar power.

But now, the company has offices in every sub-district town in the country, employing 8,500 trained staff and it is planning to recruit thousands more.

RSF chief Quddus said his charity would add 100,000 new SHS this year and seek to expand aggressively in urban areas where an acute power crisis has forced the authorities to freeze connections to new apartment projects.

The firms have also unleashed new solar-powered thermal system, irrigation, mobile phone base stations and geysers in an effort to help boost growth.

Late last year, a group of entrepreneurs launched SolarEn Foundation to sell SHS mostly to the urban clients.

“We think SHS will have high growth in cities this year because power-starved realtors are keen to use solar power in almost all their new projects,” said SolarEn’s chief Monir Hossain.

“It is costly. But a lot of realtors don’t have any choice,” he added.

As part of its urban drive, Rahimafrooz Renewable Energy had set up solar system at the PM office and Bangladesh Bank last year and the GS brought 18 big clients including those in district and sub-district headquarters under its large-scale SHS programme.

A company does not get soft credit benefit from IDCOL if it sells solar system to grid areas especially in cities, but officials said declining cost of solar panel has made this form of alternative energy attractive to urban consumers.

RRE’s $5.0 million solar panel plant kicks off production this March, aimed at substituting import and cutting cost. Another group, Electro, has already launched a similar factory on a test-case basis.

“As far as we know, six more companies are on the pipeline to build solar panel manufacturing plant in Bangladesh this year,” said RRE programme manager Istiaq Ahmed.

The RRE also took its solar success to seven African countries, lighting up the streets of the dark continent, in the first such case of export in the Bangladesh’s history, he said.

“From batteries to panel to cable, the success of solar energy has opened up array of new opportunities in the country’s industrial sector,” Dipal C Barua, who headed GS for many years, had said earlier.

“It is poised to become a big driver of our growth,” he added.

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