Floods, Poverty, Cheap T-shirts - these are some of the common associations with Bangladesh. The image of photovoltaic systems on hut roofs, however, shoots probably only a few people through the head. Solar Panels are omnipresent in the South Asian country: Around 5,5 million households have their own solar home system, SHS for short, which supplies electricity to light, mobile phone batteries, radios and fans.
The fact that Bangladesh is a world leader in SHS is above all due to an ambitious government program that has supported the installation of small solar systems in rural areas since 15 years ago. Twenty million Bangladeshis - more than twelve percent of the population - were given access to electricity, where there is no electricity pylon far and wide. And there are still more to come: 2021 is planning further small systems for 500.00.
Without mains connection
In regions where public electricity grids do not exist, are patchy or unreliable, solar off-grid solutions provide an alternative entry into life with electricity. The offer for individual users is wide: from solar lanterns to small, compact photovoltaic modules, which can be used to charge lamps and rechargeable batteries, to solar home systems, which meanwhile also allow the operation of energy-efficient televisions, fans and refrigerators.
And the need for it is huge: around 840 Millions of people, especially in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, still live without electricity today. Solar solutions are "cost-effective, reliable and quick and easy to install," says Sascha Brandt of the global industry association Global Off-Grid Lighting Association GOGLA in Utrecht, "and therefore uniquely positioned to provide millions of households with access to electricity."
Interview with Sascha Brandt, Global Off-Grid Lighting Association
Many are already there: According to GOGLA, around 2018 around the world 108 millions of households have access to light through solar solutions, from 2017 to 2018 alone, the industry's sales have increased by 77 percent. The increasing popularity goes hand in hand with the growing affordability: on the one hand, the cost of solar modules has fallen by more than 80 percent in the past ten years. On the other hand, innovative financing models have emerged that take small income into account. Above all, the payment model Pay-as-you-go is now standard with many providers. For example, Azuri Technologies, the UK-based solar energy company 2012, offers a base solar system with a ten-watt panel, a battery, a control unit, four LED lights, a radio, a flashlight, and a cell phone charging station. A customer in Kenya typically concludes an 82 week contract and pays a weekly rate of around 2,90 Euro via a mobile phone transaction - only if the rate is paid can the system be switched on. Since poorer households spend up to one third of their net income on candles, flashlight batteries and kerosene lamps anyway, the willingness to pay for the solar alternative is certainly there. "Upfront costs or down payments incurred for the SHS none. And as soon as the customer has paid for the package in full, it is his - the electricity will flow free of charge, "explains Gina Ghensi, Marketing Manager at Azuri. The basic package can be upgraded to a satellite TV since the spring of 2019.
Despite state subsidies or attractive installment payments, small solar systems remain unaffordable for many people. A solution for potential, but too poor customers has been developed by the German Sebastian Groh. It enables solar system owners in Bangladesh to sell their surplus electricity. "Almost a third of the electricity generated is lost because households do not consume it," explains Groh. His start-up Solshare therefore cabled several systems to a decentralized ministrom network. Even households without their own panel get a connection and can purchase electricity from their neighbors if necessary. Payment is made via mobile phone.
The networks created by Solshare belong to the participants themselves, who also finance the cabling and the intelligent electricity meters required for trading. Similar examples of “swarm electrification”, as Groh calls the model, can now also be found in Cambodia and Tanzania.
Clean island stream
However, self-sufficient power grids do not usually work by coupling small systems together. Usually, a centrally installed energy source distributes power to the users via overhead lines. The nets are often run on diesel generators, can run purely on renewable energy such as solar, hydropower, biomass or wind, or combine clean energy with diesel back-up. By using batteries, the nets can be stabilized.
Just a few weeks ago, several solar hybrid networks of Austrian companies officially went into operation in developing countries. For example, the Viennese investor RP Global - with financial support from the EU - has installed eleven microgrids and 180 kilometers of pipes at a total of ten islands in Lake Victoria for a total cost of around five million euros. "This will provide power to twenty villages with more than 80.000 inhabitants for the first time," said Leo Schiefermüller, Africa Director of RP Global on the occasion of the commissioning in July. The new grids should not only bring light to huts, but also boost local economic activities such as workshops, mills or shops.
The Viennese company Swimsol also specializes in supplying electricity to islands, but not in Africa but in the Maldives and Malaysia. Customers are hotel resorts that want to reduce their dependence on polluting diesel generators. Swimsol offers you photovoltaic systems that are installed on floating pontoons. Due to the cooling effect and the light reflections of the water, these systems achieve up to ten percent more power than roof-mounted panels.
According to Managing Director Martin Putschek, a swimming platform costs about two million dollars per megawatt - depending on the price of diesel, it is then paid off after eight to twelve years. However, the complete switch to solar power is not possible, Putschek says: "At present, a maximum of 50 percent of the electricity needs of an island can be covered with solar power and battery at a lower cost than with a diesel generator. For overnight storage, batteries would have to be a lot cheaper. "A project completed in August on a hotel island in South Ari Atoll therefore combines 2.500 solar modules - one third of which" floats "- with the usual diesel generators. The modules reach a nominal output of 678 Kilowatt Peak - enough to power all 193 guest villas during the day.
At any rate, the off-grid sector is colorful and innovative and offers many more potential applications. But "to reach its full potential, there are still many hurdles to overcome," says Ling Ng of the Alliance for Rural Electrification ARE in Brussels. For example, it would be necessary to improve the political environment and access to affordable financing. Solshare CEO Sebastian Groh calls for off-grid solutions to be integrated into government electrification plans, as the expansion of traditional power infrastructure would make no economic sense in many regions. It would even be a step backwards, says Groh: "It would be like denying mobile phones to the rural population and giving them landline access instead."
Swarm with charm
The start-up Solshare, which operates in Bangladesh, describes its concept of connecting individual solar home systems with one another and trading excess electricity via a peer-to-peer platform as “swarm electrification”. The decentralized mini-networks consist of at least 15 to 20 systems that are a maximum of 50 meters apart. “The short distance lowers the costs for the cables and keeps line losses to an acceptable minimum,” explains Managing Director Sebastian Groh. The grids also store enough electricity to bridge days with little sunshine. Participants receive an intelligent meter that continuously records the supply and demand of electricity. If excess electricity flows into the grid, the seller gets around one dollar per kilowatt hour credited to his cell phone. But you can also buy electricity to operate water pumps or to charge the batteries of electric rickshaws. Solshare charges a small transaction fee per kilowatt hour traded. Around 25 such smart platforms are in operation in Bangladesh, and there should be 2019 by the end of 80.
The world in the hut
Whoever makes a solar home system SHS in Africa first wishes to have light - and then a television, according to a consumer study. The British solar company Azuri Technologies has, according to its own information, developed the first solar TV and satellite package specifically for customers without electricity. The 2019 offer is available in Kenya, among others. A set consisting of a 50 watt solar panel, lighting, 24 inch TV and satellite dish comes to around 780 Euro, and can be paid via mobile phone in weekly installments of six euros , According to Azuri, access to 60 TV broadcasters is also to be promoted beyond entertainment: through learning programs for children and content for farmers to better farming practices. Incidentally, Azuri, which has sold more than 2012 SHS in Africa since 150.000, uses machine learning to keep light and TVs off: built-in software analyzes climatic conditions and usage patterns and shuts down power consumption as needed, such as automatically dimming lights and screens.