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After the Taliban: taking solar energy to remote parts of Afghanistan

 

Solar Power in Afghanistan

Power lines going up in a typical community in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Photograph: Sustainable Energy Services International

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “After the Taliban: taking solar energy to remote parts of Afghanistan” was written by Karl Mathiesen, for theguardian.com on Thursday 14th August 2014 14.41 UTC

Carved into the cliffs behind Bamiyan town centre in Afghanistan’s central highlands, massive holes scar the homeland of the Hazara people, a Shia minority who live between the Hindu Kush and Koh-i-Baba mountain ranges. The hollows once housed statues of Buddha, until the Taliban infamously set dynamite to them in 2001.

But within a few kilometres of these monuments to tyranny stand symbols of renewal – rows of solar panels bringing stable electricity to the homes of local people for the first time – and with them the chance of improving their lives.

The United Nations Development Programme identified the lack of stable, affordable power as the largest obstacle to development in Bamiyan Province, but it is one of many. The Taliban destroyed most of the region’s few schools. There is now just one sealed road and droughts are common. The deprivation “is hard to put into words,” says Besmellah Jahed, the director of the Rehabilitation and Social Development Organisation, a local NGO.

“They’ve had 30 years of disappointment, 30 years of failed hope and promises. Hospitals, roads and airports – everything you need for a community to develop, they’ve been waiting for it to arrive,” says Tony Woods, a New Zealand entrepreneur whose company Sustainable Energy Services International (Sesi) built the solar power system.

Before the solar installation started operating in December, locals had to rely on an expensive, haphazard system of neighbourhood generators, kerosene lamps and tiny, private solar panels to access even the most rudimentary power supply.

Solar Power in Afghanistan

Solar panels at Mulla Ghulam, Bamiyan. Photograph: Sustainable Energy Services International

The Taliban massacres and destruction of the Buddhas ensured the province remains deeply antagonistic toward the counter-insurgency, making it a relatively stable oasis in the fractious countryside. This security has created an environment that encourages investment in infrastructure.

Sesi says the 1MW facility is central Asia’s largest off-grid solar plant. It powers 2500 homes around the provincial capital, Bamiyan. During the winter months the cells are backed up for a few hours each night by a diesel generator. The New Zealand government, whose army administered the region during the western occupation, backed the installation with a US$14.1m grant.

Building in a province surrounded on all sides by war and mountains, with no existing power infrastructure, was a huge logistical challenge, says Woods. Every pole, wire, panel and frame had to be imported. His team of local and foreign workers had to contest with corrupt customs officials, a supply road that sporadically fell under the control of insurgents, the closure of the Pakistani border for eight months and winters so cold their concrete would not set.

The project also had to overcome local scepticism bred by bitter experiences. “They wanted to know if we were going to steal all the money [from their power bills] and take it back to New Zealand,” says Woods. There was also concern that electricity rates would be too high, despite the fact that residents were paying some of the highest prices in the world.

 

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