Off-Grid Solar Can be Game-Changer for Electricity Access in Central Asia

Solar panels on a house in Bhutan.
Solar panels on a house in Bhutan.

By Sohail Hasnie

ADB recently approved new funding to demonstrate the technical and financial viability of this new technology combination in the CAREC region. 

Solar rooftops are popping up everywhere. Many consumers in the developed world are generating and producing their own electricity, and leaving their grid connection as a lifestyle choice. Off-grid electrification is today a viable alternative to grid-based electricity.

Unfortunately, more than 700 million people in Asia and the Pacific still have no access to electricity, and a large number of them are in two Central Asia Regional Cooperation (CAREC) Program member countries: Afghanistan and Pakistan. People living in the remote mountainous areas of other CAREC countries also have poor access to reliable electricity.

Pakistanis alone spend about $2.3 billion annually on candles, kerosene lamps, and battery-powered flashlights. Kerosene lamps cost up to 30 times more than the inefficient incandescent bulb, and 100 times more than compact fluorescent and light-emitting diode (LED) lamps. In some poor households, kerosene may account for up to 25% of their family’s monthly income, and people in off-grid areas often travel to electrified towns to charge their phones for a fee. Furthermore, kerosene lamps emit toxic fumes, polluting the air inside homes and leading to lung and eye problems.

Kerosene lamps provide insufficient light for work or study, and their naked flames cause many accidents and injuries. Despite this, according to the World Bank on a global scale 1.2 billion people living without access to the power grid spend about $27 billion annually on fossil fuel-powered stopgap technologies.

Small (30–50 watt) off-grid solar lighting systems can be an alternative to kerosene lamps. A good example outside of CAREC is Bangladesh, where about 4.5 million households have replaced kerosene lamps with small solar home lighting systems.

Beyond lighting, modern life requires the use of mobile phone chargers, electric fans, televisions, and refrigerators. In off-grid areas, these appliances can only be powered either with electricity generated by diesel generators or a larger off-grid solar system with lead acid batteries. Both of these options are too expensive for the average household in rural areas in Central Asia.  Diesel generation is an electrocution risk and requires expert knowledge to manage the generation set and a large fuel inventory for reliable supply, while lead acid batteries need replacing every 1–3 years.

Recent technological advances and price reductions in three areas—lithium-ion batteries, solar power, and energy-efficient appliances—have made larger off-grid solar systems more economically viable than extending the main transmission and distribution networks, especially in the case of expensive diesel generation-supplied grids. With this technology, millions of people may be able to stop using kerosene lamps and start producing their own electricity, leapfrogging the long wait for connection to the grid. As large solar panels have become cheaper and suppliers of lithium-ion batteries are ready to provide guarantees for more than 5 years, it is possible to design a system that can power all basic modern conveniences in off-grid areas.

Off-grid solar may soon be preferred over grid-connected electricity, even in countries with 100% electrification. For example, a typical new connection in rural Afghanistan is estimated to cost about $1,200 (plus regular payments for energy consumed), compared with a $1,500 off-grid kit that includes power generation for basic appliances with no additional payment other than basic maintenance for 5 years. According to a recent World Bank report, the global market for off-grid electricity will be about $3.1 billion by 2020, reaching about 100 million households. This is leading to a huge paradigm shift: off-grid electrification and micro-grids may no longer be a stopgap measure and even become the most affordable option in many developing countries.

ADB recently approved new funding for regional technical assistance to demonstrate the technical and financial viability of this new technology combination in the CAREC region, and encourage the off-grid community to move from basic lighting to a range of basic battery-operated appliances using larger solar panels and long-life lithium-ion batteries.

The development challenge is to create a market for low-voltage direct current (DC) appliances, quality batteries, and reliable solar panels in CAREC countries at reasonable prices. Solar panels produce DC electricity, and most off-grid systems convert DC to alternating current (AC), for which everyday appliances are designed. DC appliances are affordable and easily available in developing countries and online, but are not readily available in the CAREC region. In some cases, expensive low-quality products are preventing consumers in these countries from scaling up off-grid electrification. Other universal barriers—such as high up-front costs, lack of financing and awareness, institutional barriers, and perceived risks—will be assessed during implementation and scale-up.

The project will promote DC off-grid solar kits and equipment by demonstrating the viability of this technology, developing knowledge materials, and building capacities for mainstreaming this initiative. By using lithium-ion batteries and LEDs, the system will be safer and healthier than kerosene, produce brighter lights, extend product lives, and lower life cycle costs.

We like to hear about any similar initiatives you may know, and your ideas about our project. Off-grid solar is the ONLY way to bring electricity to all by 2020.