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Laos villages transformed by Solar Power

For people living off-grid in remote villages in Laos, solar energy offers a clean, sustainable way to bring electricity for all, and the promise to transform their lives.

In Ko Bong and Tha Phai Bai, in the center of the South East Asian country, only a small number of people used to benefit from electricity, provided by unreliable, polluting and expensive diesel generators, thus limiting the possibilities for economic development.

Today, however, the picture is very different, thanks to a UN Development Program (UNDP) initiative that has provided both villages with innovative solar-powered mini-grids, and access to clean, reliable, and affordable energy.

How solar power changes lives

in Lao PDR’s remote villages

“Light is not only light. It is life, and a better life for us here,” said Teung, the chief of Thai Phai Bai village. His village has recently reached a life-changing milestone: for the first time ever, the community has reliable access to electricity. And it’s renewable.

The villages of Ko Bong and Tha Phai Bai in Lao PDR are on the Theun River bank, within a protected area in the center of the country. It is the site of a major hydropower project, which feeds renewable electricity to the national grid.

But nearby communities — too remote to be connected to the grid — haven’t been able to benefit from it. For long, they have had to resort to diesel generators, which can be expensive, polluting, unreliable, and would only provide electricity to a few. Until now.

Harnessing the power of the sun

Both villages now have access to electricity through an innovative community-run solar power installation. This type of solar power system is called a mini-grid.

It is an independent energy system that operates outside of the national grid. As such, mini-grids are a prime energy solution to provide clean, reliable and affordable electricity to remote communities who remain off the main grid.

The mini-grid system installed in these communities goes even one step further. Called a ‘swarm grid’, it is based on a new technology that is particularly well suited to small, rural communities.

The system is made of a central power hub with several individual power storage units which can be expanded if energy demand increases over time. This ‘frugal innovation’ ensures flexibility and adaptability: the more blocks you add, the more energy you get, and the stronger the swarm grid becomes.

Set up in October 2020 in partnership with the solar technology company PowerBlox and the local energy company Sunlabob, the Thai Phai Bai and Ko Bong swarm grid will provide energy to 147 households.

Empowered communities

“For generations, villagers would have to collect the wax of a certain type of tree in the forest to create a torchlight at night. It was very difficult, especially during rainy season,” recalls one of the village’s elders Koun.

“Being able to just flick a switch to turn on the light at home at night will be life-changing.”

But access to energy is transformative in a way that goes far beyond lighting. With clean energy comes a suite of development benefits that improves people lives in many ways. It enables education by helping schoolchildren do their homework in the evening.

It powers essential services, improving for instance the quality of healthcare by providing reliable electricity to health centers. Life-threatening power cuts used to occur during operations, while giving birth or tending to newborns. Not anymore.

“Electricity will help to save lives. I know how hard it is when mothers bring their baby to a health center without electricity,” added Ms. Dam, a health worker.

The health center can now stay open later in the evening, health workers can rely on medical equipment to function properly and refrigerate vaccines and medicines to ensure they remain potent.

Electricity also supports livelihoods and food security. For instance, Ms. Niam, the owner of the only shop in the village, will now be able to earn additional income.

She filled us in on her plans when we met her at the beginning of the project: “When we have electricity, I’d like to expand my business. I will buy a fridge.”

A power system run for villagers, by villagers

Now that the system is up and running, the challenge is to ensure its sustainability. Here, empowering the community to manage and maintain the mini-grid is key, and a group of villagers were trained to do so.

It is also critical that electricity remains affordable: the project team is currently consulting villagers to establish an electricity fee deemed reasonable by the community itself. 

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