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Renewable energy electrifies Lao villages!

Posted by Laotraveller on 11/5/2007 at 11:06

On my trip through Lao a special opportunity to see the country from a different angle came my way.
I was travelling in the Northeast of the country and heard about an inauguration of an new power grid in a little village called Nam Kha which was supposed to be very innovative. That made me curious. After a bit of researching on the web I found the company responsible for that, and asked them if I might attend the opening of the grid as well. I still had a few days in Laos and thought I might as well use them in a good way. The people at “Sunlabob” in Vientiane sounded very nice on the phone and actually really invited me to the inauguration which was to happen two days later. The area where Nam Kha is situated is not very touristic, so it took me a while to get there.
About 10 in the morning on the day of the inauguration, the delegation from Vientiane arrived by helicopter in the district capital, a small village, where I had been waiting some time already. The whole village was very excited, especially the kids seemed very fascinated by the huge flying machine. I introduced myself briefly and the group welcomed me right away. We went the last kilometers to the tiny village Nam Kha by bus, passing many bomb craters from times of the Vietnam war, and beautiful rice paddies with water-buffalos.
On the way I asked people to explain me what was actually gonna happen there. I learned that Sunlabob who specify in the electrification of the rural areas in Laos, were going to inaugurate the first hybrid grid. They installed a water turbine to use the power of a river, and also big solar panels in order to use the many days of sunshine. But as there is times when there is not enough water nor sun, also a generator has been installed which switches on automatically in such cases. They explained me that the panel which controls the different sources of energy was the latest technology from Switzerland. They also told me that the company will run the generator on bio-fuel made from Jatropha soon, so the whole unit works on renewable energy sources. This combination is entirely new to Southeast Asia, that is why there is such a big fuzz about the inauguration.
There is another aspect that makes the grid special, and that is the fiancial concept behind it. Private companies and public investors like NGOs both paid into the project. The good thing about that is that the private companies like Sunlabob have to keep the unit running, as this is the only way for them to get back their investments. It made a lot of sense to me, too. They explained that before help organizations or generous countries just put generators in the villages, but then did not do anything to maintain them. So the equipment often broke down quickly. This is, of course, different now, as the private investors want to profit from the project, and this can only happen when the equipment is well-maintained at all times.
When we walked through the village it was easy to see how the new grid had cahnged the villagers’ lives already during the test-run in the weeks before. Before, they only had 2-3 hours of electricity per day, now they have it 24-7. We watched a carpenter whose tool was conveniently plugged into the new grid.
Andy Schroeter, the German guy who founded Sunlabob in 2000, showed and explained us everything in the village. There were some Lao politicians with us, and several NGO people, as well as the German ambassador. The whole village was always around us and everyone seemed very happy to have us there. Andy emphasized that Sunlabob is aiming at teaching the villagers how to use electricity in a productive way, as everyone benefits from that later on. The village is able to develop further when it produces something it can sell. And Sunlabob, of course, also makes more profit. The first thing that comes to mind when hearing that is, of course, saving power. But when you realize that it’s all renewable energy we are talking about here, the approach of using more really makes sense.
Andy showed and explained us the complete unit, and then the inauguration took place. After that we went back to the province capital where a few speeches were held, and of course there was a big lunch with beer and liquor. The Laotians just know how to celebrate. I got to know some of the NGO people, and couldn’t get enough information about the whole concept.
I found out that Sunlabob also has other means of bringing electricity to the remote areas, for example a rental system for solar systems, so that even the poorest can afford electricity. In the really small villages a unit like the one in Nam Kha wouldn’t be affordable. The company has already won international prizes for their efforts, and is very well-respected among the Lao people, too.
I just found it very impressive that a private company seems to be succeeding with something a lot of aid organizations have tried in vain for years, the electrification of remote villages. A lot of respect at that point.
For me, this day really brought a lot of new insights. Apart from being able to see Laos from a non-touristic point of view, it was also very nice to see that there are actually people who put effort in improving the living conditions of those friendly people. Thanks to Sunlabob that I could be there, and good luck with the further electrification!

#1 Laotraveller has been a member since 11/5/2007. Posts: 3


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