VIENNA, Austria — Although no internationally accepted definition exists, energy poverty includes a lack of access to adequate energy needed to meet household energy needs. Energy-poor households tend to have low income and live in remote areas, far from main roads and off main energy grids.
Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR)
Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) is a landlocked Southeast Asian country bordered by Vietnam and Thailand. Almost 64% of its 7.5 million people live in rural villages, most of which are situated around the Mekong River. From the Mekong River and its tributaries, Lao PDR creates 86% of its electricity generation through hydropower and exports its surplus to neighboring countries. Moreover, 90% of Lao’s population has access to this energy through the main energy grids. However, the last 10%, most of whom live in remote villages, do not have access to the grids. Instead, solar energy will empower rural villages through independent solar-powered swarm grids.
Lao PDR’s Transitioning Energy Market
Prior to 2013, all electricity produced in Lao PDR came from hydropower plants. Although other energy sources such as biomass and coal are now used, hydropower contributes significantly to the country’s economy. In 2018, 1.2% of Lao’s GDP revenue was expected to come from exporting hydroelectric energy.
However, over-reliance on hydropower creates several issues, especially in reaching remote populations. Hydropower plants require installation at specific locations along rivers. Electricity must then be transferred to reach the rest of the country. In some regions, 20% of the power supply is lost during distribution, forcing local governments to import electricity. Secondly, building hydropower plants requires constructing dams along waterways, damaging the local environment and displacing residents through increased flooding risks.
To rectify these issues, Lao PDR aims to increase the share of non-hydro renewable energies to 30% of total consumption by 2025. Solar panels will empower rural villages because installation can occur “on-site,” avoiding power losses through transmission. These panels would be independent of the main power grid, increasing the accessibility of energy to remote locations. The country’s 300 days of sunlight per year contributes to its potential to transition to solar energy. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, solar photovoltaics has the largest potential growth capacity of all other renewable energy alternatives, at almost 50% more than the second-largest: wind power.
How Solar Energy Will Empower Rural Villages
Solar energy remains relatively expensive. However, a new technology called a swarm grid may provide the solution. Swarm grids are systems independent of the main power grid, made of a central power hub with several individual power storage units that villagers can add to or take away depending on energy demand. Solar energy empowers remote villages in several ways.
- Solar energy saves lives. Because these villages are so remote, there usually exists only one healthcare center for several villages. Access to stable electricity sources allows health centers to stay open later and provides assurance to healthcare workers that essential equipment functions properly. Additionally, the electricity allows the centers to store and refrigerate medicines and vaccines, which are vital in distributing essential shots to remote populations.
- Solar energy improves education. Similarly, due to the limited number of health centers, schools in remote parts of Lao PDR are few and far between. The number of hours dedicated to schoolwork depended on how much sunlight is available. Not only do swarm grids provide electricity to keep lights on in schools, granting longer school days, but students can study longer and complete their homework in the evening, long past sundown.
- Solar energy provides a safe alternative to pollutive fuel sources. Villages without connection to the main power grid use diesel generators or biofuel, which are relatively pollutive, unreliable and limited energy sources. Other communities collect wax from a tree to create torchlight, a task especially challenging during the rainy season. Swarm grids relieve both of these issues.
- Swarm grids make electricity more affordable. Even after the Lao PDR electrification program, 30% of households lacked a connection to an energy source. This is because the cost of electricity remained too high. However, trained community members can install swarm grids. Since the grids are unconnected from the national electricity grid, the households have an electricity fee more reasonable, deemed by the community itself.
- Solar energy increases economic opportunities. Families can work longer days and purchase appliances to make running businesses more efficient. The Energy Sector Management Assistance Program supports the expansion of the country’s power utility and electricity to the rural poor by financing individual solar home systems and other off-grid technology. The program reported an average of 30 new businesses established in newly electrified villages, while existing businesses decreased operating costs by switching to less expensive and more reliable grid power. Households reported incomes three times higher on average.
Implementing solar energy will empower rural villages in Lao PDR. Electricity in these rural areas not only helps the country diversify its economy but significantly improves the lives of more than 60% of its population.
– Charlotte Ehlers