I have always had the impression that green energy is an exclusive “luxury” for developed countries: the costs in developing a green technology, getting a patent, manufacturing the product and employing and training people with enough expertise to install and maintain the infrastructure needed to collect the energy are simply too great for developing countries.
Yet Dipal Barua, the founder and chairman of the Bright Green Energy Foundation, a company delivering green energy technology products (solar panels and the like) in Bangladesh, has proved otherwise. Winning the first Zayed Future Energy Prize for his ‘installment-based payment system’ in Bangladeshi rural areas, he explained that there are many people in Bangladesh do not even have electricity: “You can buy a solar home system because we have plenty of sunshine.”
The initial cost, according to Barua, is high, but users only pay a small amount per month of around two to ten dollars a month. Different components of the solar panels have different life spans: while the solar panel can last for 20 years, the batteries, charge controllers and some spare components can only last for three to five years.
“People pay every month, and they become the owner of the system […] for 20 to 25 years,” he explains. The company offers some financial incentives to the customers to return the used batteries back by giving them a 30 per cent return: “So they can buy a new one, and they can take another loan.”
He then lists some benefits of the solar system brought to the family and to the community. They include a better education for the children and higher revenues for local business brought by the extension of working hours.
“I believe [those using solar] are connected to the country and the whole world because they can watch television, they can charge their mobile phone[s], some of the students [are] using laptops and other digital technologies.”
Barua is very keen to get Bangladeshi women involved in the green energy sector: “If we don’t have energy, we [can’t] work [with] full potential. When there’s no energy, people are victims, but women are double victims because men go outside and have a job, and then send money to their home; but women work [through] cooking for their children, for their family, and they raise their cows and cattles.”
He claims that some Bangladeshi women involved in his project are earning 100 dollars a month because they are trained how to produce charge controllers, assemble fluorescent lamp, maintain the system and sell spare parts to others.
“Women are important because they live in the village. The small income [they receive] is good for them and their family. Men go elsewhere sometimes but women are sustainable.”
But given the fact that many Bangladeshi women in rural areas have not received a good education, how can he train them to become “green entrepreneurs”? Barua emphasises that he trains all women, but having some education, say 5th grade or 8th grade, is good for calculation, training and educating other women in the village: “Simple education is enough, because we train them [with] practical education.”
“In the long run, if there are 5 million systems in Bangladesh, we need a lot of women [to] help to maintain the system and I am working on that – I believe they will play a very important role in the future.”
Another challenge for development in Bangladesh’s rural areas is the frequent power cuts experienced in the summer because of the huge demand for electricity for fans and air conditioning. The solar panels, Barua explains, thus , “play a very important role in filling the gaps and [acting as a] complementary approach.”
And the celebrated prize winner has plans for the future. He first wants to introduce fans linked directly to home appliances currently provided by the current solar home system. Over the longer term, he is a strong advocate for providing solar energy to urban areas via power grids.
He also wants to replace diesel water pumps with their solar equivalents. This is a particularly important issue in the rice-growing (and rice-consuming) Bangladeshi countryside due to its heavy demand for irrigation. “In the dry season we need water so now solar plays an important role.”