In Part 1 of a two-part series, Worldwatch MAP Fellow Sam Shrank describes efforts to bring solar home systems to rural Thailand.
I spent most of the last year working with the Border Green Energy Team (BGET ) in Mae Sot, Thailand. BGET is a non-profit that installs renewable energy systems, including photovoltaic cells, small-scale hydropower (1 to 5 kilowatt), and biogas digesters, in areas along the Thailand-Myanmar border that are not connected to the national grid.
Many of BGET’s projects are at medical clinics and schools that previously had little or no access to modern energy services. BGET also prides itself on building local capacity, both by devoting time to training locals in the basic theory behind the energy technology and the practical skills necessary to do maintenance and repairs to their system and by including students from local engineering schools in its installations.
When I first visited these villages with BGET, all deep in the mountains, some hours from a road navigable by car, I was surprised to see a solar panel attached to nearly every house. I found out that in 2004 the Thai government installed 200,000 solar home systems, including two light bulbs and a battery, covering two-thirds of the country’s unelectrified houses. It was one of many projects developing countries started at that time that dropped massive amounts of renewable energy technology on their most marginalized communities.
Unfortunately many of these programs, including in Thailand, have provided little lasting benefit. Six years later, even though the panels are still standing, few households are receiving any power. Already in 2006, less than two years after installation, a survey conducted by BGET found that almost a quarter of the systems had already failed. In late 2009, I did my own informal canvassing while working with BGET and observed that by then hardly any of the systems (perhaps 20 percent) were still fully functional. The households had gone back to using the old lighting sources (often candles or battery-powered flashlights) they had used before, and the panels were left to collect dust.
This unfortunate outcome can be traced to a combination of factors that is at once unique to Thailand and found throughout the developing world. The direct cause of system failure is broken components: inverters, batteries, and other electrical equipment do not have very long lifetimes, and the components used for the scheme were of lower quality. Even under ideal circumstances, the system would function properly for only a couple years before one or more components would fail.
And these were far from ideal circumstances. The equipment was mounted on the wall completely exposed, and villagers were given little or no training in proper operation and maintenance, which is particularly important for battery life. In spending time in these villages, I saw many creative (but mostly ineffective) attempts at amateur repair. Other systems suffered from installation errors or manufacturing defects.
But these problems are inevitable, so the real issue with the program was the lack of effectiveness of the warranty system. Technically the manufacturers provided warranties on all parts ranging from two years for the full system to five years for the panel. But the fact that almost a quarter of the systems weren’t functioning less than two years later proves that the warranty process was not working either.
The reasons why the warranty process broke down are legion. The manufacturers had no incentive to advertise the warranty or seek out broken components, and it is not clear whether the manufacturers performed checkups on their systems after 18 months as they were supposed to. The government made little effort to make villagers aware of their rights according to the warranty and most did not know that one existed.
Even when a household does want to file a claim, the process is complicated enough that many claims never led to repairs. A villager would have to notify the representative of the local government in his village, and this representative would have to bring the claim to the sub-district government office, which would then file it with the manufacturer. There are also cultural considerations that may come into play; some commentators point to a Thai cultural norm of avoiding conflict, resulting in villagers either not filing claims at all or refraining from being persistent about claims that were not honored.
This confluence of bad circumstances, due mostly to a lack of forethought on the part of the project’s planners, led to a massive waste of resources. The project, despite having so much promise, had little to show for itself after five years.
Stay tuned for part two of this entry to learn about BGET’s efforts to, at least locally, take advantage of the functioning solar panels abandoned all over rural Thailand.