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Solar lights that won’t go out

By Arnaldo Vieira de Carvalho*

For Katalina Erlinda Peña de Romero’s family, sunset used to mean an abrupt end to all activity. Their house in the rural municipality of Caluco, in the Salvadoran department of Sonsonate, did not have electricity, and the family income was so meager that they often could not afford to buy kerosene to light lamps.

“We used to go to bed really early before,” Romero told a reporter for San Salvador’s La Prensa Gráfica in November 2005. “We’d just manage to eat, and at 6 o’clock we’d all be in bed. Now, thanks to electricity, we go to bed late, around 10 o’clock at night, and I can give my children more help with their schoolwork.”

Even the most modest homes have been equipped with solar panels.

The electricity is produced by a solar panel recently installed on the roof of the Romeros’ house. Another 70 families in the cantons of Las Flores and Cerro Alto have also received solar panels. Each panel generates enough electricity to operate three light bulbs, a radio and a small television for four or five hours a day. Her family’s quality of life “has taken a 180 degree turn” since the panel was installed, Romero said.

The solar panels are part of a pilot project run by El Salvador’s Ministry of the Economy with funds from a US$750,000 grant supplied by the IDB’s Japan Special Fund (see link to website to the right). Salvadoran authorities hope to expand the initiative to all the remote regions in El Salvador that cannot gain access to the conventional electricity grid. According to studies carried out for the project, more than 10,000 Salvadoran families could be served satisfactorily by this type of solution.

The battery problem. This is not the first time that solar energy has been used for rural electrification in the region (see link to the right “A village comes out of the dark”). However, many of the previous projects failed because of problems with long-term maintenance, particularly relating to the process of changing the batteries that store the energy captured during the day so that it can be used at night. While the solar panels typically have a useful life of more than 20 years and only need to be cleaned periodically, the batteries generally last only four or five years. If they are not replaced on time, they can put the entire system out of operation permanently.

The Caluco project is applying a system that is completely new to El Salvador, based on creating maintenance microenterprises run by community representatives. The business takes responsibility for replacing the batteries and other parts (such as regulators and fuses) in exchange for a fixed monthly payment equivalent to US$5 for each home. Studies done for the project showed that the monthly payment came to half of what the families had been paying for candles, kerosene for lamps and batteries for lanterns prior to installing the solar panels.

Salvadoran President Elías Saca (left) and other officials at the innaugural ceremonies in Caluco.

The ceremony to celebrate the inauguration of the project in Las Flores and Cerro Alto on November 19, 2005, was an unforgettable event for the community. El Salvador’s president, Elías Antonio Saca, Economy Minister Yolanda de Gavidia, Japanese ambassador Akio Hosono, and various other national and IDB authorities participated in the festivities.

Afterwards, Caluco mayor Fernando Medina joked that “people are happy because they won’t be getting smoked out by kerosene lamps anymore, and their noses won’t have to fill up with smoke either.” In addition, some families are already thinking about using the light to expand income-generating activities as lucrative as sewing, he said.

In addition to the grant from the Japan Special Fund, the project also received design assistance through a renewable energy cooperation agreement between the IDB and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

*Vieira de Carvalho is an energy specialist in the IDB’s Regional Operations Department 2.