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Can solar power make light work of Afghanistan’s electricity crisis?

by Shadi Khan Saif

DehSabz, or “Green Village”, is one of the oldest districts in Afghanistan. Right on the edge of the capital city, Kabul, its mud houses stand in sharp contrast with its shining solar panels producing electricity for an increasingly wired rural population.

For local farmer Mir Mohammad Khan, solar power means an escape from the high running costs of the old diesel-powered generator he was forced to use to circumvent Afghanistan’s notorious power blackouts. “Me and my kids did not like the sound or smell of it, but more importantly, it was proving to be very expensive,” he tells Equal Times.

The potential benefits of clean and affordable energy in Afghanistan are huge. It is a country with some of the lowest rates of electricity consumption in the world, a country where only 38 per cent of the population is connected to the grid – but where sunlight is available in abundance.

Residents in many parts of the country, including Kabul, rely heavily on ‘dirty energy’ such as diesel generators, furnace oil and firewood for lighting, cooking and heating purposes. Even with the redevelopment of Afghanistan’s electricity infrastructure following decades of conflict, many parts of the country remain deprived of this basic utility.

To the south of the country is Kandahar province. Best known as the birthplace of the Taliban, it is now emerging as an unlikely hub for solar power generation in Afghanistan. Although most of the foreign, mainly US troops, based in the province are now gone, the US and Afghan governments are hoping to establish a landmark 10-megawatt solar energy power plant to make up for the termination of a US-sponsored diesel generator subsidy programme in September.

The government is currently accepting tenders for the contract and while the plant, which will be headed by Afghanistan’s national utility company Da Afghanistan Breshna Shirkat (DABS), won’t meet all of Kandahar’s energy needs, it is hoped the plant will play an important supplementary role in Kandahar’s power supply, while acting as a model for other parts of Afghanistan.

 

Power vacuum

At present, Afghanistan relies heavily on imported electricity from neighbouring countries such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan (as much as 400 megawatts of the 600 megawatts generated in Afghanistan comes from central Asia).

That’s why the Afghan government is increasingly interested in solar, wind and hydro power. Because, while some Afghans have been able to enjoy all the trappings of modern life, everyone is affected by the frequent power cuts.

In addition to the latest smartphones, TVs and video games, markets all around Kabul sell various small and medium-sized solar panels to power those appliances.

The booming sale of solar panels has not only created hundreds of new jobs but it has also attracted foreign investment. A number of companies formed by expat Afghans have entered this emerging market. At their exquisitely furnished office on the main Darulaman Road in western Kabul, Afghan Solar Ltd is one such company.

Its director, engineer Syed Humayoun, is optimistic about the future of this sector. “So far, solar panels are mainly being used for domestic purposes, small-scale agriculture farms or for street lights, but there is huge potential for it to be used for commercial-scale power production,” he tells Equal Times.

Being the top donor for Afghanistan’s reconstruction, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has also been leading efforts to diversify Afghanistan’s energy sources and minimise Kabul government’s reliance on costly fuel for power.

“We are working closely with public and private sector on expanding clean and renewable energy,” Bill Hammink, USAID chief for Afghanistan, told a local radio in Kabul last month. “There is a huge potential here for solar and wind, and in that way Afghanistan can become less dependent on imported energy.”

Back in DehSabz, farmer Juma Deen Khan is at peace with fluctuating fuel prices and is reaping the benefits of his one-time investment in solar power.

“You know, not many things are stable in this country: terrorist attacks, political tension – these things worry me. But at least I can trust the sun to shine over my head and charge the batteries for power so that I can irrigate my farm,” Khan said with a radiant smile.

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