Electrification of Rural Areas Using Solar Photovoltaic Systems

The choices for power generation in Kiribati are presently limited to imported fossil fuel and solar energy. Solar energy is an abundant source of energy readily available, but its use at the present stage of technological development is limited only to private use in rural areas where the average demand per household is less than 1 kWh.

PV systems constitute a relatively simple and inexpensive means for providing the energy needed by rural inhabitants. Its main advantages are:
• It does not require construction of an interconnecting grid;
• It has little potential for environmental damage if means for recycling failed batteries is provided;
• It only requires a one-time capital investment, with low operating and maintenance costs;
• The modular systems can be specifically sized to fit the needs of individual households.

The Government of Japan funded the installation of 55 solar PV systems in Kiribati in 1992. In 1994, 250 additional solar PV systems were installed, funded by the European Union. Users have to pay a fee, while the systems themselves are property of the electric company.

The systems installed have shown to be effective. Of the 250 PV lightning systems installed on the outer islands of Kiribati in 1994, more than 95 per cent were efficiently working after five years of operation.
• The success of the PV lighting systems has changed the public perception towards PV systems, confirmed by the increase of solar product sales to private individuals.
• The rural population is now aware of the benefits of using solar PV systems at an affordable price. School children can now do their homework at night. Social life has improved as the availability of light has enabled church groups and private individuals to get together at night.
• 13 full-time and 14 part-time jobs have been created in Kiribati as a direct result of this project.
• Some CO2 emissions have been avoided, for the alternative to the PV systems would have been fossil fuel powered.

The use of solar energy for rural electrification can easily serve as a model for other countries with minor modifications to fit local conditions. The following factors have to be considered:
• The number of households must be carefully determined so that viability of the project is maintained. For example, in the case of Kiribati, the number of systems should be no less than 50 to allow for a proper maintenance of the systems.
• A back-up service should be provided so that the systems are properly maintained. A site technician should be recruited to reduce the cost of maintaining the systems. In the case of Kiribati, one field technician can properly maintainup to 125 systems.
• The level of income of the households in the targeted area must be determined to ensure that they can afford to pay the fee. In Kiribati, a fee of $15 a month is affordable by themajority of population in the rural area.
• The connection of additional appliances like refrigerators and VCRs, apart from lights and radios, must be carefully evaluated so that the resultant fee is still affordable to the users.
• Training of technicians in charge of maintenance is crucialto the success of the project.

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