Solar energy project provides new opportunities for shop owners in southern Afghanistan

19 Jan 2012 | Cpl. Meredith Brown

A single solar panel is mounted above a shop, a wire runs from the panel into the shop and attaches to a car battery, providing the only source of power for the shopkeeper. The storeowner operates a small photography studio, where he takes photos in his shop and prints them out for his customers.

Situations like this are common for the shopkeepers in Nawa district who do not have a central power source.

Many residents throughout the northern half of Helmand receive their energy from the hydroelectric power plant located at the Kajaki dam. However, the power supply does not reach Nawa, which is located in the southern portion of Helmand province.

Now, with the help of a solar energy project in the district, there is a new opportunity for the shopkeepers in the Nawa bazaar. Nearly 150 shops in the bazaar will be able to receive steady power from the project.

Capt. Brandon Newell, Expeditionary Energy Liaison Officer for Regional Command Southwest and a native of St. Amant, La., says this is the first type of large-scale solar hybrid project in Helmand to date.

“We’re not just trying to introduce something that’s sustainable into their community,” explained Newell who also holds an electrical engineering degree from Louisiana State University. “We’re taking something that they understand at a smaller level and trying to provide them an opportunity at a much larger, more centralized capability, which will be much more reliable.“

Two long rows of solar panels were put together, mounted and welded to the roof of the Nawa district governor’s compound and wires were ran to a large storage container where the power is converted into consumable energy. The energy runs to different meters throughout the bazaar.

At this point, shop owners can wire the electricity to their individual shops, where they will install a separate meter. The district governor will issue the shopkeepers pre-paid cards that they insert into their specific meter. The amount of wattage that the storeowners buy dictates the amount of electricity that they can use. However, once a certain amount of electricity is bought, there is not a time limit on when they must use the power.

Two local Afghans serve as maintenance operators who are responsible for keeping the system up and running once everything is installed. The money raised from selling the power, pays the operators’ salaries and the left-over money accumulates for later maintenance or expansion.

“We’re not trying to dictate what the end product is for them,” said Newell. “We’re trying to facilitate an opportunity for them to take ownership and run the system, to use it for the benefit of individual shops and the benefit the entire community,”

After walking through the bazaar and talking with the local Afghans, Newell said sewing, lighting and running fans in the summer were common uses for the power.

Once the batteries arrive in Afghanistan, the shop owners will also have the opportunity to stay open later. Because batteries cannot be transported through the Pakistan border, power will only be available during daylight. Once the batteries arrive, they will serve as a storage system for extra power collected during the day that can be used throughout the night.

Sarwar Akbari, a renewable energy engineer who has been working on the project over the past few months, said the project is important because it gives the locals a chance to reasonably use electricity.

“Before they were using generators and single panels,” said Akbari. “The shopkeepers in the bazaar are very poor people. They can’t prepare fuel for the generators and purchase individual panels. They are very happy with us that we are finishing our project and are about to install the meters.”