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Unique rental model brings solar power to remote Lao villages

Page history last edited by Rosemary 9 years, 6 months ago

Company makes solar energy commercially viable yet affordable for rural poor

Sunlabob Rural Energy Ltd., which has been bringing solar energy to poor rural communities in the Lao People's Democratic Republic (PDR) on a commercially-viable basis since 2001, now has a foothold in Africa, thanks to its recent win in the World Bank Development Marketplace on “Lighting Africa”. Its approach, which uses equipment suited for long-term use in remote areas, trains local people to carry out servicing, and works through village committees, makes solar energy commercially viable yet affordable for the rural poor.

Founder Andy Schroeter describes Sunlabob’s plans to replicate its success throughout Southeast Asia as “a well-anchored effort with a long term vision for a commercially viable alternative energy sector in the region.” Since 2000, Sunlabob has installed over 5,600 systems in more than 450 villages and locations all over Laos, with more than 1,800 solar home systems and 500 solar lanterns being rented to families in 73 different villages. Sunlabob is installing 500 systems a year but will soon scale up to 2,500 and then 5,000 systems annually. Sunlabob is also working in Cambodia and Indonesia, and exploring possibilities in Bhutan, East Timor, and Latin America.

Of the 5.7 million people living in Laos, only 48% are connected to the electrical grid, so many people in rural areas rely on firewood and kerosene because it is too costly to reach them with power lines and transformers. But in Laos, 74% of the population lives on less than US$2 a day, and cannot afford to pay for installing solar systems. Sunlabob’s success is due to a rental service which avoids upfront costs and direct subsidies, a network of trained rural entrepreneurs who maintain the high quality of the PV systems, and the decision to put the community in charge of the process.

"Sunlabob really works well with local people,” says Bouathep Malaykham, head of the Lao Government Rural Electrification Program. “Because they are a private company they can make things happen quickly." A consultant who has done rural electrification in more than 25 countries calls the Sunlabob model “the best at integrating PV based rural electrification, rural business development and lifestyle improvement for rural dwellers …with the “apparently achievable goal of full cost recovery."

Sunlabob offers three options:

  • Solar-powered lanterns are rented for prices beginning at 35,000 kip per month ($3.80), lower than the 36,000 to 60,000 kip per month ($4.00 to $6.60) households typically pay for kerosene for light and much safer and less polluting. After 10 hours' use, the lanterns are recharged for a small fee from the village's central solar-power collection facility. All fees go towards maintaining the central solar recharging station. With its Ugandan partner TSSD, Sunlabob will be promoting these solar lanterns in Uganda;

  • Sunlabob trains Lao franchisees to install solar photovoltaic equipment in their villages and trains local technicians in maintenance. The franchisees act as back-up technical support to the village technicians. The equipment is rented to a village-appointed Village Energy Committee, which sub-leases it to households at prices it sets. Rent covers all costs, including replacements and operational servicing costs. In the event of breakdowns, rent payments are suspended until repairs are made;

  • In larger villages, Sunlabob uses solar, hydro and generators to create an electrical grid with enough energy to power various activities such as health clinics, rice mills and water pumps. Sunlabob also is investing solar pumping and biofuels. In the remote southern province of Sekong, 15 families have rented a solar operated pump that allows them to irrigate five hectares of mulberries for raising silk worms.


Sunlabob has won many prestigious prizes, including the UN Environment Programme's Sasakawa prize in 2008, a National Energy Globe Award 2007, an Ashden Award in 2007, and twice has won a World Bank Development Marketplace grant. It was a finalist in the 2006 World Challenge contest. With other Lao agencies, it has launched the Lao Institute for Renewable Energy (LIRE), a non-profit organization dedicated to the research and testing of viable technology for the Lao people.

Posted on YouTube by Ashden Awards Feb. 26, 2008

This story was prepared from several sources: information on the company’s website; a story entitled Laos: Bringing light to remote villages, datelined Vientiane 3 July 2008 and written and distributed by IRIN, the humanitarian news agency; a story on the Energy Globe Awards; a story entitled Bringing Renewable Energy to Remote Communities: Projects from Peru and Lao PDR Share Prestigious Environment Award, datelined Nairobi and Wellington 4 June 2008; Sunny Side Up, Sunlabob Rural Energy Ltd – LAOS, World Challenge site; and the Ashden Awards website. Both of the pictures come from the Sunlabob site.


For other stories about solar power, see:

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