Sat Samy has a dream for Cambodia. Far in the countryside, away from the cities, the paved roads and the conveniences of modern living, houses at night will glow with the pale light of fluorescent lamps, maybe even the flicker of a television.
Cambodia does not have a wealthy population or a well-developed infrastructure. But the country has plenty of sun, and Sat Samy, of the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy, wants to use it to bring electricity to 1 million rural families.
Though solar energy projects have become quite popular in other countries as the world tries to ease its dependence on fossil fuels, such projects are almost nonexistent in Cambodia. Most people here can barely afford to feed their families, making a solar generator to power lights or run a water pump a near impossibility.
But based on the success of pilot projects throughout the country, officials say, solar energy is a viable method of lighting Cambodia, so long as someone can be found to pay for it.
Eighty-five percent of Cambodia’s population lives in rural areas, and very few of these people have access to electricity. Most use kerosene lamps and candles at night, and some power lights and televisions with car batteries. Providing them with a steady source of electricity is seen as a key step in raising their standard of living.
“I want to help the children,” says Sat Samy, director of the ministry’s technical energy department. He envisions homes where children can study at night by lamp light and parents can earn extra money by sewing or weaving after dark.
As with most development projects in Cambodia, there’s a catch.
“While Cambodia is committed to improving the current situation, it alone would not be able to achieve substantial results without the participation of international experts and resources,” Suy Sem, minister of industry, mines and energy, told a group of energy experts who met last week at the ministry to discuss possibilities for solar energy here.
Cambodia can develop the technical resources to set up solar energy projects. What Cambodia needs is money.
“We lack funds,” Sat Samy said. “If we had funds, it could be done quickly.”
According to the Swedish International Development Corporation Agency, which funded a two-year study of solar capabilities here, Cambodia has the lowest per capita energy consumption of any country in Southeast Asia.
“Very few villages have any electricity at all,” said Joel Charny, deputy program manager for Carere. “It’s just one more example of how this country missed out and was set back by war and the political situation.”
While it may be feasible to provide rural schools and health clinics with solar power, the government’s plan to outfit thousands of homes with solar generators may be too ambitious, Charny said. “We’re talking about a government that has very little money to invest,” he said.
The solar panels would be imported. The regulators, batteries and lamps could all be made in Cambodia, cutting costs and providing local jobs, Sat Samy said. Still, the cost of building, installing and maintaining 1 million simple solar units would top $150 million, he said.
The government has not yet found donors or investors to fund the project.
Cambodia currently can generate about 122 megawatts of electricity, 85 megawatts of which are used in Phnom Penh. Of the 122 megawatts, just 70 kilowatts are generated through solar energy. Nearly all of these units have been installed by NGO’s such as Unicef and the Red Cross for schools and clinics.
As part of SIDA’s project in Cambodia and five other southern Asian countries studying the feasibility of bringing solar energy to rural areas, pilot projects were launched in several provinces.
Solar energy can be used in rural areas to power water pumps, light a house or run solar dryers to quickly dry crops. But the most widespread use, at least in the near future, will be the small solar units for lamps, which are the least expensive.
Initially, Sat Samy said, grants would be used to buy and install solar units in schools, hospitals and orphanages. Units would then be offered to families for a low monthly fee, subsidized in large part by the sponsoring agencies. Eventually a credit system would be established, in which a family would buy the whole solar system but pay it off month by month. The final step would be fully commercializing solar power as an industry, like selling gas or electricity. “We’ve only just started,” he said.
Ford Thai, co-owner of Khmer Solar, a private business, said the market has been getting “better and better” in the two years he has sold solar generators.
Nearly all his sales are made to NGOs that distribute the generators in the countryside; just 5 percent are bought by Cambodian families. Most of the units he sells are small generators to power lights. “Sometimes they don’t use it for light,” Ford Thai said. “They use it for TV. More for TV than light.”
In Samaki village in Sihanoukville, for example, there now are 39 homes powered by individual solar units that can each power two lamps. The families pay 1000 riel per month to cover maintenance costs, though the solar units were funded through the SIDA project.