DHAKA, Bangladesh, Jan 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Residents of Islampur, a remote village in the northern Bangladeshi district of Naogaon, were stunned one night last summer when the darkness was suddenly illuminated by electric lights coming from a village home.
Why the surprise? The community has no connection to the country's power grid.
The owner of the house, Rafiqul Islam, is one of around 15 million Bangladeshis whose homes are now powered by solar home systems, or SHS, under a government scheme to provide clean power to communities with no access to grid electricity.
The Bangladeshi government aims to provide electricity to all of the country's households by 2021. With financial assistance from the World Bank and other development partners, it plans to generate 220 megawatts of electricity for around 6 million households by 2017 through the solar home system programme.
Each solar home system uses a solar panel installed on the roof of an individual home. A 250 watt panel can produce up to 1 kilowatt of power a day.
Following Islam's example, many villagers in Islampur have installed solar home systems, whether to light their homes or to run irrigation pumps.
"We are more than happy, because we don't have power cuts in our system. But for those who are connected with the national grid, blackouts are regular," Islam said.
Children are as pleased as their parents. A few years ago, accessing entertainment such as cartoons meant renting a television and a DVD player along with a battery, which most people could afford to do at most twice a year.
"Now children can have their own fun time every day," Islam said. His daughter said she also can study until late into the evening thanks to the electric light.
10 PERCENT OF HOMES SOLAR
According to the government-owned Infrastructure Development Company Limited (IDCOL), which began the solar home system project in 2003, 3.5 million households - about 10 percent of the country's total - had installed SHS by the end of 2014.
"Every month, 50,000-60,000 Bangladeshi households are connected with a solar home system. In May 2014, more than 80,000 connections were made," said Mahmood Malik, head of IDCOL. The company runs the scheme with 47 partners, including nongovernmental organisations and businesses.
Dipal C. Barua, a solar home system pioneer in Bangladesh and president of the Bangladesh Solar and Renewable Energy Association, said that when the technology was introduced in 1996, it faced a range of barriers, such as the high cost of solar panels and a shortage of expertise for installation.
But 18 years on, both barriers have eased and solar home systems save the country 200,000 tonnes of kerosene annually, worth about $180 million, Barua said.
FIRST SOLAR NATION?
"My dream is to empower 75 million Bangladeshis through renewable energy by 2020 and make Bangladesh the first comprehensive solar nation of the world," he said.
The government is providing low-interest loans to private companies to import and install solar panels for SHS, while businesses offer households or end-users low down-payments and the option to repay the cost of a solar home system over a period of one to three years. A 100 watt panel costs around 50,000 Bangladeshi taka ($640).
In addition to the SHS scheme, the government has constructed a 100 kilowatt solar power plant in Sandwip Island, in the Bay of Bengal, which began operating in 2010. There are plans to create 50 more so-called mini solar grids around the country by 2017, with the combined capacity to run more than 1,500 irrigation pumps.
The government is encouraging domestic and foreign investment in the plants by offering grants and low-interest loans to investors.
"We are very much in the process of creating a green Bangladesh," said IDCOL's Malik.
(Reporting by Pantho Rahaman; editing by Laurie Goering)