PHNOM PEHN, Oct 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Outside the buzzing Russian Market, one of Phnom Penh's top tourist attractions, Win Soeun sells coffee from a sky-blue tuk-tuk in the searing midday heat.
The coffee cart, an adapted auto rickshaw, is run by Aziza's Place, a social business that provides work to women like Win Soeun who used to scavenge at a rubbish dump in the Cambodian capital to make a living for herself and her five children.
Powered by solar panels on its roof, the tuk-tuk is not just part of a project bringing hope to disadvantaged women, but a vivid symbol of Cambodia's potential to become a solar powerhouse.
The tuk-tuk, which can run at speeds of up to 37 miles per hour (67 kilometres per hour), is the brainchild of Australian company Star8, which recently opened a factory - the city's first solar-powered building - in Phnom Penh.
With an average of 5.5 hours of sunshine per day throughout the year and high levels of solar radiation even when it is cloudy, Cambodia is highly suitable for solar power, the Asian Development Bank said in a report earlier this year.
"The potential for Cambodia to become a solar power is huge, given how much solar radiation you get here all year round," said Phil Stone, Star8's managing director. "But the challenges are large too."
The falling cost of solar technology, which has dropped in some countries to around $0.13 to $0.15 per kilowatt hour, less than the cost of grid power in many parts of Cambodia, adds to the attraction.
But awareness of solar energy and technical know-how are still low in Cambodia, one of Southeast Asia's poorest nations, Stone said.
Cambodia still has a long way to go before it can match the solar development of neighbouring Thailand, which is largely alone in the region in boosting its capacity to harness the sun's energy.
The Cambodian government, with international assistance, has installed some 12,000 solar household systems - still a small number in a country where only 35 percent of people have access to the electricity grid.
"The government has recently been warming up to the idea that solar is becoming more cost competitive," said Dennis Barbian, renewable energy market development adviser at the Netherlands Development Organisation (SNV)
Some 1.6 million households, mostly in rural areas, depend for basic lighting and electricity on greenhouse gas-emitting kerosene and on diesel generators, some used to charge battery systems.
The cost can be three of four times more than what those households would pay for grid electricity, or up to $1 per kilowatt hour, a major drain on family incomes.
LACK OF TRUST HAMPERS SOLAR
Solar panels - which cost between $500 and $600 for a large 150-watt panel - can be more cost effective in the long run as they last up to 25 years, experts said. The battery used to store the solar energy needs to be replaced after three years, at a cost of roughly $150.
But while solar technology is slowly catching on in Phnom Penh, the relatively large cost of installing panels and high interest rates on loans remain a problem for farmers, even if solar power would help them in the long run by powering equipment.
"It's a big cost upfront but the biggest barrier in Cambodia is not financial but a lack of trust in solar energy," said Barbian.
He said some companies had produced poor-quality solar panels that had disappointed villagers and spoiled market opportunities, an issue that SNV, a Netherlands-based not-for-profit development organisation, is trying to address with its system of accrediting solar panel manufacturers through its "Good Solar Initiative".
Solar companies certified by the initiative meet international standards for product quality and customer satisfaction, he said.
"With the 'Good Solar' quality label, rural Cambodians are able to identify what is a quality product from a company that also provides reliable customer service," said Barbian.
Four local solar companies have passed an intensive review since the initiative was launched in April and now carry the seal of approval.
To help villagers with the cost of a solar system, SNV introduced a solar microfinance programme, which aims to support the financing of solar home systems and lighting kits for 25,000 rural households that do not have access to the grid.
In the coming months, the initiative will also kick-start an extensive education campaign about the benefits of buying quality-assured solar products.
Barbian said he hoped Cambodians would adopt small solar home systems immediately rather than go along the solar lamp route typical of many African countries.
"Solar lamps are great, but here is a real opportunity to leap-frog that and go a step further by installing home systems that allow people to power appliances like a TV, a fan and other devices," he said.
A big boon for the industry would be a "feed-in tariff", as in Thailand, where the government is supporting the sector by paying a special rate to the owners of solar power systems for surplus electricity that is fed back into the grid.
(Reporting By Astrid Zweynert, editing by Tim Pearce and Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org to see more stories)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.