Mongolia’s nomads warm to solar power

Portable solar panels are helping the sunny country’s nomads – without disrupting their way of life.

In Mongolia, often known as the land of the blue skies, the sun shines for 250 days on average each year. It beats down on the sparse plains and on the Gobi desert that spans the country’s southern border with China.

It shines, even during the frigid winter days, on the hundreds of thousands of nomads who still roam the steppes, herding animals and living in dome-like tents calling gers.

About 800,000 of Mongolia’s 2.8 million inhabitants still live the traditional nomadic lifestyle that has remained largely unchanged for generations. Apart from the addition of motorbikes, the occasional petrol generator, and a passing trade from intrepid tourists wanting to stay in a ger for the night, life is almost the same as that of many nomads’ grandparents and great-grandparents.

Almost, but not exactly.

Dotted across the steppes, glints of light can be seen as the sun bounces off the solar panels that have been installed on the sides of gers made of felt and yak’s wool. At the start of this millennium, Mongolia’s herders and nomads had little or no access to modern electric power and its potential benefits.

But as of 2013, thanks to a concerted push by the Mongolian government, almost 70 percent of nomadic people have access to electricity. Bor, a herder who mainly travels around western Mongolia’s Arkhangai province, is one of the people whose family benefits from portable solar home systems (SHS).

“We use it for generating the power for lighting in the ger, charging phones, we can also generate a fridge to keep food longer and we can run a television. That is very useful for us because we can get the most recent weather forecast, which is important for our work and keeping our animals safe. Before we had power it was very difficult. Now it is almost like living in the city.”

The ability to charge mobile phones is also important for the herders, who often have children staying at boarding schools. “Most countryside children stay in dorms, because their parents are nomads and it is the only way they can get an education,” said Bor. “We can call our children who are in the dorms and speak to them. I also have children working in Ulaanbaatar [Mongolia’s capital] and I can speak to them as well. The solar panels are a very useful thing in our lives.”

Capturing the sun

Access to electricity also allows families to contact emergency health-care and doctors for advice without having to make the often arduous journey to the nearest village or town.

The solar systems were distributed and installed with the help of the World Bank, after the Mongolian government’s National 100,000 Solar Ger Electrification Programme ran into difficulties.

A World Bank report, Capturing the Sun in the Land of the Blue Sky, describes the difficulties faced by the Mongolian government on its ambitious project.

By 2005, five years into the plan, 30,000 families had been kitted out with an SHS, but then the programme began to stagnate. “The government of Mongolia recognised that considerably more effort was necessary not only to keep the programme on track, but to scale-up implementation in order to achieve the National 100,000 Solar Ger Electrification Program target,” the report said.

In 2006, the World Bank agreed to cover half of the initial outlay costs for each family as well as after-sales maintenance, with 50 centres set up across the country, including at least one in each of its 21 provinces, so that the herders would not have to travel to Ulaanbaatar every time the solar panels needed maintenance.

Migara Jayawardena, a senior energy specialist at the World Bank and lead author of the World Bank report, told Al Jazeera that more than half the nomadic people in rural Mongolia now have access to modern electricity services thanks to the programme – exceeding the original target by 35 percent.

“The overall project structure, including the private dealers and sales and service centres, also remain in operation, and could possibly serve any herders who remain un-electrified, or those who may want to purchase upgraded SHS that can support a larger variety of appliances,” he said.

Too expensive?

Despite the financial help, the solar panels can still be prohibitively expensive. The cost depends on where the SHS is produced. The most expensive are from Germany, Japan or China, and can cost from between 150,000-800,000 togrog ($88-467).

Batsaikhan, a nomadic herdsman from Huvsgul province, said cost is a major factor for him. “I would very much like to be able to have the solar panels,” he said, “but I cannot because I do not have enough money. It is difficult to save when there are things we need urgently. We see them on sale and one day I want to be able to afford this.”

The SHS project also offers environmental benefits to a country where the ratio of carbon dioxide emissions to economic output is ten times higher than the world average, because of the increase in mining over the past decade as the true extent of Mongolia’s mineral wealth became apparent.

“SHS is a clean energy source and does not have emissions that would result from using candles, kerosene or diesel,” said Jayawardena. “These latter forms of lighting would have local pollution impacts. SHS result in reduced indoor smoke pollution that often leads to respiratory and other illnesses. The utilisation of renewable energy from an early stage of modernising do provide a low emission path from the onset, which can have longer-term implications as the country moves forward.”

The solar systems are slowly replacing the diesel generators used by some nomads as a means of generating power, although they are still using stoves for heating, burning wood coal and dung throughout the year.

Jayawardena’s paper emphasises the importance of minimising disruption to Mongolian nomads’ traditional way of life, which could easily have died out with the onset of globalisation.

Accomodating the nomadic life

“The availability of electricity has, of course, improved the quality of life of the herder communities,” he told Al Jazeera. Seventy percent of the herders reported “increased productivity” as a result of access to electricity, with 90 percent using mobile phones (compared with a pre-project level of 0 percent). Seventy percent own a colour TV, which have become the most widely used source of information.

“Of course, since they are nomads, traditional electrification of fixed lines are not compatible with their nomadic ways. They would need to change their lifestyles in order to acquire a typical electricity connection,” said Jayawardena.

“However, with the availability of portable SHSs that can be easily assembled and disassembled, the technology is adapting to accommodate the herder’s nomadic lifestyle rather than the other way around. This enables those who wish to remain herders to continue their nomadic lifestyle while still acquiring access and the benefits of modern electricity – thereby preserving their traditional lifestyle.”

Follow Philippa Stewart on Twitter: @Flip_Stewart

Source: Al Jazeera