Turning darkness to light in rural Romania

With around 100,000 households not connected to the electricity grid, could solar panels provide the solution?

Holbav, Romania – “It sucks,” says 12-year-old Sergiu Codrut Boboc about his life in Holbav, a hilly village in Transylvania, central Romania.

“There’s no electricity. It really sucks,” he repeats, sitting in the near-darkness of his living room – the only light coming from a couple of battery-powered LED bulbs on the ceiling above.

“I am in a rush to finish my homework most days. After I return from school, I change my clothes, I eat and it’s already late. If we had electricity, I wouldn’t be in a hurry when I write, so I wouldn’t write so ugly any more. I would write slowly and much prettier,” Sergiu adds with a sigh.

He is one of thousands of Romanian children growing up in darkness. According to government reports, 100,000 households in Romania, a member state of the European Union since 2007, lack electricity.

These houses, often located in remote mountain regions and inhabited by impoverished families, are not connected to the existing national electricity grid.

Sorin Boboc was born and raised in Holbav. He says he has never had electricity in his home [Felix Gaedtke/Al Jazeera] 

Sergiu’s father, Sorin Boboc, is a construction site worker and shepherd who was born and raised in the same house in which his son is now growing up.

“I had a battery from a scooter that stopped working. So I connected this small bulb to that battery,” he says of the battery-powered bulbs.

“I am happy now I have light in the house. Once a week I go down to the village to my brother-in-law’s house to charge the battery. It charges in about three hours.”

His brother-in-law’s house is connected to the electricity grid, so Sorin also charges his mobile phone there each day. His sons drop the phone there on their way to school and then collect it on their way back, when it’s fully charged.

Sorin Boboc’s sons, Sergiu and Oliver, drop his mobile phone at his brother-in-law’s home on their way to school so that it can be charged [Felix Gaedtke/Al Jazeera] 

Romania’s electricity landscape

The electricity market in Romania has public and private players, with Electrica, the state-owned company, as the largest provider. Currently electricity is harnessed from hydro, thermal, nuclear, wind, solar and biomass sources.

At the mayor’s office in Holbav, Mayor Oprea Lucian Vasile sits on a leather chair behind a desk.

“The houses on the hills are far apart from each other,” he explains, drawing a map of where the homes are located for emphasis. “The law requires us to do a viability test [to check the return on investment] before we lay electricity cables up on the hills.

“If we do that test, I am sure it will fail,” he says.

Holbav is one of many thousands of villages that isn’t hooked up to the national electricity grid [Felix Gaedtke/Al Jazeera] 

The viability test is intended to ensure that the electricity provider finds it profitable to invest in installing transformers in sparsely populated regions.

“The last electrification project in Holbav for 30 houses cost 150,000 euros [about $170,000], ie, 5,000 euros [around $5,700] for one house,” the mayor says, frantically keying numbers into his calculator.

That project was partially paid for by Electrica and partially by the local administration.

However, with the law now requiring a viability test, the mayor believes no company will want to expand the grid, given the low return on investment. “And I do not believe that with the money and budget we have at the local level, we can do that either,” he adds, shrugging his shoulders.

According to the National Electrification Plan 2012-2015, the Romanian government was expected to invest 230,000 euros (about $260,000) in electrifying the 100,000 homes without power. That’s a mere 2.30 euros (about $2.96) for every unelectrified household.

But the mayor says he is yet to see any of that money allocated to his village.

Oprea Lucian Vasile, the mayor of Holbav, says he has not received any money from the central government to expand the electricity grid in his village [Felix Gaedtke/Al Jazeera] 

Corruption in the energy sector

Last year, a fire at a Bucharest nightclub that killed 32 people led to anti-corruption protests against the government and resulted in the resignation of the then prime minister, Victor Ponta, and his government. Romania currently has a transitional technocratic government led by Prime Minister Dacian Ciolos.

The energy sector in Romania hasn’t been immune from allegations of corruption. Daniel Befu, an investigative journalist, has been researching the subject for several years.

Via a Skype call from Timisoara county in the northwest of Romania, Befu said: “If we talk about general contracts in Romania, the bribe is between 5 and 25 percent. In some industries, the bribe is even as high as 40 percent. Money is taken at all levels. Usually whoever generates the project takes most of the money.”

Befu points to close links between politicians and companies involved in the energy sector.

The Energy Ministry declined Al Jazeera’s request for an interview.

While the capital city of Bucharest has enough electricity, remote rural communities sometimes go without [Felix Gaedtke/Al Jazeera] 

From darkness to light

Back in Holbav, a dog chained to a post barks as we approach Eugenia Fota’s house. The single mother of five sits beside a table on which there are two torches.

“We never had electricity in the house here. I don’t know why,” Fota says, as a black cat creeps into the room and squeezes under the bed. “It is very bad. We have no light, we can’t have a radio, we can’t have a washing machine, let alone a fridge or anything else.

But things did improve last year, she explains. “There were two boys who came one day and said they wanted to help us. The next day six boys came and installed the solar panel. At least you can see a bit now after dark, not like with the lantern,” she says, pointing towards a strip of LED lights taped to the ceiling.

“When we didn’t have the lights, the kids had to take turns to do their homework next to an oil lamp, especially in winter or if they came back from school late. Now, with the LED light, they can do their homework at the same time.”

The men who came to install the solar panels on Fota’s roof were volunteers from the NGO Free Miorita, which has been running a programme called Light for Romania, providing solar panels to those without electricity.

On a Saturday morning, Iulian Angheluta, the founder of Free Miorita, and his colleague Ionut Vlad met us at a garage in a residential quarter of Bucharest.

Three years after the project’s inception, they have raised 50,000 euros (about $57,000) in donations from private corporations and individuals and provided solar panels to 35 homes and four schools in rural Romania.

Anishuara Oprea is one of the benefactors of Free Miorita’s Light for Romania project. With the help of the solar panel, she can now light up her living room [Felix Gaedtke/Al Jazeera] 

The law in Romania doesn’t allow the use of public money on private properties. That means projects that involve setting up distributed energy systems, such as solar panels, on individual homes cannot be paid by for from government funding. “The only way for the government to provide electricity is through the grid, even when it’s much more expensive,” Vlad explains.

“There’s no law or framework that encourages the government to think locally, like putting up solar panels or other renewable sources, instead of setting up a grid that is powered by a nuclear power plant or thermal energy,” he says, adding: “They aren’t thinking ecologically or socially. They are only thinking from a business perspective.”

Even though solar panels have their limitations, especially during winter when there isn’t much sun, Angheluta believes they are the way forward.

“The ideal scenario would be for the government to be involved with us. We are talking about a large number of homes. Even to light up 1,000 homes will take us years. And there are 100,000 homes in Romania without electricity,” he says, chuckling.

Oprea, however, still needs to wash clothes by hand as the solar panel doesn’t provide enough power to run a washing machine [Felix Gaedtke/Al Jazeera] 

This content was produced with the support of the Access to Energy Journalism Fellowship and Discourse Media.

Source: Al Jazeera


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