ROU HAL, Cambodia — With a desire to one day become a doctor and save lives, 12-year-old Phat Sopwa devotes most of his time to study. After dark, though, his dream grew dim.
Living in this typical Cambodian village without electricity, Phat used to do homework by a kerosene lamp that emits no more light than a cigarette lighter. The dim ray hurt his eyes, made him drowsy and forced the boy to quickly give up his tasks.
That dark homework time ended in February with a gift from his aunt. What Phat received is a small solar array, which powers three light bulbs and made his wooden hut fill with bright light for the first time.
“Solar is much better [than the kerosene lamp]. I can now see characters in my textbooks clearly,” said Phat, while happily flipping on and off the light switch.
Phat isn’t the only Cambodian who is excited about solar. In a nation deprived of electricity infrastructure, yet rich in sunlight, rural families are increasingly adding solar products to their shopping lists.
What’s driving the trend, according to solar companies, is that Cambodia’s rising economy has coincided with a continuing drop in the cost of solar energy. Meanwhile, financial incentives have been rolled out to help the rural poor harness the sun.
Although electricity grids from dams, neighboring countries and fossil fuel power plants are expected to reach more than two-thirds of Cambodia’s households by 2030, some villagers don’t want to wait for another two decades.
Last month, three families in Phat’s village already switched on solar energy. “Many other villages around here are also using solar,” said Phoeuy Phen, a tourist driver on his way to Angkor Wat, a centuries-old temple complex where Angelina Jolie filmed the movie “Tomb Raider.”
Where the grid peters out in the coconut trees
Modern energy is a luxury in Cambodia, where millions of rural residents live beyond the reach of the nation’s power grid.
Outside Siem Reap, one of Cambodia’s more developed cities, electric lines are tangled like giant spaghetti on wooden poles — sometimes on coconut trees — to reach scattered villages. After a few miles, the lines peter out. Then, a vast kingdom running on kerosene and batteries begins.
There, roughly half of the people spend their nighttime with smoky kerosene lamps, a fire hazard to their wooden huts. Most can name a neighbor who lost a house and even children because of one careless moment.
This risk led some to a second popular solution. Richer Cambodians get access to electricity by using automobile storage batteries. Those batteries can do the job for a few days, and then it’s time to take a bumpy journey.
In early morning, villagers load these batteries on bicycles and ply the rocky roads to diesel-powered charging stations, where they drop their empty battery off for a refill. At twilight, they come again, leave about 50 cents and take the recharged battery back home.
An Oach, who runs such a charging station, greets dozens of customers every day. Although the charging fee has gone up by 25 percent over the last six months, along with rising diesel prices, An says she believes villagers are likely to stay with her, rather than be lured away by some solar salesmen.
“For now, the price of solar is still too high, and not many know what solar is,” An said, almost shouting in an attempt to be heard over the rat-a-tat-tat of her sputtering generator.
Solar isn’t chicken feed to a farmer
It turns out that she isn’t entirely right. A dozen miles up the road, in a small farming village called Chouk Saw, a chicken grower tells the story the other way around.
Three years ago, Bum Ma Sarith got convinced by a solar salesman and risked $1,500 from his savings to buy an Italian-made solar power system. Although his hope was simply to end tedious recharging journeys, Bum found out solar energy did more than that.
Unlike batteries, the solar power system never runs down, providing reliable and long-lasting light to his chicken farm, said Bum. Thus he was able to increase the farm’s annual output by 30 percent. And every year, Bum also saves at least $500 on battery costs and enjoys an extra bonus: powering a small television and watching movies with his family.
The result whetted Bum’s appetite for the technology. He now plans to buy a solar-powered pump that will fetch water from his backyard well.
Surprisingly, the popularity of solar energy is also emerging among the poorer families who can’t even afford batteries.
Nouk Sarou, a 39-year-old mother of two, recently took a relative’s advice and cut off her dangerous relationship with kerosene lamps. She bought a solar lantern equipped with a high-efficiency LED light.
Charged by a palm-size solar panel, the lantern provides safe light while it costs one-third of what Nouk spent on kerosene. Moreover, it also changed other aspects of her life, including the experience of going to the toilet.
Like most villagers in Cambodia, Nouk uses the forest for her private needs. But that is a scary thing to do at night, she said, adding that she used to pick up a burning branch from her cookstove and brave into the dark woods with it. Today, however, “with [bright light from] the solar lantern, there is no worries about going to the toilet,” said Nouk, laughing and blushing.
A rent-a-lamp scares away the ghosts
Nouk said she is saving money for a solar power system that can operate a television — a key channel for her to gain knowledge. Decades of war in Cambodia meant she never had a chance to go to school. Luckily for Nouk, she might not need to wait too long.
Kamworks, a solar startup in Cambodia, is making it easier for the rural poor to afford solar energy. Under its recently launched lending scheme, families can use solar products first, and gradually pay back with what they save on batteries or kerosene expenditures.
So far, more than 20 families have benefited from the pilot service, according to Jeroen Verschelling, a director at Kamworks. And the company is in talks with local banks, aiming to expand the reach of the scheme to cover half of the country, he added.
Still, despite Kamworks’ efforts and complementing services from its peers and the government, the mission to power rural Cambodia with solar energy is eclipsed by three missing links.
It is hard to grow distribution networks in the remote lands, industry players noted. And investors show little interest in expansion plans, as they view solar energy and rural Cambodians a poor mix.
Other than that, generating electricity from the sun sounds too good to be real, making solar energy a hard sell to 4 out of 5 villagers who have never heard of such technology, according to Anthony Jude, an energy expert from the Asian Development Bank.
Solar entrepreneurs have been scrambling for ways to close the knowledge gap. They let solar energy be heard on radios, seen on handed-out T-shirts and also taken home without buying it.
Last year, Kamworks began renting out solar lanterns at a daily price of 8 cents — roughly what villagers spend on kerosene. The rental business became so popular that the company plans to increase its rental outlets to 80, up from three right now, said Verschelling.
Designed by Dutch college students, the solar lantern is a favorite among rural families. According to its product leaflet, its functions include providing light to cook, study and scare ghosts — a major need here after dark.
Photo by Coco Liu