The International Renewable Energy Agency publishes an annual review of jobs in the sector. In the list of countries with the highest number of jobs in solar power, there’s an entry that tends to get overlooked: Bangladesh. Only China, Japan, the USA and India have more people working in solar.
That’s the result of a highly successful government initiative that has connected four million households since 2002.
At the turn of the millennium, less than a third of the population had access to a permanent and reliable source of electricity. The government announced that it would aim for universal energy access by 2020. It was easier said than done, because many of those who were not connected were in remote rural areas. The cost of running the grid out to every last village was prohibitive, and so solar power was the most cost effective way to provide power.
To deliver on their targets, a public-private partnership was set up to coordinate international and state funding with dozens of local agencies which worked on the ground to install and maintain the systems. Households could take out a micro-loan, re-payable over three years, and buy a subsidised solar system that could provide lighting, phone charging and enough power to run a television.
Over the next fifteen years, the solar roll-out reached around 12% of the population, becoming the world’s largest distributed solar programme in the process. It’s still running, though the main thrust of the programme has shifted towards micro-grids, solar pumps for agriculture, and even solar street lights.
As well as connecting millions of people to clean energy, the programme will save an estimated 1.7 million tonnes of CO2 emissions by replacing kerosene lamps. There are all kinds of social benefits too, such as reducing inequalities between rural and urban areas. Power brings a mobile phone, and access to mobile technologies such as banking. 75,000 jobs were created in the solar programme, with some local partners – such as Grameen Shakti – specialising in training women for the solar industry.
Just as you don’t cease to be poor when you cross some internationally agreed threshold per day, energy access doesn’t end when you can charge a mobile phone or run an LED bulb. There is more to do, but as Gapminder’s Dollar Street project reminds us, if you’ve been able to take energy for granted it’s easy to underestimate how transformative it can be. Other countries have learned from Bangladesh, and are running micro-solar schemes along similar lines.
- Solar in Bangladesh is one my case studies for the Green Economy Coalition paper How fair can be green: Exploring the connections between equality and sustainability, which you can download here.