Sunlabob Renewable Energy, Ltd. is a venture-backed internationally-focused company specialising in renewable energy, decentralised energy access and clean water solutions throughout the developing world. Established in 2000, the company has expanded far beyond its initial focus in Laos with additional offices in Myanmar, Hong Kong and Singapore and is now providing its integrated expertise of rural electrification to governments, multilateral development agencies, multinational companies, NGOs and private companies. Sunlabob, to-date, has implemented projects in more than 25 countries throughout Southeast Asia, Africa, India and the Pacific.
Ban Phakeo is a village of approximately 100 households located in the Province of Laos, isolated from the main roads without access to the national grid. Prior to the project, the village had no means of generating its own electricity. Ban Phakeo is economically challenged: many of the people in the community live on less than $2 a day.
As is the case of much of Laos – a country where more than 70% of the population lives in rural areas – renewable energy technologies provide the most cost-effective and robust access to electricity in off-grid areas. In the case of Ban Phakeo, solar photovoltaic is the most viable option for renewable energy generation.
Sunlabob partnered with the French NGO Fondation Energies pour le Monde (Fondem) in 2009 to establish a 5kW solar PV mini-grid (with a rarely-used 5.6kW backup diesel generator) to provide Ban Phakeo with reliable and affordable electricity. High-quality technology was implemented (Tenesol PV array, Hoppecke batteries, Studer Innotec inverters and Enerstat regulator), combined with Sunlabob’s community-focused microenterprise operational model to establish a technically and socially sustainable installation.
The operational model promotes self-sustaining longevity: the mini-grid is operated and maintained by the village. Two village technicians (VTs) were trained with technical and bookkeeping skills and now they manage day-to-day operations. The villagers pay a monthly tariff to the VTs. The collected tariffs are divided into three pools of money: a) approximately 25% pays the VTs monthly salary; b) approximately 25% provides a stipend to the VEC; and c) at least 50% is dedicated to a village maintenance fund, which is used to pay for replacement components and repairs throughout the future.
The role of Sunlabob’s NGO partner Fondation Energies pour le Monde (Fondem) was crucial. Fondem, as part of its broader program to enable rural electrification in Laos, worked in coordination the Lao Ministry of Energy & Mines, provincial authorities and government representatives in Luang Prabang to determine the project site.
All fixed and upfront costs were covered through the donor funds of Fondem. Fondem’s national electrification programme, which targeted 30 villages and 35,000 people, consisted of $3.8 million of funds.
Regarding variable costs, a fixed monthly tariff is levied on household consumers of electricity, with the tariff rate dependent on the service level of the household. There are three service levels available.
The facets of this project’s success are multi-fold: all villagers now have the ability to access electricity; two VTs have on-going full-time employment; the solar generation has been so reliable that diesel use has essentially been eliminated. Sunlabob and Fondem also built upon the success of Ban Phakeo to establish another solar-based village grid to provide electricity access to 82 households in Ban Houaypha, a remote Lao village with narrow job opportunities and very limited education and health services.
The Phakeo project also provided Sunlabob with a strong foundation for its international operations. Since the completion of the Phakeo project, Sunlabob has implemented mini-grids in several countries outside of Laos, most recently 11 solar-battery grids in remote villages of Myanmar.