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Solar Power Lights Up Future for Mongolian Herders

About a quarter of Mongolia's 2.8 million people are nomadic herders of yaks, cattle, sheep, goats and camels who live in gers — as their traditional tent dwellings are known — on the country's vast steppes. It is a simple life that has endured for centuries. Until recently, it was also a life without electricity.

That has changed for about 100,000 herder families, whose daily lives have been transformed by off-grid solar home systems which generate enough power for lights, televisions, radios, mobile phone charging and small appliances.

The herders have gained access to solar power through a program launched by the Mongolian government with support from the World Bank and the Government of the Netherlands. Thanks to the National 100,000 Solar Ger Electrification Program, over half a million men, women and children, covering half the rural population of Mongolia and 70 percent of herders, now have access to modern electricity

"We are proud to be part of this effort, which means 500,000 people, or half the rural population of Mongolia, have electricity through portable and affordable solar home systems,” said Pamela Cox, World Bank Regional Vice President for East Asia and Pacific in her first visit to the country. “Now, children can study at night, families can watch TV and recharge cell phones, enabling them to connect to the world while maintaining their nomadic lifestyles. This is one of many innovative ideas that we are putting to work on the ground to make growth more inclusive.”

"A few years ago, country herders managed with candles and lanterns.  The change in life between then and now is like night and day,” said herder Baatar Khandaa. “I believe that the quality of life in the countryside and the city are now about the same.” 

Families can now relax and spend time together at night under electric lights.  Children can learn by reading and from watching television.  Herders often tune in to radio and television weather reports that help them manage their livestock, and use mobile phones to find out about market prices for wool and cashmere.  

The program provided portable solar home systems adapted to herders’ nomadic way of life. Herders can easily set them up and dismantle them when they relocate.  The project employed a balanced approach to pricing the systems, where herders purchased the solar home systems, albeit with a subsidy that covered about half the costs.  It made the systems affordable to herders while helping to expand sales.

It was a particular challenge reaching remote herders living in the vast rural countryside.  In response, the project established 50 privately-owned solar home system sales and service centers spread across Mongolia.  Their staff were trained to promote and sell certified solar home systems so that herders could buy with confidence.  They were also trained to repair and maintain the units – vital to sustaining the benefits of the program.  To extend their reach, the sales and service centers partnered with an existing network of village administrators located in 342 villages.  This effective public-private partnership helped the project sell solar home systems in every remote corner of the country.    

With tens of thousands of customers now demanding solar home systems, the sales and service centers are seeing an increase in their sales of radios, televisions, kettles and other small appliances that newly-electrified households want to buy as well.

"The key was to build on the government’s existing efforts”, said Migara Jayawardena, Senior Energy Specialist at the World Bank. “Good practices and lessons from other successful renewable energy and rural electrification projects from countries such as China, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka were customized to meet Mongolia’s unique circumstances.”

Mongolia has found off-grid electrification with solar power to be a viable approach to serving a nomadic rural population that is scattered across a vast territory of over 1.5 million square km.  The program has supplied 100,146 solar home systems, while also developing a sustainable supply chain of local businesses that will help achieve the government’s goal of universal rural electrification by 2020.

"Solar home systems have become commonplace,” said D. Zorigt, Mongolia’s Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy during the period from 2008 to 2012 when the project was under implementation.

The project, entitled Renewable Energy and Rural Electricity Access (REAP) was funded by a $3.5 million grant from the International Development Association (IDA) – the Bank’s Fund for the Poorest –  a $3.5 million grant from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), and a $6 million grant from the Government of the Netherlands, with  implementation support provided by the Asia Sustainable and Alternative Energy Program (ASTAE) – a multi-donor trust fund program administered by the World Bank.

Take a look at how the project helped Mongolian herders below:

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This story was originally published on and was republished with permission.

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