Iraq Looks to Solar Energy To Help Rebuild its Economy

Off-grid solar panels could soon be installed in Iraq in a push to supply electricity to people across the country, many of whom have no access to the national grid.

Six thousand solar-powered street lamps already light up the streets of Baghdad, where electricity from conventional sources is available on average for only two hours a day as the country struggles to recover from years of war.

Thousands more solar street lamps have been ordered this year from the German off-grid specialist company Phaesun by the Iraqi Ministry of Electricity.

Matthias Kaiser of Phaesun, a company based in Memmingen that supplies components and technical know-how for off-grid photovoltaic systems, said that the Iraqi government is increasingly exploring the role solar power could play in supplying the population’s future energy needs, especially in rural areas.

“Choosing solar energy has many advantages for Iraq. The country has a large surface area, which is good for setting up solar panels and also plenty of sun and solar radiation. The national grid doesn’t function well and that makes off-grid solar power systems a super solution,” Kaiser said.

He said installing off-grid solar technology would speed up the process of supplying reliable and efficient electricity to people across the country, boosting efforts to rebuild Iraq’s economy.

“One benefit of installing off-grid solar panels is speed. Large numbers of people can start harnessing the energy within months,” he said.

Six engineers from Iraq’s Ministry of Electricity participated in a training course run by Phaesun in Germany early in February to learn how to build and maintain off-grid solar systems, including the solar-powered street lamps for Baghdad that are adapted to the local climate and capable of tolerating large variations in temperature.

“They’ll be able to go back to Baghdad and teach other colleagues how to build solar-powered street lamps and other systems. That way crucial know-how can spread quickly,” Kaiser said.

Phaesun, founded in 2001, is active not only in Iraq but also in twenty-five countries in Africa as well as in Latin America, including Panama and Costa Rica.

Working together with local partners, Phaesun helps speed up the introduction of off-grid solar and wind technology in less developed countries by doing specialized planning tasks as well as supplying the components for systems and the knowledge needed to install and maintain those systems through tailor-made training courses.

“We have all the components for solar-powered street lighting systems, for example, on site, and we offer them to our customers in a tailor made package to streamline the process of adopting a technology,” said Kaiser.

Kaiser said that there was a growing demand for off-grid solar technology from developing countries.

As part of their training course in Phaesun, the Iraqi engineers looked at the role that solar panels could play in Iraq’s future energy mix, generating electricity to power homes, shops and businesses as well as institutions such as hospitals, government buildings, etc.

Kaiser said Phaesun was one of the first companies offering off-grid solar technology and training services to Iraq.

“A lot of German companies supply solar technology and know-how for national grids within Europe, but more and more are now supplying off-grid solar technology for countries which don’t have access to any national grid,” he said.

He said German solar companies were increasingly active in helping to build up the capacity of developing countries to install and manage their own renewable energy power systems.

Battered by war, Iraq’s actual electricity production is only about one-third of its installed capacity of 11,000 megawatts.

Bringing Solar Power to the People

Like Iraq, other countries in the Middle East and Asia are increasingly looking to solar systems to provide clean, low cost electricity to rural areas.

The non-profit organization Grameen Shakti has already helped install more than 200,000 solar photovoltaic panels in Bangladesh, providing more than two million rural people with clean electricity.

Low-cost solar panels, financed by micro-credit schemes, help supply electricity to light up homes, shops and fishing boats as well as run mobile phones, television sets and radios in Bangladesh.

The Grameen Shakti program has also created thousands of jobs, training local people to become solar technicians and providing microfinance for green energy businesses.

Like many others, Kaiser thinks that photovoltaic technology could spread rapidly in developing countries as costs come down.

Scientists like Martin Green at the The School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering in Australia are developing “third-generation” photovoltaic modules that could even help slash the cost of solar electricity to less than US $0.20 per watt.

In years to come, not only Baghdad, but many other cities in the Middle East and Asia could be lit up by solar powered lamps.

Jane Burgermeiser is a writer based in Austria.

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