The district of Surkh-e-Parsa lies at the upper end of the Ghorband Valley, not far from where the road begins to climb the bare hills to the Shibar Pass. Three green valleys converge at the district centre of Lolinj. The local people grow wheat and tend their fruit trees, but they have always been poor. For them, even before the war, the notion of electricity was a distant dream. The nearest government hydropower station was in Siahgird, far down the valley, and that was destroyed many years ago. For the people of these valleys, when the sun set, the day ended and they had little choice but to settle down for the night.
But in recent years, all that has changed. About seventy per cent of households in the three valleys – home to some 30,000 people -- now have electricity. Now there is light to allow children to study and people can continue their lives after sunset. The electricity runs flour mills, charges mobile phones and powers satellite television, which brings news of the outside world into this distant corner of Afghanistan. During the day it can also run washing machines and other labour-saving household devices.
This new electric power produces few greenhouse gases. It is relatively cheap and its production is sustainable, relying on simple technology which can be maintained by local people with some training. The source is a network of small hydroelectric and solar power units installed by the Aga Khan Foundation, one of nine international development agencies which make up the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). (Within AKDN, the Foundation specialises in rural development programmes.)
Elsewhere, in the town of Sheghnan in a remote part of Badakhshan, the local teacher training college built by AKDN is also supplied with clean, cheap renewable energy, in this case by a 15-kilowatt solar power unit. With no all-season road connection to the rest of Badakhshan, Sheghnan, on the Amu Darya, is isolated for much of the year. The town has never had government electricity. Until the solar unit was installed in 2007, the college used diesel generators, with all the usual problems of expense, pollution and shortages of fuel. Now the sun provides power for lighting, computers and other purposes in the main teaching centre as well as in the attached men’s and women’s hostels. Batteries store the solar electricity by day to ensure that electricity is available round the clock.
AKDN has been pioneering micro-hydroelectric power (MPH) units and solar power in Afghanistan since 2004. Some 250 MPH units have been installed or are currently under construction in five provinces across northeastern Afghanistan: Bamyan, Parwan, Baghlan, Takhar and Badakhshan. In solar power, 170 units have been installed. These projects now supply electricity to villages which would otherwise have no access to power.
These power projects have mostly been carried out by the local communities themselves under the government’s National Solidarity Programme, with AKDN support. Local Community Development Councils established under NSP receive a grant which they can spend on development projects. Electricity is usually a priority for the councils. AKDN then helps the community, providing engineering expertise, essential contacts and organisational support to build the required power unit and to train local people who can maintain it and organise its upkeep.
Micro-hydropower units vary from small generators producing five kilowatts (kW), to larger units producing up to 100 kW. On average, AKDN units supply a minimum of 100 watts per family (enough to run five low-energy lightbulbs). A 5 kW unit produces enough power for 50 families.
The generators are run by a single turbine fed by water from mountain streams. Once built, a committee within the community council is responsible for the unit’s upkeep, collecting fees from electricity users which are used for repairs and maintenance. The average cost is Af 100 per family per month.
AKDN has also pioneered the use of solar power in Afghanistan. In areas which lack an adequate water supply for MHP units, AKDN has installed solar panels to provide a basic power supply to villages or groups of houses. Solar units can vary in output from 20 watts (enough for two solar lightbulbs) to much larger units such as that installed for the Sheghnan college. Once installed, the panels can work for twenty years or more. The storage batteries must be replaced after four or five years.
The value of electric power provided by these clean, renewable energy sources is incalculable. Indeed the benefits are usually taken for granted by much of the world. Electric light improves literacy because it gives children more time to study. It also lessens the work burden of women by extending the hours available for domestic tasks. Electric power can reduce the amount of firewood and other fuel required for heat, light and cooking. That means that women and children no longer have to spend hours collecting fuel, and it is beneficial for the environment. Renewable energy reduces the use of polluting fuels such as diesel or petrol, and reduces the unhealthy effects of woodsmoke and other fumes in the house. In addition, electricity opens up new opportunities for other income generating activities, whether carpet-weaving, tailoring or other small businesses.
AKDN is also exploring the application of other green technologies and techniques in Afghanistan. One of these is pico hydropower – the use of very small water-powered generators with an output of 900 watts, suitable for about ten households. Two pilot energy-saving houses have been built to test traditional building materials -- mud and straw -- when adapted to provide better insulation. The use of bio-gas is being tested under rural Afghan conditions, and a windpower pilot project is underway. In addition to these energy-producing technologies, the use of energy-efficient domestic appliances -- solar cookers, solar water heaters, solar lights and energy-efficient stoves -- is to be tested.
Afghanistan needs cheap, clean energy. With consumption still relatively low in rural Afghanistan, these renewable forms of energy are an excellent and environmentally sound solution to the energy needs of many poor, rural families.