‘Solar Warriors’ – Bhutan
'Solar Warriors' is a pilot community- based project to bring solar lighting to the furthest regions of Bhutan. Hydropower drives 100% of Bhutan's electricity grid and is a major export to India (ADB, 2009). However, about 4,000 households from 400 villages are in remote and isolated conditions where electricity production through off-grid is the only possible solution for electricity access. Though the government supports solar programs, it lacks man power and resources.
Barefoot College, an educational non government organization from India trained women from rural Bhutan villages as part of Rural Electricians Training Program, funded by ADB, Japan. This training helped women as 'Solar Warriors', to set up workshops in their villages and they installed panels on rooftops of 504 households in 46 villages covering 13 districts in Bhutan during 2008-09. They also rehabilitated units that had fallen into despair from an earlier scheme. This case study is based on the report – 'Powering the poor' (ADB, 2009).
The programme helped in improving access to rural electricity services (off-grid connections) by installing solar panels on the roof tops and trained local women on installation and maintenance of solar rooftop models for sustained operation of panels.
Target groups were remote non electrified villages covering 13 districts in Bhutan.
Thirty five women across thirteen non electrified districts were trained by Barefoot college
'Barefoot engineers' after the completion of training, held workshops on the knowledge gained to install and repair PV panels in local villages
Barefoot Engineers also personally installed panels in their villages
Barefoot college inked agreements with the local villages to make monthly contributions to a fund to purchase spare parts, especially batteries
Villagers agreed to pay for the repairs made by 'Barefoot engineers', encouraging their professions to be income generator along with the direct benefit of access to electricity.
The key feature of this project was the development of poor by poor. The Barefoot college, a NGO visited several dozen of villages over three months, explaining the project and inviting communities to choose candidates for training in India
The access and need for electricity was so critical that, in-spite of the language barrier and different weather conditions, local women traveled to Rajasthan in India. Without advantage of written word, they were able to learn about solar panels.
Community ownership is the key for the implementation of this project. Thus, agreements of contributions to the fund for general operation and maintenance added value for a sustained operation.
Barefoot college had signed agreements to contribute Nu50-Nu100 ($1-$2) a month to a fund to buy spare parts, including batteries. Batteries are generally required to be replaced for every 3 – 5 years. Also, women were paid for any repairs occurring in the rooftop panels. This was a secondary source of income generation for the semi-literate women from these rural regions.
After the success of the project, the government is keen to mainstream and replicate it. Tarayana foundation, a Bhutanese NGO, is interested in helping Barefoot College with the training and is soon planning to develop a local training centre.
The backbone, key and objective of the study is the local capacity building and empowerment of local women. Training local women and spreading knowledge by conducting workshops through the trained women is the key for building local capacity.
After, noticeable benefits, local NGOs are actively participating to continue training of local rural women. A significant issue faced for the sustainability of the project was that many of the first batch engineers were younger women who might marry and move away to other villages. Older women were not mostly ready to travel to India for training leaving their families behind for a prolonged period of 6 months. Thus, to improve community participation and sustainability of the project, Taranya a local NGO, is willing to share training with Barefoot College and has even earmarked a facility for the same.
Cleaner energy replaced kerosene and wood resin that produces smoke and damages lungs and blackens homes. Soaps for washing clothes are also saved.
Fetching kerosene was time consuming, almost taking a day to climb down and fetch five to six liters of kerosene. Thus, the time saved in fetching kerosene was a co-benefit.
Solar powered lanterns were used to find straying animals after dark and the risk of getting bitten by snake dropped.
Children can study in the evenings.
It is easier for pregnant women and midwives to deliver babies in the absence of smelly kerosene lamps. Efficiency of health workers improved.
Better empowering of women as they extended their working hours to make baskets, rope and other domestic items for sale. Nettle weaving, making candles and soaps picked up after solar lighting arrived in 2006.
Tshengdu Choden of Beling village, joined a self-help group to weave place mats, runners, and towels out of nettles. At first, she wove in the evening after a day on the farm, but then that she could earn up to 30,000 ngultrum (Nu) ($610) in a good month, and so she is weaving full-time.
Solar systems, though provided free under the ADB project, costs Nu26,000 to Nu36,000 ($530 to $735). Batteries, cost Nu4,000 to Nu5,000 ($80 to $100). In spite of the agreement, at least one community has stopped monthly contributions. Moreover, some families do not pay the solar warriors for repairs. Apart from not being paid, engineers do not know how much to charge for spare parts. In addition, to strengthen community involvement, it was required to enhance the professional capacities of the government's district engineers, who might then liaise with village representatives to make the services more responsive to the changing needs of rural people. To augment the income of the barefoot engineers, whose work was part-time, it was suggested that they could branch out into other activities and become commercially viable general service providers. Resolving such issues is challenging in a country where physical access can be difficult and manpower and capacity are in short supply.
ADB funded about $1 million to Barefoot College India, to install solar panels and train the local people. The local NGO Taranya, is actively taking interest to conduct training in the local villages to encourage increased participation of women.
Barefoot College monitors the project after the deployment of local trained villagers. However locally trained villagers are provided with skills to transfer their knowledge through workshops and they also play an active role in spreading and monitoring various projects and installations.
With modifications to make it more sustainable, the project could be mainstreamed and replicated, says Mewang Gyeltshen, Head of the Renewable Energy Division of Bhutan's Department of Energy. The major issue is the long term financing of such projects. Though, in the current project, ADB bears the cost of the solar spare parts, in the long term it is being planned that the government could shoulder 70% of the funds required for maintenance, while the users could share the remaining funds required for maintenance. Also, villagers should be elucidated that the regular funds donated for sustainable maintenance and operation is not a burden on them but offset of overall cost spent on kerosene and time spent for traveling and fetching the fuel. The issue has become more urgent since the new government, after the country's first democratic elections in March 2008, has decided to advance its target for electrification for all to 2013 from 2020. Also, the local capacity building and training plays a pivotal role for the new installments and long term sustainability of the similar projects. For this, the local people are being trained by the already trained young women by the Barefoot College, as older women are reluctant to leave their houses for longer term.
Above all, the replicability could be extended beyond solar power to micro-hydropower plants located in the remotest locations, where offgrid power systems is a more reliable solution.
Contact person: Bunker Ray (Director, Barefoot College)
Phone Number: +91 (0)1463 288205
ADB (2009). Powering the poor. ADB, Japan, available online:
http://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/Powering-the-Poor.pdf, accessed on 24-Sep-2012
Barefoot College (2012). Available online: http://www.barefootcollege.org/contact_us.asp, accessed on 24-Sep-2012
Rural Energy Development Programme as in http://www.rerl.org.np/phase1/concept.html
Name:‘Solar Warriors’ – Bhutan
The project was implemented by Barefoot College, NGO based in India with the help of funding from ADBI.
Established in 1972, the Barefoot College is a non-government organization that has been providing basic services and solutions to problems in rural communities, with the objective of making them self-sufficient and sustainable. These 'Barefoot solutions' can be broadly categorized into solar energy, water, education, health care, rural handicrafts, people's action, communication, women's empowerment and wasteland development.
Contact person: Bunker Ray (Director, Barefoot College)
Phone Number: +91 (0)1463 288205
- Energy supply
Project status:Completed project