Installing solar power in Salonga – what is it like?
Jean-Philippe Denruyter: There is no utility grid in Salonga and around the park. People only have access to electricity through expensive and polluting fuel-based generators, or through solar energy. Often, the solar energy equipment that is sold locally is not of good quality.
Our hope is to show the example in Salonga with appropriate technologies, first for the needs of the main camp and the field stations, and then possibly to identify solutions that can be implemented more broadly by and for the population. There are quite a few challenges to do this. The absence of local solar companies means that we need to work with companies that come from far, for instance Kinshasa.
This also means that maintenance can be an issue, although we emphasise our efforts on local training. And finally, while solar is cheaper than diesel in the long run, the investment cost is relatively high.
We try to reduce project risk with good design, quality equipment, intensive training of our local staff, and internet communication so the performance of the system can be followed remotely. Education of the electricity users is also extremely important, as the way the equipment is used will influence its lifespan greatly.
What is the most memorable thing for you working in Salonga?
Jean-Philippe Denruyter: I was struck by the kindness of the people in Salonga and by their willingness to cooperate. They also have developed a knack to find solutions for almost everything with the limited means that are locally available. And finally, the beauty of the landscapes, the air and the scents that emanate from the vast forest, are truly mesmerising.
Figuring out the optimal installation
What is necessary to electrify remote areas like Salonga? Are there inspiring examples?
Jean-Philippe Denruyter: Electricity is at the basis of a vast array of services that would benefit the national park’s headquarter, the field stations and the local population. Lighting for every day life, for reading, cooling for medicines, food and drinks, battery charging for communication. Many things, that people who have access to an electricity grid, seem obvious but they are not. If children cannot study in the evening, if people cannot communicate, or if food cannot be preserved, so many opportunities for a better life, and obviously for nature conservation, are lost.
When populations are so isolated, a very important aspect of rural electrification is maintenance. No company will want to travel for days to come and repair a few solar systems.
This is simply not economically viable. Creating local companies is possible, but who is going to teach the locals. We have a very inspiring method to solve this problem, in partnership with the Barefoot College of India. We teach local women to become solar technicians (the course lasts for 6 months!) and after that, those women install and maintain solar PV systems. They can also train the next generation of technicians. We have successfully implemented these projects in Myanmar and especially Madagascar, where we have now started our own Barefoot College for the women of Madagascar. This could be a very good solution for Salonga.
How can we assure the longevity of solar installations in Salonga?
For our larger installation in the camp, we need a good design that ensure the main components (batteries, charge controllers, inverters, solar modules) will last for a long time. We should connect the installation to the internet so that we can follow performance on a daily basis. Regular maintenance by local technicians is also crucial. And, impotantly, we should limit the amount of new loads connected to the system. Each solar PV installation is meant to provide electricity for a certain amount of electric devices. If suddenly more fridges are connected, more lights etc. the system will suffer and, in the end, die.
For the smaller PV systems, maintenance and good use is key. That is why Barefoot College women are so important.
»Regular maintenance by local technicians is also crucial.«
Any final thoughts from your side?
It is clear that nature conservation needs to happen in cooperation with the local people. For them to protect their environment, there needs to be a benefit at the end. Providing these populations with new opportunities, through education, improved agriculture techniques, small industrial activities, sustainable tourism, goes hand in hand with conservation. Most of these new opportunities will not be available without sustainable electricity.
Solar energy, its installation and maintenance is an employment opportunity in itself. Investing in solar energy, the necessary education of local people to install and maintain solar systems can therefore create local economic cycles that can benefit a larger group and stimulate development at various fronts. What starts as a conservation initiative can lead to local development initiatives.