Sun over Lesotho: Solar Power Project Brings New Opportunities to Mohaleshoek

Article excerpt

Clean, renewable, low-cost energy has come to Mohaleshoek. In March, residents of this Lesotho town celebrated the official opening of the newly built Solarsoft Centre with songs and a traditional praise speech.

The Solarsoft Centre was built by staff and students from the nearby Bethel Business and Community Development Centre (BBCDC). It sells domestic solar energy systems, provides credit to customers and trains potential customers on the options, benefits and shortcomings of photovoltaic (PV) power. Solarsoft also shows people how to diversify their energy sources with thermal systems for cooking and heating water.

Only some of Mohaleshoek's 25,000 residents have grid electricity, and only five percent of Lesotho as a whole has access to the national grid. Connection charges are very high, largely due to Lesotho's irregular and dispersed settlement pattern. Charges run around $4400 (29,000LSL), prohibitively expensive in a country where incomes for the emerging middle class (teachers, civil servants, miners) average between $2150 to $4300 per annum.

Solarsoft PV systems are priced between $220 to $295. The basic kit consists of a photo-voltaic panel, a battery charge regulator and lights. More powerful systems are also available, and some customers buy an inverter to convert 12 volt DC to 220 volt AC, the South African standard.

Small loans are also available through Solarsoft. Banks tend to find loans risky because local people do not have relevant collateral and have a poor reputation on repayment. With Solarsoft, loan applicants complete a standard credit assessment, giving details of their employment history, assets, references, etc. After credit approval, customers pay 30 percent down, and the balance over a year at an interest rate of 22 percent. These costs mean solar power will primarily be an option for the middle class.

The Solarsoft Centre itself is a model of sustainable energy use, relying on solar energy for cooling, heating and electric power. Lighting and computers in the office and staff quarters are powered by eight photovoltaic panels donated by telecommunications company Siemens South Africa. More free energy is captured by solar water heaters and a solar oven, made by BBCDC and installed at the staff duplex.

The buildings also incorporate passive solar design. "This means a building orientation and design that's warm in winter and cool in summer, without any mechanical systems or supplementary energy inputs," says BBCDC Director Ivan Yaholnitsky, originally from Canora, Saskatchewan. …