Mongolia’s nomads warm to solar power
Philippa H Stewart, Al Jazeera, 16 Dec 2013
In Mongolia, often known as the land of the blue skies, the sun shines for 250 days on average each year. It beats down on the sparse plains and on the Gobi desert that spans the country’s southern border with China.
It shines, even during the frigid winter days, on the hundreds of thousands of nomads who still roam the steppes, herding animals and living in dome-like tents calling gers.
About 800,000 of Mongolia’s 2.8 million inhabitants still live the traditional nomadic lifestyle that has remained largely unchanged for generations. Apart from the addition of motorbikes, the occasional petrol generator, and a passing trade from intrepid tourists wanting to stay in a ger for the night, life is almost the same as that of many nomads’ grandparents and great-grandparents.
Almost, but not exactly. Dotted across the steppes, glints of light can be seen as the sun bounces off the solar panels that have been installed on the sides of gers made of felt and yak’s wool. At the start of this millennium, Mongolia’s herders and nomads had little or no access to modern electric power and its potential benefits.
But as of 2013, thanks to a concerted push by the Mongolian government, almost 70 percent of nomadic people have access to electricity. Bor, a herder who mainly travels around western Mongolia’s Arkhangai province, is one of the people whose family benefits from portable solar home systems (SHS).
"We use it for generating the power for lighting in the ger, charging phones, we can also generate a fridge to keep food longer and we can run a television. That is very useful for us because we can get the most recent weather forecast, which is important for our work and keeping our animals safe. Before we had power it was very difficult. Now it is almost like living in the city."
The ability to charge mobile phones is also important for the herders, who often have children staying at boarding schools. “Most countryside children stay in dorms, because their parents are nomads and it is the only way they can get an education,” said Bor. “We can call our children who are in the dorms and speak to them. I also have children working in Ulaanbaatar [Mongolia’s capital] and I can speak to them as well. The solar panels are a very useful thing in our lives.”
Access to electricity also allows families to contact emergency health-care and doctors for advice without having to make the often arduous journey to the nearest village or town.
Migara Jayawardena, a senior energy specialist at the World Bank and lead author of the World Bank report, told Al Jazeera that more than half the nomadic people in rural Mongolia now have access to modern electricity services thanks to the programme—exceeding the original target by 35 percent.
Despite the financial help, the solar panels can still be prohibitively expensive. The cost depends on where the SHS is produced. The most expensive are from Germany, Japan or China, and can cost from between 150,000-800,000 togrog ($88-467).
Batsaikhan, a nomadic herdsman from Huvsgul province, said cost is a major factor for him. “I would very much like to be able to have the solar panels,” he said, “but I cannot because I do not have enough money. It is difficult to save when there are things we need urgently. We see them on sale and one day I want to be able to afford this.”
The solar systems are slowly replacing the diesel generators used by some nomads as a means of generating power, although they are still using stoves for heating, burning wood coal and dung throughout the year.