GUYANA: Another solar boondoggle for hinterland residents – Stabroek News

By October 9, 2021

Stabroek News

It was announced last week that the Indian government will provide US$7.2m in credit towards delivering solar systems to 30,000 households in the hinterland. 

Exactly how that figure of 30,000 was arrived at is not clear. The most recent census showed a population for what are described as the hinterland regions (1, 7, 8, and 9) of 81,263. With an average household size of 4.7 that works out to only 17,622 homes. Furthermore since population centres such as Bartica, Lethem, Port Kaituma, Kwakwani, Mabaruma and Mahdia have their own diesel powered grid systems they would not be included in this project.

But we must forgive our politicians for their exaggerations in a land where based on their claims everyone must have one or two house lots by now, every schoolchild is above average and serious crimes are near zero.        

What perhaps is more troubling is this is another round of solar projects that have not delivered and only reinforce, rather than relieve, the energy poverty among Amerindian communities which is holding them back as individuals and as communities. It is part of a much larger double standard between what coastal Guyanese receive in the quality of their utilities and services and those provided to hinterland house-holds. For example  the 2012 Census showed that less than 20% of hinterland households have access to public water systems compared to over 70% of homes on the coast. Only 25% of hinterland households had access to public electricity as compared to 84.5% in the Coast-land areas. Even those hinterland communities on generator-driven grids are still subject to rationing of a few hours per day. When it comes to equal access to the internet and by extension information, interior villages are forced to rely on communal terminals because of, as then President Jagdeo said in November 2010 “the situation with power in those communities.” Would any of us coastlanders accept a week of such restrictions?

The Hinterland Electrification Project was actually launched in 2005 although not much was achieved until 2011 with the distribution of some 11,000 Photovoltaic panels, along with batteries and other equipment. This panel was about the size of a kitchen table and could basically only charge a phone, run a light and a radio for a few hours if the sun shone. Cabinet Secretary Dr Luncheon conceded as much in 2015 when another 6000 units were planned adding to what he said were the 13,000 already installed: “You know they say in the land of the blind [the] one-eyed man is king? Well in the land of darkness, 65 watts is indeed bright lights and power.” (It was only a few months ahead of the elections and The Doctor said his govern-ment would be grateful if the receivers would vote for them.)

This recent project is more of the same even if Finance Minister Ashni Singh claimed last week it will “literally be the single biggest thing that will probably happen to them in an entire generation.” And it is not clear if it addresses the main flaw of previous projects in that there was no mechanism to replace broken parts. Originally the idea had been to create a common fund in each community into which residents were to make a small contribution each month, and dip into it when a part needed replacing. This never really materialised and very soon perhaps more than half of the systems became obsolete.

It appears that the rationale behind this new project is simply that the Indian financing is available, the home systems can be installed quickly and it is a quick win for a government always with its eye on its popularity. It is not a long term or even a medium term solution to energy poverty.

A more robust, thought out and properly financed approach is required. Wherever possible, house-holds should be provided with adequate energy through the extension of existing grids, despite the costs of connecting sparsely populated areas. The establishment of more micro grids that are centrally controlled and require some monthly payments so as to be financially sustainable is also one way to serve the more remote communities. Additionally in larger population centres the generating capacity must be increased to deliver 24/7 power with increasing supplementation by solar systems as is happening in Bartica and Lethem. This cuts down on fuel costs and emissions. However these need to be well designed which was not the case in Mabaruma. Despite costing G$228M it was only seen as a backup so as to allow a few more hours of electricity per day. The German company started with a flawed design and then failed to properly execute it as a Stabroek News reporter experienced when he tried to switch on the AC unit in his hotel room.

Without adequate electricity and other utilities indigenous communities will not have the opportunity to develop. The troubling aspect of the current approach is whether there has been some deliberate withholding of services as part of an institutionalised policy to preserve the communities’ ways of life. Among the West, and even locally, the view of indigenous people is highly romanticised and associated with their being seen as Guardians of the Forest and therefore important to the climate change effort.

It is the same condescending view that some environmental extremists hold that Guyana should not produce oil. As we hear all the promises about cheap and abundant gas-generated electricity for the coastland, it is imperative indigenous communities must have the same equal access to electricity and other services as coastlanders. What they do with it is entirely up to them. Continuing to deny them such basic conveniences as a fridge or even a simple fan in a country on the cusp of economic transformation exposes the disparity between the hinterland and the coast and what our leaders say and what they deliver.

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  • brandli62  On 10/14/2021 at 10:49 am

    A number of things are unclear about this announcement. First, the Indian Government is providing Guyana a credit over 7.2 million USD. What are the condition (interest rates, repayment terms)? Second, will the investment go towards photovoltaic parks or to equip homes with solar panels? Finally, it appears to be unrealistic that the sum of 7.2 million USD would be sufficient to provide solar power to 30’000 households. This breaks down to 240 USD per house hold. That’s the cost of one standard 300 Wp solar panel. In Guyana you’ll need about 10 of those panels (USD 2400.–), an inverter (USD 1000.–) and ideally also a 10 kWh storage battery (USD 4500.–) to equip a household of 4-5 people. We are talking about costs of USD 7900.– plus installation costs (USD 2100.–). In total about USD 10’000.– per household. Overall, the 7.2 million loan would be sufficient to equip 720 homes with solar power, and not the 30’000 homes claimed.

    I’m wondering who was doing the accounting….

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