Photo Feature: This is Herat, Afghanistan
The clear mid-December blue sky over Herat, a western province bordering Iran, gradually transformed to a golden glow and melted into gradient shades of orange fading into darkness. Headlights and taillights streamed in opposite directions along one of the busiest thoroughfares in the city. Towering above them were solar street lamps. And on a cool wintery dusk, the sun was once again lighting up this part of Herat.
“The Municipality has announced the start of a project where all the street lights will be solar powered,” Ahmad Quraishi, a local journalist, told me over tea at the Nazary Hotel.
“Even the Kuchi (nomads) people have solar panels on their tents!” he added. “And in remote areas, you see village homes with solar panels for lights, TV and fans in the summer.”
This hardly comes as a surprise: Afghanistan gets about 300 days of sun and is said to have an estimated solar energy potential of 6.5 kilowatt-hours per square meter per day. But only about 7% of the population, mostly around urban centers, is connected to the few major grid networks. “Existing distribution networks in Kabul, is unable to handle more than 150 MW, against a potential requirement of twice this amount,” the South Asian Regional Initiative for Energy report for USAID notes.
Much of Afghanistan’s electricity is a mix of Hydropower and energy imports from neighboring countries. While there are many Micro-hydro projects underway, a 400MW coal powered plant as well as large-scale hydro projects are also being developed.
In the mean time the chronic power shortage and the general lack of energy infrastructure across the country has given birth to a thriving market for generators as well as a growing solar power sector in both Kabul and Heart, the two provinces I traveled to.
“The Solar and Wind Energy profiles for Afghanistan are very promising,” Chiranjibi Gautam, a senior advisor at the UN Environment Programme, told me in Kabul. However, he also wondered about the feasibility of delivering electricity from large-scale solar farms outside of city boundaries.
When not flying over mountainous terrains, the east-west flight between Kabul and Heart soars above seemingly endless expanses of arid brown undeveloped surfaces. Would domestic solar or wind farm infrastructures really be unfeasible in comparison to the sophisticated infrastructures Afghanistan is investing in to import electricity? Would modest solar and wind based micro-grids in and around populated regions that are far from urban centers (where the main grids are) or river systems be feasible?
Solar has, of course, already found supporters and success on smaller projects. A joint project between Afghanistan’s Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD) and India’s Ministry of External Affairs helped distribute 5200 home lighting systems in 100 villages across the country in 2006. USAID has also been actively solar-lighting up the streets of Afghanistan. Through their Afghan Clean Energy Project they have already installed more than 300 solar powered lamps in various provinces including Wardak, Badakshan, Urugzan between 2009 and 2011 while exploring the possibilities of larger renewable energy projects.
“When people see the advantage of solar power more people rush to the market to buy it. They talk about it amongst families and friends, and right now people are very pleased with this new development. We have sun all the time,” Quraishi had explained.
Then he had added: “Herat is actually also famous for it’s wind, we have 120 days of very good wind.”
In January the province was chosen as one of the six sites for USAID’s Afghanistan Clean Energy Program to conduct a study for developing wind energy.
(Notes from my Christmas vacation in Afghanistan, 2011. Not edited for updates.)
Scenes from Herat: