With Portable Solar, Nomadic Herders See The Light

In industrialized countries, solar power is seen as a clean alternative to fossil fuels, a way to forestall climate change and other ill impacts, or just to save money. In Mongolia, some half-million nomadic herders see solar as their only hope for enjoying the benefits of electricity.

It’s working, too. “The National 100,000 Solar Ger Electrification Program” has hit its target, according to the World Bank.

mongolian portable solar

image via Stephan Bachenheimer/World Bank

A ger, if you didn’t know, is the traditional tent home for Mongolia’s nomadic peoples, who roam widely– packing up and bringing their home with them as they move – over a hard landscape to find pasture for livestock.

Way back in 2000, the government of Mongolia recognized solar as uniquely appropriate for bringing electricity to this rural population. Not only is Mongolia’s climate right for solar – long cold winters, yes, but more than 250 days of sunshine a year, too – but solar power systems can be broken down, moved and reinstalled easily, giving the herders the benefits of electricity without forcing a radical change in their traditional way of life.

mongolia portable solar

image via Eskinder Debebe/United Nations

Mongolia got this program started on its own, and made some decent progress with help from donor countries, getting solar to around 32,000 gers by 2005. The program then stalled, and in 2007 Mongolia turned to the World Bank for help.

A key to the success in the revamped program was developing privately owned sales and service center that partnered with administrators in 342 villages across Mongolia. And, yes, the solar systems were sold to the herders, though with a 50 percent subsidy that brought the cost down to about one month’s income (or two goats).

Below, a four-minute video from the World Bank explains the program well, giving good insight into how solar has improved the herders’ lives, from little ways like giving them access to comforts we enjoy, like television, to helping them find markets and better prices for their products. A longer, 15-minute version of the video is also available here on the World Bank site.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.