How Solar is Helping Refugees on the Thai-Burma Border


Even in Southeast Asia, the battle for affordable, safe, and clean energy access is generally fought on two fronts: policy and implementation. Attempting to educate myself and to acquire on the ground work, I have found myself living on the front lines of this battle in Mae Sot, Thailand, a border town known as a hub for illicit trade, humanitarian aid, and migrant Burmese seeking refuge from civil war. For the last month I have been working with The Border Green Energy Team (BGET), an organization that promotes solar energy adoption in villages and refugee camps scattered along the Thai-Burma border. Slowly, I have come to the realization that the rainy season means being perpetually soaked—especially while trying to get around on my rusty bike. I’ve mastered the art of spitting betel nut like the locals, and I am learning about the struggles of the stateless Karen refugees in this region.

The villages around this town do not have access to the electrical grid and therefore lack basic modern services. As we all know, the absence of energy kills productivity. Students’ homework time is limited to daylight hours only. Medical clinics cannot properly store medications that require refrigeration. And there is a higher risk of fire due to the use of alternative lighting sources.

In an attempt to solve these problems, in 2004 the Thai government invested $250 million to install 200,000 photovoltaic solar home systems (SHSs) for off-the-grid homes. This year they have pledged that by 2022, 25% of the country’s power generation will come from renewable energy sources. This policy objective is more aggressive than that of most state standards in the U.S. While the government’s efforts are commendable, unfortunately the measure has been compromised due to the lack of engagement with the community beneficiaries and the shortsightedness of project management. According to The United Nations Development Programme, (UNDP), 80% of these systems are now obsolete due to the low quality materials and the failure of the government to develop long-term infrastructure and implementation plans.

This is where my group steps in. BGET works to repair the broken or worn out solar systems. But more importantly, not only do we ensure the proper care of the systems, we also train the local community to maintain and repair renewable energy systems themselves. The group plans to service half of the already installed systems with bare-boned but effective operations. Comprised of trained engineers, my teammates are predominately ethnic Karen or Chin, either from Thailand or Burma. Therefore, our communication requires constant translation between 3 to 4 languages. Some members are originally from refugee camps or from deep inside Burma. For instance, our Training Manager has to walk through mountains for days to go home to his village in Burma. Along with our adopted stray dog, Galong, some members of our team reside in the office.

As Burma—and this region—holds the world’s attention with the opening up of the previously isolated country, it should be recognized that solar adoption in the developing world is achievable. Just as many people in these nations have been able to leapfrog other technologies, such as non-smart cellular phones, so should they be able to foster their own sustainable local energy programs based on sustainable resources, rather than becoming reliant on coal based energy. As Adam has so ingeniously said, “It may take a village, but it is even better if the village is solar-powered.”

Check out the great video from My Story Our World. It’s a sneak peek of some footage they captured while filming a story with SunSawang, a Thai-based social enterprise. The story will highlight SunSawang’s work in providing solar electricity to an ethnic Karen village in Tha Song Yang District, Tak Province near the border with Burma.

Article by Andrea Skinner, Strategy Analyst for Border Green Energy Team, appearing courtesy The Vote Solar Initiative.

About Author

Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.

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