Sunshine turns on the television and lights the Bedouin tents at night

The Bedouin nomads of Syria may soon be watching solar-powered television in their desert tents. FAO began testing solar power as an alternative source of energy for the Bedouin in April 1998, when photovoltaic systems were given to four families for a trial period of one year. The initiative is part of a project co-sponsored by the Syrian and Italian governments, and technically implemented by FAO. (Click here for more information on the project)

The rangelands of the Syrian desert seem an ideal place to use solar power, but the photovoltaic systems that convert the sunlight into electricity have not been used before by nomadic people. "The main challenge is that the systems have to be assembled and disassembled each time the Bedouin move," said Gustavo Best, FAO energy expert. "We are waiting to hear if the systems stood up to their new environment."

A Bedouin woman sets up the family's photovoltaic system

In each family, a young man or woman was selected to be trained as caretaker of the unit. They learnt how to dismantle and reinstall it in each new location, to check the battery liquid level, and ensure that the charge regulator - which manages the flow of energy into the battery - is used correctly.

"The systems are simple and user-friendly, but it is important that the basic maintenance is carried out on a regular basis," said Daniele Guidi, the consultant with the project. "If the feedback is positive, we will be able to test how these small electricity generators might play a part in rural income-generating activities."

By early next year, the Bedouin families are expected back at the project office in Palmyra. They will then be able to tell project staff how efficient they found the solar power systems, and how easy they were to use.

The energy produced by the systems - even on a cloudy day - is enough to power two lamps for four hours, and a small black and white television for three or four hours a day. Solar-powered lamps replace kerosene or butane gas lamps, both of which can be dangerous and require the availability and transport of the fuel.

"If solar power works for the Bedouin, it will help them maintain their nomadic way of life," said Guidi, "which is key to lowering the environmental degradation of the rangeland associated with settlement."

If properly used and maintained, the photovoltaic systems, which have been widely used in other settings, last for 20 to 25 years. A system suitable for use in a tent for ten people costs about US$700 to $800. FAO expert Best estimates that the cost of a system to the Bedouin - who would otherwise be buying candles, kerosene, butane gas or batteries for flash lamps - is recouped after 6 to 8 years of use.

The project is already looking at how to diffuse the systems more widely, if the trial period shows good results. One possibility is to set up a microcredit system with the Rural Development Bank in Syria, so that the nomads will be able to buy them. An alternative also being considered is the leasing of systems, for a monthly charge.

If the systems stand up to nomadic life in the desert, other countries may soon turn to solar power as an affordable and renewable energy source for pastoral peoples.

7 December 1998

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