Off-Grid Solar in El Salvador

While most of El Salvador has reliable electricity access, there is little prospect of the national electric grid being extended to the village of El Sauce. MIT D-Lab's Energy Group is working with long-time D-Lab community partner ASAPROSAR to identify specific energy needs in the community, technologies to meet these needs, and practical approaches to distribute energy technologies in the community.

Energy Needs and Market Opportunity Assessment

This project began with work done by the D-Lab: Energy I class in the spring of 2015, in which students from the class conducted interviews with community members to understand the current energy access and spending on lighting and mobile phone charging. In August of 2015 D-Lab staff members, Eric Verploegen and Libby Hsu traveled to El Salvador to follow up on this work with ASAPROSAR staff Geovany Moreno and Maritza Rodriguez, specifically to understand more about the existing supply chain, community institutions, and aspirational energy needs in El Sauce.

Read Eric Verploegen's blog Energy Need Assessment with ASAPROSAR 

Household energy access and aspirational energy needs

Currently, most El Sauce residents spend ~$8 per month on kerosene for lighting and travel to the nearest town where they can charge their mobile phones for a $0.25 fee. While many residents have a TV or radio charged by a car battery, the only way recharge the battery is to carry it over 20 minutes on foot to the nearest town. Due to the difficulty and cost (there is a fee for charging and the batteries typically need to be replaced once a year), this process it is not a popular option. ASAPROSAR has an ongoing program to work with EL Sauce residents to build clean cookstoves in their homes, thus cooking was not a focus of the assessment. 

Purchasing behavior and supply chain

Most El Sauce residents rarely shop at stores in the nearby towns, and instead, take a two-hour bus ride to do their shopping every two weeks in Chalchuapa where prices are lower. Discussions with electronics retailers in the closest major city, Chalchuapa, revealed that they are more focused on products that have wider appeal in the cities and more developed areas of El Salvador. These findings indicate that it would be challenging for a local store to effectively sell solar lighting products to El Sauce residents.

Community institutions

Through the household interviews, a church was identified as a key community-gathering place in El Sauce. Through an interview with a community organizer the to learn about the church’s current energy use and needs. We found that the congregation spends ~$25 per month just on kerosene for lighting. We also found that church members are interested in being able to power a TV and DVD player so they could watch programs as a group, as well as a microphone and amplifier for playing music. 

Technology and Business Model Identification

Solar energy products identified

Using the information gathered during the assessment, we identified solar power and lighting systems that would be comparable to what residents currently spend on energy. We found companies in Latin America that sell high-quality solar lantern with mobile phone charging capability that fits the needs and budget of individual households. For the church, we identified solar power and lighting systems that will be able to provide four bright lights for the church, charging up to 10 mobile phones at a time, with 12-volt outputs that can power a radio, TV, or amplifier. These products all have an expected lifetime of over five years and have warranties ranging from two to three years. 

Distribution strategies 

Given the challenges described with typical retail distribution, we discussed with ASAPROSAR the possibility of incorporating the distribution of solar energy products into their current program activities. Since ASAPROSAR staff members regularly visit El Sauce, they would be able to handle the physical distribution of the products.

Additionally, ASAPROSAR’s microfinance team expressed interest in setting up loan programs specifically designed for households to purchase solar lanterns, and for the church congregation to purchase a larger solar lighting and power system. This will allow the community to redirect the money they currently spend on kerosene and mobile phone charging towards solar energy products without significantly affecting their monthly budgets. Once the products have been paid for, the households and the church community will begin to reduce their monthly energy expenses.

Pilot and Market Deployment

Next steps

In the fall of 2015, ASAPROSAR conducted user testing by giving households a solar lantern to test for two weeks (two lanterns were rotated throughout the community for 3 months). Based on the positive feedback and reported willingness to purchase the lanterns from the residents of El Sauce, ASAPROSAR is planning to begin selling solar energy products in El Sauce in the coming months. The D-Lab team is currently working with ASAPROSAR to negotiate prices for solar energy products with vendors in Latin America. Students D-Lab classes will check in on the progress and impact of the products on the community during their regular trips to El Salvador. 


Asociación Salvadoreña Pro-Salud Rural - The Salvadoran Association for Rural Health (ASAPROSAR), Asociación árboles y Agua para el Pueblo (AAP), Trees, Water & People (TWP).


D-Lab Staff members Eric Verploegen, Libby Hsu, and Becca Smith; D-Lab students Conrad Sanborn MIT '16, Joyce Zhang MIT '16, and John Ma, MIT '17. ASAPROSAR staff members Geovany Moreno and Maritza Rodriguez.


Eric Verploegen, Research Engineer, Food-Water-Energy Lead