Mayardit FM, an Internews supported community radio station in Turalei, Warrap State, has long struggled with inconsistent power.
“I heard they were out of power for three days, so I came straight here,” says Internews Electrical Engineer Issa Kassimu. He concluded that the station’s generator had to be replaced, and so did the backup batteries, which were depleted from repeated insufficient charging during the day.
Such power challenges are typical for radio stations across South Sudan. As there is no electricity grid in the country, all Internews supported radio stations are run on 15-25 KVA generators. A generator can cost up to $20,000 to procure and transport, and poor conditions and maintenance mean they often do not reach their expected life span.
Rising fuel prices, coupled with the remote location of most stations, poor fuel quality, and overcharging by traders, makes fuel even more costly and subject to price fluctuations. The cost of power means that stations can only afford to be on air for 8 hours a day.
Solving the power challenge is critical for ensuring community radio stations can eventually function independently and sustainably. Internews has been investigating whether solar power, which is abundant throughout the year in South Sudan, can be the solution.
In 2015, Internews installed two small-scale photovoltaic solar energy systems for two subgrantees, Voice of Freedom (VOF) and Community Needs Initiative South Sudan (CNISS) in Magwi, Eastern Equatoria State. These solar systems have proven transformative for both organizations, and have functioned without any need for technical support.
Building upon this success, in the fall of 2015 Kassimu proposed the largest and most ambitious solar experiment to date: to install a photovoltaic solar system that would produce 37,440 kWh per year for Mayardit FM. This would require the installation of 84 solar panels, and 48 solar batteries with the goal to support 16 hours of broadcast and 24 hours of power per day. The station’s diesel generator would remain only as a backup power source.
On March 7, Kassimu arrived in Turalei to begin installation. Over the course of three weeks, the team worked around the clock, digging holes and trenches for the mounting stands and electrical cables, erecting two rows of mounting stands to support the panels, and mounting the panels themselves. Attached to the station, Kassimu constructed a control room to house the batteries, battery inverters, and charge controllers.
After conducting a successful mini test of the system on March 27, Kassimu flipped the switch on March 28. On that day, solar fully powered the transmitter, station, and office from 6am-10pm. The community, accustomed to hearing Mayardit FM only from 6-10am and 6-10pm daily, was abuzz that the radio had broadcast throughout the entire day, and asked if this was the new norm.
While the project remains in testing phase, if this successful performance continues, there will be an official launch in mid-2016.
“Turalei might be the hardest site to do this,” Kassimu says. “If it is successful here, we can do it anywhere.”