In Thailand, one of the world's largest solar farms is not only relieving the Kingdom of its reliance on imported fossil fuels but also benefiting the communities in its neighborhood through increased labor and education opportunities.

Khok Samrong District, Lopburi Province ─ When the inhabitants of three villages in Central Thailand - around 150 kilometers (km) north of Bangkok - heard that a massive solar power station was about to be built in their midst, many say they feared the worst.

"It is our duty to teach children why solar energy is beneficial and how it works. I'm astonished at the creative force the solar facility has unleashed in our pupils."

- Chan Chalee, primary teacher at Khao Tien School

"Our biggest concern was it would emit polluting fumes and waste," says mushroom farmer Nuj Nuiplee, who recalls a chicken farm that discharged raw sewage into her neighborhood village of Baan Chom Muang.

But 2 years after the 1,400-rai (224 hectare) solar plant operated by Natural Energy Development (NED) started construction, the villagers' lives are actually improving. The plant runs silently, emits no pollutants, and it has brought with it job opportunities and increased prosperity.

For 33-year-old Lopburi native Rosarin Channguan, for example, NED has allowed her to quit her job in Bangkok and return to her hometown. As administrative officer at the plant, Rosarin is happy to be reunited with her family - and happy with the cost savings. "Working in Bangkok was costly," she says. "Much of my salary went on rent and transportation."

A brighter future

Launched in December 2011, the NED solar plant in Lopburi was completed in just 18 months, helped by an ADB long-term loan of $70 million equivalent in Thai baht - 25% of the total loan financing. Other investors included KASIKORNBANK, Bangkok Bank, and Siam Commercial Bank, while Sharp supplied 540,000 solar panels to the plant.

NED is a joint venture between Hong Kong's CLP Renewables, Diamond Generating Asia - a wholly owned subsidiary of Mitsubishi - and Thailand's Electricity Generating Public Company. The plant has signed long-term power purchasing agreements to sell 55 megawatts to the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand and 5 megawatts to the Provincial Electricity Authority at a fixed rate of B8 per kWh in addition to the wholesale tariff for the first 10 years of operations. The first electricity transmission was made in March 2012.

"Thailand is the leader in Southeast Asia in solar energy, and many countries in the region would like to copy its success," says Manila-based Daniel Wiedmer, who is in charge of ADB renewable projects in Thailand and Malaysia. Thailand's pioneering efforts, says Wiedmer, have been instrumental in prompting neighbors Malaysia and the Philippines to initiate green energy ventures.

Not so long ago, says Wiedmer, few were interested in investing in renewable energy projects. But the Lopburi solar plant has transformed commercial sentiment by making it clear that renewable energy projects can be reliable, sound, and relatively low-risk ventures.

To commemorate the King of Thailand's 60th jubilee and his 84th birthday, a further 11 megawatts of solar power will be added this year, bringing total capacity to 84 megawatts of electricity. In theory, that would be enough to light up 70,000 households and to serve about 350,000 people.

Giving back to the community

As part of NED's social responsibility program, the plant has contributed equipment and machinery to help villagers cultivate their land - arid local soil conditions make tapioca a staple crop. A plan to house the homeless has been discussed, as has an initiative to train students as tour guides at the Solar Museum - a recently completed feature of the B100-million ($3.2 million) complex.

"Everyone is upbeat about the future these days. The communities here are grateful for the opportunities the solar plant has brought."

- Saichol Thanomsak, Baan Khao Tien village headman

Meanwhile, educational materials donated by NED to local schools are inspiring young people with a passion for solar energy.

Using solar panels donated by NED, Chan Chalee, a 41-year-old primary teacher at Khao Tien School, shows the school's 126 students, aged 6-12, how solar energy works by having them use the panels to charge mobile phones and other electrical appliances. The children also learn about how solar energy can run generators, sprinklers that water crops, and power pumps that irrigate fields.

"It is our duty to teach children why solar energy is beneficial and how it works," says Chan, who appears as excited about solar power as his pupils."I'm astonished at the creative force the solar facility has unleashed in our pupils," he says in his office, which overflows with handicrafts and models made by youngsters inspired by their lessons about clean energy.

"Children are very effective in changing the behavior of adults," says ADB country director for Thailand Craig M. Steffensen. "Renewable sources of energy help reduce pollution, and contribute to a healthier, better life for all."

Inspiring clean targets

Three years ago the Government of Thailand embarked on what was then seen as an ambitious task of replacing fossil fuels with green energy to the tune of 22% by 2022. The success of the NED project has prompted the Thai government to increase that target to 25%.

"It could even exceed that 25% mark. We are already using 12% alternative fuels in terms of total consumption," says Twarath Sutabutr, deputy director general of the Department of Alternative Energy Development & Efficiency at the Ministry of Energy.

The speed with which the NED solar plant was built and brought online is a major factor behind such enthusiasm.

"We didn't just finish the plant on time, but we also built the connecting power lines to transport electricity to the Provincial Electricity Authority power station," says NED plant manager Chaiwut Saengpredekorn, 39. "That comprised 12 kilometers of elevated cable and supporting poles."

The man who spearheaded the project, Woramol Khamkanist, calls NED "the fastest delivery of a big scale energy project in Thailand." Woramol, who leaves NED at the end of June to head his own company, also says he is convinced that the solar plant could not have succeeded as quickly as it has without the support of nearby communities.

That support is already reaping dividends for community members.

"Everyone is upbeat about the future these days. The communities here are grateful for the opportunities the solar plant has brought," says Baan Khao Tien village headman Saichol Thanomsak.

"Not so long ago, one of the occupations for the men here was collecting artillery shells for scrap metal," said Saichol. "The armed forces use nearby fields for firing practice. The villagers had to diffuse shells that had not exploded."

"Sometimes they blew up, and many men were injured," Saichol continues. "Today, we don't have to take such risks. We have safer occupations, as the solar plant has brought in a host of small companies and suppliers."