WWF Upfront: Practising what we preach on solar energy

Posted on January, 26 2023

From WWF’s Brussels office to ranger stations in Central African forests, WWF Upfront is providing real-world proof of the benefits of solar power and energy efficiency.
In a remote wildlife park, on Bhutan’s border with India, life has just got a little better for the roughly 50 rangers responsible for monitoring and protecting its populations of forest elephants, spotted deer and Bengal tiger. The installation of a 10kW solar array at the Phibsoo base camp will make power available throughout the day and into the evening, providing lighting, fans to offer relief from the tropical heat, and a huge reduction in the need for expensive diesel to fuel its generator.

The installation was undertaken by Bhutan’s Department of Forests and Park Service through the ‘Bhutan for Life’ project, and with support from WWF’s Upfront project, which has installed solar systems at more than 40 WWF offices and national park stations around the world.  

“They now have electricity from six in the morning until they shut down the system when they go to bed,” says Jean-Philippe Denruyter, WWF Upfront project manager, and who helped tender the project, find a local supplier and install the system together with Department of Renewable Energy. “It’s a pleasure to provide these eco-guards, who don’t have an easy life, with some comfort.”

Ecoguards in Phibsoo Wildlife Sanctuary, Bhutan, with the solar installation that supplies their electricity. Image credit: Department of Forests and Park Services, Bhutan.  

Leading by example

But the WWF Upfront programme has wider objectives. It was launched in 2016 to enable WWF’s operations around the world “to lead by example,” Denruyer says. “We’d been telling everyone that we need to shift to renewable energy, but our offices were at best using grid electricity, while our facilities in national parks often depended on big diesel generators.”

Since its launch, WWF Upfront has installed solar systems from Viet Nam to Switzerland and Peru. Those installations are typically preceded by a programme of awareness-raising on energy use and efficiency.
“We can easily reduce energy consumption by 25% with simple behaviour change, and by visualising energy use,” he says. He gives the example of a meeting on energy efficiency in an office in Latin America. The smart meter was showing consumption of 20kW on the projector because everyone in the building had left their air conditioning on, despite sitting in the meeting room. The meeting room emptied as they returned to their offices to turn off the A/C. “By the time everyone came back, they’d saved 80% of their consumption at that moment … I don’t think anyone who was there has forgotten that you should switch off your air conditioner when you go to a meeting.”

Building local markets  

The next stage is to install solar systems. Denruyter works with local suppliers and installers to help build local capacity, as well as to gain a flavour of local challenges. These can include sourcing equipment – a challenge made greater by ongoing disruptions to solar supply chains caused by the COVID pandemic. This disruption has pushed up prices and played havoc with delivery schedules, Denruyter says. “Sometimes it can take six months to get the equipment, and that makes it more difficult to plan. That’s what happened in Zambia: I had to troubleshoot the installation remotely as I couldn’t be there when the equipment turned up.”

In addition, projects can face economic barriers erected by local regulation. For example, in many countries, small-scale renewable energy systems are not permitted to export surplus power – such as that produced outside of office hours, for example – to the grid. Also, some countries heavily subsidise their electricity markets. Both of these elements can make installing solar systems less economically attractive.

This does not deter Denruyter. “The economic aspect doesn’t affect our decision to proceed. These often serve as demonstration projects.” He cites the Bhutan project, where it has spurred interest from other government agencies.

QEnergy helped WWF Peru to install solar on their roof. Here, Luis and Jean-Philippe are installing the inverter. Image credit: WWF Peru 

Regulations under review

WWF’s work has also helped prompt regulatory change, Denruyter adds, citing Madagascar, where the law has been changed to enable solar projects to sell power into the grid. That process is also underway in Bhutan, he adds.

Although Denruyter insists on working with local experts, existing capacity in many countries remains limited. In response, WWF is partnering with Solar Energy International, a Colorado-based non-profit which offers solar training around the world. “The idea is to develop training courses that are adapted for local people,” with plans to offer training initially in Cambodia followed by Bhutan.

Funding remains a perennial challenge, Denruyter notes. “We have a pipeline of projects” ready to go once funding can be found, he says, adding that he is keen to hire an Africa-based engineer to help him manage strong demand from the continent.

Denruyter says WWF’s work with its local offices on energy efficiency and solar can help to show the concrete impacts of the organisation’s work on climate and energy. “The work we do on climate and energy policy is hugely important, but it’s nice for our people working in an office in Madagascar or Paris to have something tangible on their roof and to see that solar energy produced. It’s important for their wellness and their motivation,” he says.

As of 2022, there are 44 solar installations in countries including Viet Nam, Laos, Myanmar, Bhutan, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Brazil, Chile, Central African Republic, Cameroon, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Zambia, Madagascar, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, Netherlands, UK, Guyana, Kenya, Poland.
Enthusiastic WWF Peru staff show off their new solar PV system
© WWF Peru