SICHANLOO, Iran (AP) — In this village nestled in the arid hills of rural Iran, government-subsidized solar panels on the rooftops of homes provide both needed electricity and a shining symbol of efforts by the Islamic Republic to wean itself off fossil fuels and nuclear power.
President Hassan Rouhani's government has quintupled its spending on solar power projects in the last year, taking advantage of Iran's 300-odd days of sunshine a year that make its vast sun-kissed lands one of the best spots on earth to host solar panels. While being good for the environment, the panels also offer rural Iran steady power amid uncertainty over the country's contested nuclear program as it negotiates with world powers.
And as the Islamic Republic cuts back on subsidies that once made gasoline cheaper than bottled mineral water, a push toward self-sustaining solar power could help the government save money and bolster its sanctions-battered economy.
"A big change is in the making in Iran," said Saman Mirhadi, a senior government official in charge of solar projects.
Iran, home to some 77 million people, is a fossil-fuel powerhouse, even in the crude-oil rich Middle East. It is home to both the world's fourth-largest proven oil reserves and massive natural gas reserves.
However, sanctions have cut into the country's refining and production capabilities. Iran's economy also has faltered, while the country's push for nuclear energy has come under scrutiny over Western fears the Islamic Republic could use its program to build atomic bombs. Iran has said its program is for peaceful purposes.
Rouhani's administration, however, sees a bright future in solar, spending $60 million this year on solar projects compared to just $12 million last year. It especially wants to target rural communities largely cut off from government services across the country. In Sichanloo, a hamlet 200 kilometers (125 miles) northwest of the capital Tehran, the seven families who live here once relied on gasoline-fueled generators for electricity.
Now, more than two dozen solar panels shine from nearby rooftops. With the flip of a switch, electricity stored in truck-sized batteries from the solar panels lights up the home of Habibollah Kakavand, the father of one of the village's families.