In this paper, a reliability analysis of a photovoltaic rural electrification (PVRE) programme is proposed considering the failures in the 13 000 installed Solar Home System (SHS) devices occurring over a long operating period of 5 years. A previous arrangement of the database and a brief explanation of the reliability concepts will serve to introduce the failure distribution of every component, from which the SHS lifetime operating features will be described. An application example will show the usefulness of the obtained results in the forecasting of spare parts during the maintenance period. The conclusions of this study may be useful in the scientific design of PVRE programme maintenance structures, with the goal of shedding some light on the technical management mechanisms in decentralised rural electrification. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.