Empire of the sun

With cheaper solar panels and an unreliable national electricity grid, could this be the dawn of a new solar age?


Ameer Hamza Ahmad December 11, 2011

Shortly before dawn, waves of photons, hurled from the surface of the sun in the direction of the earth, complete the 150-million-kilometre voyage in just eight minutes; the stream of light crashes into the silicon wafers on Muhammad Ismail’s roof, sending electrons roaring down a copper wire. The electrons pass through a charge controller, a battery and finally an inverter, which converts the direct current into an alternating current. The neighbourhood thrums with the sound of generators but Muhammad Ismail’s house is eerily quiet save for the noise coming from his television. You see, his house runs on solar power.

Ismail is just one of many who have embraced the marvel that is solar power. What was once merely a plot point in science fiction is now very much a reality. The promise of a solar revolution — the idea that some day the world would rely solely on the sun to generate all its electricity — was being promoted since the 1950s, and it is, at its core, a very reasonable idea since — on an average sunny day — the sun provides approximately 1,000 watts of energy per square metre of the planet’s surface. And Pakistan has one of the highest solar insolation (Incoming Solar Radiation) rates in the world, with the sun shining an average of nine hours every day.

Muhammad Sarwar, for one, is very optimistic about the future of alternative energy solutions, especially solar power in Pakistan. The chief executive of Pak Windenergy Pvt Limited sits surrounded by solar panels and wind turbines in his office. “The cost of the technology has been steadily decreasing over the last few years and what with our failing electricity grid, now is the best time to switch over to alternative power,” he claims enthusiastically.

Generating electricity from the sun is a fairly simple process. Solar power solutions usually require a solar panel, a charge controller, a battery and an inverter. Calculators with miniature solar panels are typically one’s first encounter with solar power: they require no batteries and will work forever, as long as they receive enough light. The miniature solar panel on the calculator is a connected assembly of photovoltaic (PV) cells which, as the name implies (photo meaning “light” and voltaic meaning “electricity”), convert sunlight directly into electricity.

“It is important to understand that commercial photovoltaic solar cells can only convert approximately 20 per cent of sunlight into electricity. This can be increased by linking several panels to generate more electricity,” explains Sarwar. “Solar panels are built to withstand heat, cold and rain for many years and most manufacturers offer a warranty that guarantees electrical production for 10 years at 90% of rated power output and 20 years at 80%.”

But while Sarwar may be enthusiastic, installing solar energy systems is easier said than done. Awareness in the general public about their alternative energy options remains low. Not only is it difficult to make sure which suppliers are reliable, but cost is also a major factor, with many consumers wondering why on earth it is so expensive to install systems.

Shaaf Abdul Aziz Mehboob, director of Adaptive Technologies, along with numerous alternative energy solution providers, lobbied the government to remove the five per cent duty on importing solar and wind generation equipment. But while the battle may have been won, the war is far from over.

“The duty has effectively been removed. The catch now is that the duty doesn’t apply if you import a whole alternative energy kit (panels, batteries, inverters and charge controllers) but it will apply if you import the equipment piecemeal,” explains Shaaf. “This is problematic because one supplier doesn’t make all the equipment. So the battery may come from one supplier while the solar panel comes from another.”

While one of the major drawbacks of the technology is that it is still too expensive, the rampant sale of sub-standard equipment has also severely damaged the reputation of alternative energy solutions. “There are many dealers who are fleecing their customers by making false promises and selling shoddy equipment. Those who are scammed then tell their friends that solar power is just a farce,” complains Sarwar. “Another issue is that dealers use car batteries instead of sealed batteries in their kits. Car batteries are not made to be used for this purpose and have a host of issues which routinely crop up over time,” explains Sarwar. “This is just another reason that makes consumers feel that alternative energy is not a sustainable option. The sealed batteries we use don’t need maintenance and have a really long life.”

Another reason for the disillusionment with solar power may be that people don’t understand that — while the technology is extremely reliable — it is not a universal plug and play solution. “Solar power is an engineered solution and there is no one-size-fits-all,” explains Farhan Mehboob of S. Mehboob & Company. “Every house has a unique energy requirement and must be audited so that a specific tailored solution can be created for it.”

The better suppliers provide customised solutions. “We provide a free energy audit to all our customers. We go to their house and gauge their energy consumption by looking at their appliances and usage time,” says Sarwar. “Then we suggest a variety of different setups that will be tailored for their needs.”

These alternative energy solutions range from the simple to the more complicated. Some solar-powered solutions replace the UPS and provide backup in case of load-shedding; the more advanced ones are hybrid solutions which draw energy from solar panels and wind turbines. “The hybrid solution is also hooked up to the electricity grid, so that if the batteries run out of power, the system automatically switches to the grid, providing uninterrupted power,” says Sarwar. This is the same setup that Ismail has at his residence; he now relies solely on alternative energy for most of his electrical needs. “The system runs four ceiling fans, two televisions, one desktop computer and a number of energy-saver light bulbs,” explains Ismail, “The system cost us Rs750,000. This cost might seem high but the payback is extremely quick. We no longer suffer from load-shedding and our electricity bill, which used to be six to seven thousand a month, is down to a thousand rupees.”

Sarwar does not want anyone to misconstrue alternative energy as being the cheap solution — at least in the short run. “People think alternative energy is expensive and that’s true. The cost also depends on your house, electricity bill, the appliances you wish to run and the amount of space you have to set up panels and turbines. A Rs100,000 system can run one ceiling fan, some energy-saver light bulbs and a television. If you scale down your electricity usage, the price of the system goes down too,” he says. “Solar power is just the first step in minimising one’s dependence on the national grid.”

Short of installing a solar energy system, there are a number of steps one can take to make one’s house more energy efficient. Farhan gives some useful tips: install double glazed windows to reduce heat transfer, use PVC plastic instead of metal to line your windows, change air conditioner filters regularly, keep the back of your refrigerator at least two inches from the wall to allow heat to move away from the condenser coils and insulate your house.

“These minor changes will dramatically reduce your electricity bill,” promises Farhan.

While electricity generation is obviously a concern, given the power crisis in the country, solar power is being used for more than just that. Anyone who has recently walked through electronic markets across the country would have spotted various solar-powered water heaters and cookers for sale. These water heaters, which can heat water to 70 c and hold it in their tanks for approximately 24 hours with little or no heat loss, have become one of the most popular and reliable ways to harness sunlight.

And the use of personal solar power solutions is not limited to urban centres. In villages far away from the national grid, solar power solutions have the potential to dramatically improve the quality of life. In a first, Connect, a local NGO, had all 65 households in the village of Mohammad Khaskheli fitted with solar panels this year. Each solar panel powers two bulbs and a cell phone charger. Afsar Ali, director marketing of Hi-Tech Alternate Energy Systems, has a brisk business selling small scale solar solutions for rural villages across the country, “We have ready-made solutions for rural villages. These small units cost anywhere between 20-25 thousand rupees and can power two energy saver bulbs and one phone charger for four hours,” he says.

While interest in alternative power has not yet exploded, it is steadily growing and the more savvy entrepreneurs are already poised to reap the benefits. Shaaf plans to unveil one-stop stores across the country in the coming months. “Our shops will not only provide solar power solutions and advice but you will also be able to buy devices which can help you control your energy consumption,” explains Shaaf.

His green centres will sell occupancy sensors which can sense if the room is empty and shut off the lights automatically, electricity timers that can cut off electricity to appliances at a pre-programmed time and standby killers which will stop appliances such as televisions from drawing power after they have been switched off. The green centres are also themselves energy efficient, “Each outlet will completely rely on alternative energy, which means everything from the light bulbs to the air conditioners will run using solar power,” Shaaf explains.

Can Shaaf and others like him bring the solar revolution to Pakistan? Given the realities of the power crisis, consumers are increasingly limiting their dependency on the national grid, switching to generators and UPS’ to satisfy their energy needs. Unless there is a dramatic turnaround for electricity supply companies, individuals are likely to turn to more lasting solutions. Perhaps one day, it won’t just be Muhammad Ismail’s house but the entire street running quietly on solar electricity.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, December 11th, 2011.

COMMENTS (7)

abrar abbasi | 9 years ago | Reply

I purchased a solar toy from china and it was amazing. it was 6in 1 solar kit and my children were amazed to run 6 different toys by solar energy. now I am looking for solar home system to run my home.

User | 9 years ago | Reply solar energy is also used in the far flung areas of Pakistan e.g, Shimshal,in Gilgit-Baltistan near China boarder. there is no other source of electricity. i have personally experiences that it really works. people use solar panels to generate electricity for their houses and rest houses.
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