Energy, or more specifically alternative energy has always been a solution aimed at this world that is currently depended on fossil-fuel (oil) based energy. In Pakistan, this is no different. However, massive adaptation of alternative energy sources is missing. I keep wondering why? Most of the people in the finance world I talk to – have a decent understanding of what alternative energy can translate to as far as a viable business model is concerned, but the ROI (Return On Investment) which is measured in years for alternative energy, is one that does not pique the interest of the financiers.
The most notable alternative energy sources available to us are nuclear, hydro, solar, wind, wave power and if you can count, fuel cell technology.
The ultimate goal would be to have an energy source, where we (as in consumers) don’t have to buy any fuel for the energy system we deploy (solar, wind, hyrdo, wave come into this vertical). I won’t discuss nuclear, hydro and ocean power, as these are something beyond the grasp of a common man, or business for that matter.
Lets discuss what option we do have and can exercise, specifically, solar power.
With the power shortfall in Pakistan hovering between 2,000 Megawatts to 4,000 Megawatts (depending on many factors, including time of the year, rain, fuel prices, etc.), the energy crises in this country is not going to disappear anytime soon.
As the common denominator in our fuel equation is oil (which is imported), pricing of almost everything in our lives is dependent on the price of oil. Oil makes things move. Cars, trucks, buses, industry, power, you, me. Increase the price of oil, and the price of everything changes. Decrease it – vice versa.
The most plentiful power source we have in Pakistan is solar – as anyone who sweats in the heat here would know! – the sun is upon us almost 365 days a year and that too with harsh intensity. Why do we not convert this great source of energy into electricity – on a mass level – baffles me.
Currently, we employed concentrated efforts to have the photovoltaic cell absorb sunlight and convert that into electricity. Even within the photovoltaic category, there are currently over a dozen different types of solar cells, (example: thin film, monocrystalline silicon, polycrystalline silicon, and amorphous cells, etc.) Which one will become the most dominant – remains to be seen. High-Cost solar cells with High-Efficiency convert best and are approaching their theoretical limit of about 30%-33%. But they are very high cost with ROI time-frames anywhere from 10 years to 15 years.
The solar power panels you and I commonly see, are the 2nd generation of photovoltaic cells, and convert at an average of 20%.
To understand what this means, you must understand how much ‘energy’ falls in on Pakistan on a per square meter basis. The answer is 1,400 Watts / hour per square meter. That means, 10 square meters would receives 14kWatts of energy! That’s a lot. But conversion and storage are all the challenges.
The method of conservation for small units is to employ batteries (to store energy when sunlight is not available) to ensure near 24/7 supply of uninterrupted electricity.
For almost 20-30 years not much had changed in the photovoltaic cell industry. The pricing gradually came down, the cost of manufacturing inverters decreased, efficiency and pricing of batteries improved, more specifically, the use of VRLA batteries (valve-regulated lead-acid battery) – specifically gel based. But other than this, nothing monumental happened.
So, just to summarize the photovoltaic cells:
First generation of solar cells are those made with semiconductor p-n junctions.
Second generation of solar cells are those made with thin-film (to reduce cost), but employ the same p-n junction methodology.
The third generation of solar cells, would be able to over-come/break the technical theoretical limit of 30%-40% efficiency (also known as the Shockley-Queisser limit).
No third generation solar cell product exists (as a commercially manufactured end-product) to the best of my knowledge at the time of writing of this blog article.
In Pakistan, because of the flat-roof construction, even the smallest of all habitats, you can get a roof covered area of minimum 300-400 square feet to deploy a solar powered solution. That is a lot of energy coming to your rooftop that you can put to good use.
Needless to say, for the Pakistani economy or average household that uses electricity, solar powered deployment can seem reasonably expensive. If you take items like the battery, inverter, cables and charger out, the most expensive component still remains the solar array. However, you must understand that despite it being expensive, a solar array has a life of 15-20 years.
A solar powered solution essentially has four components:
The Solar Array
This is what receives sunlight and then converts sunlight into electricity.
The size of the solar array would directly equate to the number of Watts you are deploying. For example in the picture above, you are seeing eight solar arrays. Each array is 400Watts, giving you a combined capacity of 3,200 Watts. So, quite simply, the larger the power requirement – the larger the solar array you would have to deploy.
Solar Controller (or Regulator)
Electricity that is flowing from the solar array needs to be controlled (or regulated) before it goes into the batter. Because the Current (measured in Amps) may fluctuate, etc. you need to control it into a steady fixed value (or stream) in order to charge the battery.
Batteries need to be charged at specific values (both for Current and for Voltage), the job of a solar controller is just that – and it does so, without damaging the battery (over or under charging can seriously damage the battery).
Without batteries, it would be pretty difficult to keep that power on tap. Batteries can be a little difficult to understand, as they are both a factor of voltage and Amps per hour that are flowing into it.
Here is an excellent link that will help you ‘design’ your battery setup. In addition, I would highly recommend gel based, closed battery systems. Though they are expensive, they are virtually maintenance free. You can opt for your traditional acid-based car or truck battery solutions that are readily sold in Pakistan, its just a matter of how comfortable and regimented you will be with regards to maintenance and efficiency. Here is a great link to help you understand the equation of batteries in a solar power deployment.
Now that you have stored electricity in your battery system, the next point of order is to actually be able to use it. As with the localized domestic UPS solution, an inverter is used to convert the DC (Direct Current) in the batters to AC (Alternating Current) that your household appliances, lights/fans would use.
Power Inverters come in Watts. Typically 750 Watts, 1,000 Watts, and can go all the way up to 5,000 – 10,000 Watts. Like the domestic UPS solution is 1,000 watts, the same is true for the Solar Power system. Typically, your Inverter will be slightly larger than the Wattage for which your Solar Array was designed for. Simply plug in your appliances and you’re good to go.
One cautionary note, improper cabling or sub-standard cabling, and devices (like charger, batteries and inverters) can lead to a serious degradation of power and efficiency. Invest in the best and your hard earned money will last you a long time.
Secondly, it is important to familarize yourself with the charging times, efficiency, Amperage and Wattage of a solar power system. Whilst on the outsert this may seem like rocket science, I assure you it is not. It is very simple. 100s of YouTube videos are there to help you learn about Power, Inverters, Batteries, Solar Panels, Solar Power Systems, Controllers, Cabling, Meters, etc.
Spend a little time researching, and it would be well-worth your time, before you decide to spend money towards a solar power solution. Better informed would also mean, that shop owners who sell solar power systems, etc. cannot make a fool out of you.
Just like everyone else, who has been thinking about how to reduce the power bill, solar power is an excellent alternative, provided you also understand that the typical ROI on such a system is 5-10 years (minimum). If you are comfortable with that fact, solar power is something you should definitely look into.
Quite a few companies in Pakistan offer solar-powered solutions (in no particular order or preference, you can see the list at the end of this article), including reference links: