Greater affordability and awareness have pushed solar energy into the purchasing psyche of common citizens. Can inflated bills and unreliable power become a thing of the past?
by Shazia Hasan
Facing the sun like a sunflower, a small 20-watt panel, the size of a tea tray, leans next to a charpoy in the courtyard of Yusuf Mohammad’s two-room home. Even in 2016, grid electricity hasn’t yet reached this part of the world —a remote fishing village in District Thatta — but villagers have found a way out: solar power.
“This panel is how I stay in touch with the world,” beams Mohammad, explaining that it cost him less than 3,000 rupees to do so. Hooked with a DC converter or a car phone charger, the panel enables Mohammad to charge his phone batteries every day, once a day. “I take my solar panel with me on the fishing trawler, too. This is absolutely free power!”
He does not need to add batteries to the system to power his cell phone during the night; the task is accomplished in the daytime. “I am saving money to buy bigger solar panels to power my home one day,” says the fisherman.
Solar power is gradually increasing in popularity across the country, in various strands of society. Grid electricity, which is largely generated from oil and water turbines, has steadily become expensive even for common usage. Its unreliability and persistent shortage adds another layer of anxiety to the power mess in the country.
For Zulfiqar Shah, a freelance data entry operator in Karachi, grid electricity almost destroyed all gadgets that he uses for professional purposes. “I switched to solar power because frequent power failures had damaged my equipment,” he explains.
Shah needs his desktop computer and internet running at all times — either for data entry or to stay in touch with clients over the internet. One night, frequent power outages put everything at stake; he couldn’t complete work nor was he available to clients. Shah needed a permanent but cheap solution to his woes.
“I bought four very cheap second-hand solar panels that had been discarded from the ship-breaking yard at Gadani. I then added two 120-ampere recycled truck batteries, which I bought from the Garden area. From the electronic market near Regal Chowk, I bought a cheap UPS,” says Shah. “In about 80,000 rupees I now have uninterrupted power for my PC. Thanks to solar power, there is no longer a lingering fear of frequent power outages and I also earn a steady income.”
Then there are folks who have installed complete home systems to generate solar power. They say that it has simplified their lives as they can forget about their power woes for the next 20 to 25 years.
Mrs A. Salim lives in an area in Multan which experiences frequent load-shedding. Much like Shah, damage to appliances forced her to look for an alternative to grid electricity. “When one after the other, our appliances started going out-of-order due to unannounced power load-shedding and voltage fluctuations, we decided to look skywards for a solution,” she says.
The family purchased a 5KVA solar system which cost them a little over 800,000 rupees. The investment has been worth it.
“Our electricity bills have cut down drastically because we now use power from Mepco [Multan Electric Power Company] only occasionally, for example when its cloudy outdoors and the sun isn’t shining through. Earlier, we’d be billed around 30,000 rupees each month but now it barely exceeds 2,000 rupees,” claims Mrs Salim.
“Today, the fans in our house, television, fridge, freezer, air-conditioner, washing machine and water pump … all run on free energy. At night, we use the power stored in the batteries that charge during the day. My children finally have peace of mind as they can study at night without any power interruptions,” she says.
Going by the assertions of various consumers, appliances that typically exert greater load on the power system also run without any glitches on solar-powered systems. Most explain that backup batteries need to be kept at hand depending on usage — Mrs A Salim’s house, for example, needs 12 lead acid truck batteries of 200 amperes each to carry their energy needs.
Solar panels do not need that much space. They can be installed on your rooftops. These days many houses with such units can be spotted from afar. And they are increasing in number.
In Karachi, every other shop at the main electronics market near Regal Chowk has solar panels for sale leaning against its walls and pillars. Though the world knows three kinds of solar panels — monocrystalline or single crystal silicone panels, polycrystalline or polysilicone (p-Si) panels, and the thin film transistor or TFT panels — shopkeepers explain that consumers tend to opt for monocrystalline or polysilicone. As per demand, the market is also flooded with these.
And if the sales of the two were compared, monocrystalline sells more than polysilicone because the former also works in cloudy weather. In comparison, polysilicone panels need maximum sunlight. It is cheaper than the monocrystalline panels but these days more people are turning to the type that works in cloudy weather.
“The difference between monocrystalline and polysilicone panels is like that between a four-stroke engine and a two-stroke engine,” says Mohammad Afsar Ali of Korean Electronics, a shop with many branches in the electronics market.
“A four-stroke engine has good pick-up but it loses performance after warming up. On the other hand, a two-stroke engine runs better after warming up. Polysilicone panels may be compared to the two-stroke engine and monocrystalline panels are like the four-stroke engine,” he explains.
Another way consumers can make their choice is to select which kind of system will work best for them. Among the more popular types is a hybrid system, which can be merged with the grid tie or a wind turbine to keep the batteries constantly charged at night.
“It also works for people who tend to be out of the house the entire day. The power that they generate goes to the grid instead of running their fans or air conditioners during that time,” says the electronics salesman.
About the wind turbine that the hybrid system can merge with, Afsar Ali explain that these kinds of power systems are not that big a success in Pakistan as they need a wind speed of at least 12 nautical miles to run. “The moisture and dust in the air make the wind system rusty and inefficient. Solar panels are very efficient when compared with this other renewable energy option,” he points out.
Earlier this year, Nepra gave its approval for the ‘wheeling’ of electric power regulations. The system of making power and selling your surplus power is known as wheeling, which is now allowed by law in Pakistan.
Various shopkeepers in the solar panel market describe a mathematical formula to calculate the costs that will be incurred in implementing a solar system for a house. The calculation begins with 40 rupees for a battery, multiplied by watts, multiplied by the hours you need. So, for example, if you need 1,000 watts constantly for 24 hours, the formula you apply will be Rs40 x 1,000watts x 24 hours. This equals 960,000 rupees and typically includes installation charges too.
“But that cost can be cut down if you use local wet batteries. Then you can substitute the 40 rupees in your formula with 25 rupees and multiply that with 1,000 and then again by 24 to get 600,000 rupees as your cost,” says Afsar Ali.
“Similarly if you don’t want solar power for 24 hours and only for when you experience load-shedding in your area, you can also reduce the hours, to, say six. So Rs25 x 1,000 watts x 6 equals 1.5 lacs only. These days, many people prefer this option.”
Indeed, the market trend is reflected in new construction projects. An under-construction apartment project in the upmarket Clifton area has planned to install solar panels on the façades of the building so that each flat can also make use of free and natural energy. This even takes care of the lack of rooftop space for apartments.
Meanwhile, the trend of renewable energy is even finding traction in government circles. Pakistan’s parliament is the first parliament in the world to be completely powered by solar energy. It generates 80MW of electricity, 62MW of which are consumed by the National Assembly while the surplus 18MW are added to the national grid.
Similarly, the Quaid-i-Azam Solar Power Park has around 400,000 solar panels (photovoltaic or PV cells), spread over 200 hectares of land in Cholistan Desert in Punjab. This solar farm, built by Chinese company Xinjiang SunOasis and still under development, already sells energy to the national grid. When complete, it will be the world’s largest solar farm with capacity of 5.2 million PV cells producing as much as 1,000MW of electricity that is enough to power about 320,000 households here.
There is also talk of installing solar units on the premises of the mausoleum of Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah. In an attempt to promote tourism in the country, the Gorakh Hill Station in Sindh is also said to be adopting solar power soon.
Many in Pakistan curse the sun for causing so much heat here that can lead to even heat stroke but the old saying ‘when life gives you lemons, make lemonade’ works here. Experts argue that if we compare solar radiation and temperature in Pakistan with Germany, the solar panels in Pakistan would produce 33 per cent more power. For context, in May this year, Germany generated 45.5 gigawatts from renewable sources out a total demand of 45.8 gigawatts.
With awareness about solar energy choices on the rise, the market in Karachi also notes a rise in the sales of electrical appliances with built-in inverters. Though they have been widely available in the West, they are slowly flooding the markets here as well along with LED lights and direct current or DC fans.
In order to lower costs while going solar, it is recommended that one first lower their power load by switching to LED lights which consume very little current and have a longer lifespan as well. They may be more expensive but are more economical in the long run. Refrigerators, freezers and air-conditioners with inverters are also becoming more popular, even though they may cost up to 30,000 rupees more than a normal appliance.
The main difference between a power system and inverter appliances is that solar panels provide direct current. Appliances such as LED lights and DC motor fans already use direct current thus eliminating the need for inverters. Appliances with inverters convert steady direct current into AC or alternating current.
In the market, though, there is great hope that solar will be energy of choice among household consumers. It is perhaps the only way citizens can escape the shackles of load-shedding without the need for a messiah. Long live the sun.
The writer is a member of staff and tweets @HasanShazia
Sun of the soil
Syed Ehtesham-ul-Haque is an environment and alternate energy expert from Los Angeles who is in Pakistan these days to create awareness about solar power and how it can really end load-shedding in the country
The shift towards solar power is gathering pace. Why is it considered better than electricity generated by hydro or thermal power plants?
For hydro power, you need to build huge dams. These are typically mega projects that require a lot of money. One also needs huge finances to set up a thermal power plant, which in our case is generally borrowed from overseas. You require big areas, too. And it takes time — perhaps five or six years — till the system comes online.
In comparison, you can have rooftop solar power plants for which you don’t need to run to the bank crying for finance. You can install them in less than two to three months and they will remain operational for a minimum of 20 years. We can adopt rooftop units for houses, commercial areas, day-time offices and for small or even large factories in order to eliminate load-shedding in Pakistan within 12 to 14 months.
Then why hasn’t the move to solar happened on a bigger scale?
Once you decentralise power generation in Pakistan, you empower individuals or the general public. Keeping the masses dependant on the government for their power supply needs is also a plan to get votes. Every time a politician or political party promises the end of power load-shedding, they get votes from the people. We have all heard the current government’s promises of ending load-shedding in the country by 2018. The reality is that it will not even end for five years after that.
Pakistan relies on agriculture but the sector suffers so much due to power issues. But you can run tubewells for land irrigation on solar energy. They run very smoothly on solar power and it is extremely cost effective too. There is a need for creating awareness among the people so that they start adopting solar power by themselves.
The incumbent government has added greater power to the national grid and more power plants are also planned to go on line. So why are you sceptical about load-shedding ending soon?
Our electricity bills have cut down drastically because we now use power from Mepco only occasionally. Earlier, we’d be billed around 30,000 rupees each month but now it barely exceeds 2,000 rupees. Today, the fans in our house, television, fridge, freezer, air-conditioner, washing machine and water pump … all run on free energy.”
Pakistan needs to improve its transmission and distribution grid. So even if you have a lot of power plants but you cannot transmit and distribute power effectively, you come back to the same result — load-shedding.
The losses in the distribution and transmission of power are between 17 and 42 per cent here. This is because transmission lines are old and under capacity, which in turn leads to the losses in transmission. The lines have already outlived their utility. They need to be replaced.
In addition, the transformers are old and consume lot of power. What we need to understand is that unless the government invests heavily on distribution and transmission, the situation will never improve.
And how is solar power going to work here?
For houses, the conversion to solar energy cost for a one-bedroom house which needs two lights and a fan will be less than 35,000 rupees. A slightly bigger two-bedroom home which requires two fans and four lights will cost less than 55,000 rupees including the contractor’s profit.
A two to three bedroom house using 14killowatts [kWh] can reduce its electricity usage down to 8kWh if residents install LED lights and DC fans. Only once your electricity usage is streamlined you should convert to solar.
But imagine this: if every home in a neighbourhood or housing scheme has a small solar system, it can all be joined and fed into the grid. This can benefit others and bring down the cost of energy being bought from power plants and electricity providers.
Earlier this year, the National Electric Power Regulatory Authority [Nepra] gave its approval for the ‘wheeling’ of electric power regulations. The system of making power and selling your surplus power is known as wheeling, which is now allowed by law in Pakistan.
Wheeling paves the way for small and medium-sized power generators to sell power to a consumer or to send power into the grid so that they as well as the others can benefit. This concept is known as ‘Generate locally and distribute globally.’ It has already been adopted by European societies and it works well.
Consider this: suppose the Defence Housing Authority [DHA] as an entity began producing power. Then Clifton Cantonment Board, another entity, generates their power separately. This extra electricity can then combine through a ring and provide power to those consumers who do not generate power. In this manner, we’d be doing away with the need for huge national grids such as the one run by the National Transmission and Despatch Company.
Is it possible for common citizens to earn money by generating their power and selling it on to the national grid? Yes, absolutely. We can have individual producers of power giving back to their power company through two-way meters. Consumers are typically billed the difference in how much electricity they generate and how much they are returning to the grid. This is also known as Feed In Tariff or FIT.
With electronic meters, it is no problem and can be done easily. Wapda [Water and ower Development Authority] in some areas has already started FIT. If the other power companies also adopt the practice, it will be beneficial for them. Perhaps they don’t understand how it operates in practice but the fact is that solar power units will play a big part in FIT if we open our minds. — S.H.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 23rd, 2016