Feature article: Tapping energy from the sun

solar panelsBy: Azvar A. Khan (Mr.)

In these days of escalating oil prices, it’s becoming extremely difficult for a common citizen to pay off his/her monthly electricity bills. The bills keep soaring day by day and there seems to be no respite in the foreseeable future. Hence, there’s a need to reduce these bills by resorting to other methods of generating electricity, solar being one of them.

This article dwells on the use of solar energy for cutting your electricity bills and discusses ways and means how to achieve this end.

The use of solar energy for the generation of electricity is not something new. Most of the countries have been doing it successfully for decades. This is because a solar system has many benefits. It allows you to produce your own electricity with no noise as it involves no moving parts and produces zero air pollution. Moreover, this system would never run out of fuel (sun light), and its use would result in reducing the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted by coal and natural gas-fired power plants.

But, to most of the people, it may still look like a mystery as to how sun’s light could be used to generate electricity that could be utilized to light our homes, run our fans, provide power to our fridges and microwave ovens, assist in warming swimming pools and houses, heat water, provide power to our garden lights and street lights, run TVs and computers, and extract water from the sub-soil as deep as 600 feet or even more for irrigation purposes.

The basic item required to generate electricity from the sun is a solar cell, approximately 2 inches x 1 inch in dimension (available in other dimensions and shapes as well). The solar cells are called photovoltaics (PV); the word Photo meaning light and votaics meaning electricity. These cells numbering 80 to 100 (or even more or less) are pasted on a tampered glass sheet whose dimensions are generally 2 feet x 5 feet. The glass sheet with cells pasted on it and inter-connected, is called a solar panel or solar module. This is the item that you generally see mounted on the roof tops of the houses and generating electricity. Solar cells convert the sun’s energy into a DC electron flow which is nothing but electric current. We use an inverter to convert this DC output of the solar panel to standard 120 or 240 volt AC electricity that’s suitable for use by our household appliances. We can also give the output (surplus to our requirement) from the inverter to the utility grid and sell it to the local utility company and earn revenues. For the information of the readers, it may be clarified that it’s the sun’s light and not its heat that produces electricity. The more panels are used, the more electricity is produced. A complete solar system comprises a solar panel, a battery for energy storage purposes, an inverter for converting DC voltage into AC and some other items like connectors, cables, etc. The life of a solar panel is approximately 20 to 25 years!

To give you an example of the use of solar energy, you must have noticed solar panels installed on poles along with the telephone booths while commuting on the motorway of your country.

Each of these telephones is being powered by a solar panel with a battery installed with this panel to store energy for keeping the telephone working during night when there’s no sun light. It’s a stand-alone system, entirely powered by solar energy. During emergency, the commuters make use of these telephones and call for help.

To give you another example, the same panels have also been installed on the existing high electric poles to provide power to the hazard lights installed on these poles. Each of these lights is being powered by a stand-alone solar system.

Some of you must be aware that the region of Nevarra in Spain meets 70 per cent of its electricity needs through solar and wind energy. And, please note, that this region doesn’t have any coal, gas or oil of its own. It’s really a classic example of making the best use of renewable energy in any country of the world! But, the question that automatically crops up one’s mind is: “If it can be done in Spain, why can’t it be done in any other country?” The answer is a big “IT CAN!”

If you opt to go for solar energy in a big way in your country, you would be using solar panels not in hundreds or thousands, but in millions! To import such a huge quantity of solar panels would neither be advisable nor cost-effective. Hence, there would be no other option but to manufacture solar panels in your own country. I would rather recommend that not only solar panels but also solar cells be manufactured indigenously in order to gain complete independence from foreign sources.

It may be mentioned that the raw material utilized in the manufacture of solar cells comprises quartz and silica. In my country (Pakistan), this raw material is in inexhaustible quantities. The villagers, ignorant about its real value, are raising walls of their houses using quartz instead of bricks! This raw material is purified and developed to a stage where it could be utilized for the manufacture of solar cells. The machinery utilized to develop and purify this raw material to that stage could be imported which would be a one-time investment only. The engineers and technicians would be sent by the supplier along with the machinery to train your manpower locally. Here, I would like to sound a note of caution! Please do not curtail the training period of your manpower on your own. Make the best use of the manufacturer’s trainers till your people get complete confidence on the usage of the machinery and removal of minor defects. Let’s not be tempted to follow the age old maxim, “Penny wise, pound foolish!”

While starting manufacturing of solar panels, it would be advisable if it’s done in collaboration with a world-renowned company in the beginning. India has done the same when it ventured into the manufacture of wind turbines. It had a joint venture with a company that has 26,000 turbines to its credit! This company has a name in wind turbine industry and its turbines are being used the world over! If we use the same strategy for the production of solar panels, the country would get the latest solar technology besides getting its manpower trained on this technology by the manufacturers.

While selecting solar panels, we shouldn’t be that choosy; the main thing to be seen is as to how much cost you would be paying for per watt of power produced by these panels and the length of the warranty provided by the supplier for the panels. Here I may mention that one of my friends in Europe had purchased a solar panel from a reputable company and he was provided with a warranty of 25 years. The panel failed after its use for eleven years (a very rare case as the panels generally do not fail). My friend returned the panel to the company that promptly replaced it with a new one.
When we talk of solar energy, the consumer is mostly interested to know as to how much cost would be involved if he purchases a solar system? It may be mentioned that the cost of solar energy (installed) would be about $10 to $12 per watt. But, there’re companies in China and India that are offering their products and services at much lower rates. You may also be entitled to some incentives from the government. For determining your monthly usage of electricity, you can see your monthly electricity bill. But, for the information of the general public, a complete solar package covering all the gadgets of a house would cost around US $ 18,000 to 20,000. As you keep increasing the list of your electrical appliances to be connected to your solar system, you will add solar panels to your solar system with the same ratio. When you increase the number of solar panels, you’ll have to increase the number of batteries as well in your battery bank.

But, if we make use of solar energy intelligently, we can bring down our electricity consumption to a great extent. I’ll give you a few examples. Regarding our computer usage, we can use a laptop instead of using a desktop computer as a laptop uses negligible energy as compared to a desktop. Coming to lights, we can use energy savers instead of tube lights. Also, we can use fluorescent lights instead of incandescent ones. About TV, we can use a B & W TV instead of a large colour TV. Also, instead of using a large refrigerator, we can go for a small and efficient refrigerator. By doing this energy management, we can cut down the size and cost of our solar panels thus bringing an overall reduction in the consumption of electricity.

There are countries where people using solar energy have covered the entire roof tops of their houses with solar panels as these roof tops are otherwise of no utility to them. They’re generating electricity which is meeting, if not full, at least a major part of their electricity requirements.
Regarding installation of solar panels, you must hire the services of a professional installer as the said installer has a long experience in the field and he will not damage your roof. For further safety, you can get your solar panels insured through your insurance company just like any other item of your house. In case you are building a new home, you should design it with passive solar design concepts and build it with a roof at the correct angle. These days, solar cell arrays are being integrated into building elements such as roofs of the houses.

Once, a solar panel has been installed, it’s not to be left on its own as it also requires some maintenance. But, its maintenance is very simple like checking the water in the battery (ies) monthly and keeping the panels clean by wiping them with a soft cloth. It would make them more efficient as they would then receive as much sun light as possible.

In some countries, solar systems have become so popular that they are being used as a permanent source of income for the people especially the senior citizens who are investing their pension money in solar parks. There are thousands of solar panels in such parks and these panels are connected to tracking devices that generate up to 40% more energy than fixed systems as sun light always falls directly over these panels.

There’re 500-600 investors in one solar park, each of whom owns one or two large solar panels in that park. The income generated from these panels adds to their pension and is guaranteed to be regularly paid by the utility company for 25 years. The cost of such panels is substantially reduced with a tax concession from the government. As the annual income from this investment is guaranteed, there is a long waiting list of willing investors. The good news about these panels is that more and more people are investing in a clean energy future that only the sun can provide.

We can capture the power of the sun by using solar collectors which are much less expensive as they do not use any solar panels to generate electricity. Instead, each cooker uses a concave mirror to reflect and concentrate sun’s heat to a focal point where the cooker is placed. Some other types of solar cookers are also available. Solar cookers are being used extensively in refugee camps of Chad for preparation of food by nearly 90 percent of the families living over there. Earlier, the women folk used to go out and bring wood for this purpose. With the arrival of the solar cookers, the women no longer travel out into the thorn-bush desert to collect wood. Some 6,000 portable solar cookers have been given out to the refugees. Just imagine how much wood would have been required to cook food for more than 17,000 Darfur refugees if somebody hadn’t thought of utilizing solar energy for this purpose!
To conclude, it can be said that solar energy is one of the most viable options of renewable energy. Even countries with less sun light are making the best use of this inexhaustible resource. If we don’t make use of this energy now, then it would just be a matter of time when oil would be touching $ 200 a barrel and there would be with no option left but to grab every opportunity to generate electricity from any available source, we can lay our hands on! To produce cheap solar power, we should opt for the manufacture of solar panels including solar cells in country. It’s said that if enough solar panels using locally produced cheaper solar cells are installed and energy efficiencies are ensured, the home owners can receive a zero power bill!

About the author

Mr. Azfar A Khan has put in 31 years in technical management field. He has been involved with various projects in collaboration with international reputable firms like SAGEM of France, FIAR of Italy and CEIEC of China. He has hands-on experience of being a consultant for ISO-9001 Quality Management System with numerous public and private sector companies. These days, he is involved in providing training and conducts courses on wind energy, solar energy, ISO 9001, ISO 14001, OHSAS 18001, SA 8000 and Internal Auditing. For more information, kindly contact Mr. Azfar A Khan at: azfar44@hotmail.com
Azfar A Khan (Mr.),
E-mail: azfar44@hotmail.com

21, St 5, Rawalpindi, Pakistan
Tel: +92-51-4470026;
Cell: +92-300-5122864

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