Dancing in the Dark
2019-04-02 | 8 min read
Solar energy is a viable solution for off-grid communities as photovoltaic technology becomes more affordable and accessible. The future looks bright, backed by global government initiatives for more sustainable power sources and innovations that make solar panels more affordable and accessible.
Each day, my office inbox gets at least a couple of headlines abuzz with news on smart grids and solar photovoltaic (PV) technology. I was glad to receive first-hand updates via my inbox recently, on how PV is making a difference in people’s lives. My friend Aman updated me he was making inroads solarizing impoverished barangays, or village communities in Mindoro, Philippines.
The remote barangays that Aman’s organization serves through the local mayor’s office are entirely off-the-grid. Some remote villages are accessible only by river crossings and muddy trails.
We got to know three barangays first-hand during a humanitarian mission last year to Mindoro. One of the loveliest highlights was a performance by one of the off-the-grid schools. Not used to the steep, slippery uphill trek, the bunch of us urbanites had missed our ETA of 5 pm by two hours, arriving in the dark at the schoolyard.
Unfazed by the lack of light and our tardy arrival, the students sang and danced by candlelight sheltered from the wind in DIY lampshades, while the rest of us danced along off-stage in the dark. Even now, whenever I needed a moment of cheer, I would recall this heart-warming experience.
The school principal, who is also the village chief, told us his barangay was hoping to have access to solar energy one day, “Electricity means light, education, and information. However, for now, an extra diesel generator would help, though that is very expensive to maintain,” he said.
In my urbanized world, I took my 24x7 access to electricity for granted. However, in these off-the-grid communities, limited access to electricity made fuel such as diesel and kerosene a costly commodity.
According to Simon Bransfield-Garth, CEO of Azuri Technologies, the poorest people in the world pay the most for power. “The cost of electricity in the U.S. is something like fifteen cents per kilowatt hour,” said Mr. Bransfield-Garth. “In Africa, the equivalent cost of a kerosene lamp is eight dollars per kilowatt hour.” UK-based Azuri provides solar systems to rural off-grid communities and has one of the largest installed bases in sub-Saharan Africa.
With PV technology becoming more accessible worldwide, organizations are leveraging the portability of solar grids to empower change at the community level.
Aman shared that the vocational institution he works with provides 250 watts via microgrid solar panels for two barangay households, for each trainee who completes the professional training. Coupled with sponsorships from NGOs, he is hopeful to light up 50 homes before end of May 2019.
Mono-crystalline, Polycrystalline or Perovskites?
New solar panel and PV inverter technology are making solar power a much more viable option for off-the-grid communities, including those in tropical areas subject to frequent cloud covers and fierce monsoon storms.
How much electricity each solar panel produces depends on three key things: the solar cells, the efficiency of PV inverters, and the amount of sunlight the panel gets.
A key ingredient used in solar cells is silicon (Si), a non-metallic element with conductive properties. When sunlight touches a silicon cell, it excites the Si electrons, setting them into motion to produce a current of electricity known as the photovoltaic effect.
The most common solar cells are polycrystalline or thin film solar cells, which are cheaper to produce, but less efficient than mono-crystalline solar cells, which are more expensive to produce but generate more energy per unit area.
PV scientists working on ousting fossil fuels and nuclear energy believe they are hot on the trail of disruptive solar technology — lab-grown perovskites. This is a crystalline compound that is produced relatively cheaply while offering the capabilities of current solar cell materials and more.
Researchers are concocting liquid solar cells out of perovskite which sprayed on surfaces — from tarmacs to walls, or even the roofs of electric vehicles to transform them into energy-harnessing grids.
No PV Inverter, No Power-Up
PV inverter technology has come a long way since Jimmy Carter; former U.S. President inaugurated the first White House solar panels in 1979; converting direct current (DC) generated by the solar cells into alternating current (AC) to power up water heaters in the White House.
Innovative design and test solutions, coupled with affordable energy storage systems (ESS) have also helped to make micro inverters much safer, more durable , and affordable.
Rays of Hope Through Technology
Technological improvements in solar cell materials, PV inverters, and ESS, coupled with ground-up initiatives to solarize remote areas, promise rays of hope not just for the barangays of Philippines, but for many villages worldwide.
While dancing in the dark has its elements of magic in it, the presence of light holds the promise of long-term tangible benefits. People can cook dinners under the glow of an LED, children can read in the evening, and families can stay connected through mobile communications and keep in touch with what’s happening in the rest of the world.
Both the dreamer and pragmatist in me believes technological innovations in solar power holds a crucial key to extending these rays of hope.
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