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Page added on December 24, 2014

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Solar Panel Maintenance Poses Unforeseen Challenge in Developing World

Alternative Energy

In an ideal world, it would be an affordable and practical solution for new electrical generation installations in developing nations to be fueled by low-carbon sources, such as solar, wind, and hydropower.  Solar seems perfect for nations with lots of sun exposure, and no efficient way of bringing the traditional electric grid to remote locations. However, there are many unexpected challenges with solar electrification that entrepreneurs are learning about while doing business in these developing nations, including installation and maintenance, infrastructure, and financing. Installation and maintenance, in particular, is often underemphasized, but it is just as important as the other challenges that make solar-powered electrification a tricky prospect.

One major hurdle for installing solar panels is the lack of skilled workers to do the job. Customers for solar panel installations could range from hospitals requiring over 20 kilowatts of power to small villages needing less than 500 watts to power the entire village. Some training is necessary to understand the complexities of these systems. This problem is being approached in a few different ways. Some companies are hiring and training dedicated installation crews to travel around vast areas doing the work. The problem with this arrangement, though, is that traveling between job sites is inefficient, and any downtime becomes very costly for companies trying to keep dedicated crews on payroll. On the other hand, if these companies hire independent installation crews then ensuring quality standards is harder to do. Also, companies are at the whim of the rates that the independent crews set. Not to mention, in some areas there are no independent installation crews for hire. However, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) is stepping in to help. Recently, in Mali, the UNDP paid for the training of female solar technicians to perform installation, maintenance, and service for their entire village. Not only does this solve one of the difficult problems with solar installations, but the training also provides an economic boost for the entire village. Women are now able to earn a living wage to help further support their families.

Another challenge has to do with how transactions to purchase solar panels are structured. Most solar panel installations are a one-time transaction where a customer pays for the panels, equipment and the installation. The company delivers these products, then either installs the panels themselves or hires independent installers. In these deals, it is often unclear who will pay for maintenance when the solar panels break down. Many companies have little financial capacity to bring repair technicians out to remote locations years later to service panels (aside from reputation and customer satisfaction, which some corporations are not necessarily interested in), since most are struggling to make money as it is. Customers are often not in a position to pay much extra for maintenance either since they already paid a large up-front premium for the installation. Hospitals, schools, and businesses cannot afford to continue pouring money into solar systems that unexpectedly break down after two years, when they were supposed to work for twenty years.  But if no one is able or willing to pay for maintenance, the panels go unused and wasted.

Also wasted are the high hopes and expectations of the people who purchased the products. Because solar panels can be a novel technology in remote areas, if one person in a small village has a negative experience with solar, it is likely that others in the village will dismiss it. Entrepreneurs should not rush into high-minded plans of remote rural electrification unless they can ensure a very pleasurable and positive experience, because they might spoil the market for future years. If people are skeptical of solar, then they will continue to fall back on outdated diesel generators, which need just as much maintenance and costly fuel. Not to mention, these generators perpetuate adverse climate effects by pouring CO2 into the atmosphere. For these reasons it is especially important for like-minded entrepreneurs to share successful strategies and business models to tackle the problem of remote rural electrification and maintenance.

Currently there are some success stories in the field such as Devergy, and Bboxx that have done a commendable job addressing installation and maintenance issues. Devergy operates by training dedicated workers to service a village-wide micro-grid consisting of a few solar panels. Most entire village installations are not more than one kilowatt. Devergy installs smart meters and the villagers pay for their usage via mobile money. They essentially operate like a modern utility company.

Another wonderful company, Bboxx, uses extensive tracking and monitoring on all of their products to ensure safe delivery and operation for years. These companies show that despite the financial and logistical challenges, it is possible to build installation and maintenance into a successful business model. Bboxx, like other successful companies, provide ample training to locals so that the community can be involved. With better means of sharing best practices and effective models, hopefully future solar companies operating in the developing world can avoid prior mistakes and more efficiently extend access to power to the people they are serving.

 

Energy Collective



19 Comments on "Solar Panel Maintenance Poses Unforeseen Challenge in Developing World"

  1. ghung on Wed, 24th Dec 2014 10:11 am 

    …”then they will continue to fall back on outdated diesel generators, which need just as much maintenance…”

    Uh,, our diesel genny, a fairly robust and common Mitsubishi water-cooled 3-cyl, has required almost infinitely more maintenance than our PV system. No comparison. In almost 20 years, our PV system has needed virtually no maintenance beyond an occasional cleaning; like washing windows. Batteries? Periodic check, washing watering. My 10 year old grandson could do any of these things with a few minutes of instruction. Jeez, our woodstove requires far more maintenance than our PV system.

    Barring some sort of failure, usually easily identified and rare in my experience, PV is about the most maintenance-free energy source I know of.

  2. bobinget on Wed, 24th Dec 2014 10:21 am 

    In twelve years experience with my 8 KW solar array
    my only maintaince consisted of using a low powered pressure washer for dust removal..
    (it hardly ever rains during summer months)

    Cleaning massive arrays can be accomplished using
    anyone who has ever washed a window. It’s not more complicated then that.

    There can be inverter problems. Provided of course
    third world users are bothering to convert DC.

    Inverters these days come with up to fifteen year warrantees. (mine had only five)

    Compare a grade school skill set needed to wash
    windows or heft 100 pound panels up ladders to
    maintaining a conventional power plant, never mind
    nuclear or complicated, wind power moving parts
    and electronics. (pass a wind farm and I’ll bet you will see several machines idle).

    In part day, partial shade installations, most installers now are using ‘micro inverters’ one on each panel. Unlike old Christmas tree lights, if one
    panel drops out, the entire system loses only that output. 100 panels, one percent lost.

    I found this article anti solar, disinformative and racially charged.

  3. bobinget on Wed, 24th Dec 2014 10:44 am 

    ghung, funny you should mention your 10 yr old grandson.
    During WW/2 my dad away at war, this six year old was given the job of washing our solar hot water
    heater. These were common in prewar South Florida. Ours was on a brand new $5,500 duplex no less, grandma lived next door. As I recall we had no back-up water heater so mom made sure I kept the 4×8 single solar water heater sparkling.
    (she BS me into believing I was helping the “war effort”).

  4. Kenz300 on Wed, 24th Dec 2014 11:01 am 

    ” Chile has been astute in taking advantage of these cost trends to build its renewables sector. It is ensuring that costs come down through competition by staging a series of auctions for renewable power licenses — the latest just this past week, coinciding with the Chile-Australia Business Forum. No fewer than 17 projects were solicited, with costs coming down to US$80 per megawatt hour (a bid by Santiago Solar). In contrast new coal-fired power plants are estimated by the U.S. Energy Information Administration to cost on average US$95.”

    Renewable energy —- safer, cleaner and cheaper

    ————————–

    Chile’s Mines Set Hot Pace for Renewables — Australia Take Note

    http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/news/article/2014/12/chiles-mines-set-hot-pace-on-renewables-australia-take-note

  5. Makati1 on Wed, 24th Dec 2014 6:55 pm 

    Solar made 10 years ago or more are likely to be better built than those built today or in the future. That is the trend for all manufactured items. Planned obsolescence. But, they are only an extender of the oil age, not a replacement. Not only will maintenance men be scarce after, materials to repair/replace will be absent.

    We are putting a system on our house on the farm, but it is not likely to last more than 20 years and the converter even less. We have no problems with keeping it clean as it rains there frequently, (10 ft. per year) but many places in the world will not have water to waste on such things.

  6. JuanP on Thu, 25th Dec 2014 9:26 am 

    This article is a load of crap from beginning to end. The writer probably has no personal knowledge of or experience with electricity, PVs and solar water heating tanks. Solar water tanks and PVs are no brainers in the tropics and require very little maintenance. Repairs are easy to do. This guy seems to think that people in developing countries lack the brains to do this. Bullshit!

    I used a solar shower and PVs on my sailboats for almost 20 years with absolutely no problems. I own a few small systems right now.

    The only redeeming feature of this article is the link they provided. I suggest skipping this crap and reading this instead, http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/ourwork/environmentandenergy/successstories/l_energie_solaireaumaliunmiraclepourlesfemmes/

  7. surf on Thu, 25th Dec 2014 7:09 pm 

    PV pannels are like light bulbs if it fails you replace it. You cannot fix a PV pannel.

    The inverter needed to go from DC to AC. They can be installed by a qualified electrician. Replacement of a failed inverter is easier than a new install. That said the reliability of inverters has improved dramatically in the last 10 years. They are now approaching the reliability of refrigerators.

  8. Makati1 on Thu, 25th Dec 2014 7:37 pm 

    surf, you are correct, but … the ability to buy another converter is going to be depressingly unlikely when yours burns out. Ditto for new panels. You assume that in 10-20 years they will still be making them. I would bet real money that they will be only memories in less than that. We shall see.

    BTW: Refrigerators used to last 30 years or more when I was a kid. Then the corporations realized they could sell more if they cut that lifetime to 7-10 years. Ditto for EVERYTHING manufactured since then, for profit.

  9. bobinget on Fri, 26th Dec 2014 10:11 am 

    In fact PV panels are made better today then in the past. Breaking glass was a problem before so called
    “Guerrilla Glass”. The same type of temper found on newer smart phones.
    At one Portland,OR testing facility they launch softball sized ice balls at panels to demonstrate
    durability.

    PV output degradation is on a slow downward curve. Depending on how far south (or north)
    they are located. I will eventually trade my old
    panels in for newer. My plan is to move old panels
    to a barn/workshop where most of the action is in daylight. If a person has enough real-estate, recycling older, less powerful panels should not be an issue. Thirty year old panels, like an older husband, still put out but not so much.

  10. GregT on Fri, 26th Dec 2014 12:14 pm 

    They are now approaching the reliability of refrigerators.

    My parents still have a refrigerator out in their garage, that was manufactured back in the fifties. The fridge in my kitchen is ten years old this year. It has already been repaired twice.

    Solar power is not a stand alone option up here in the Pacific Northwest. Electricity is needed the most during periods when the Sun doesn’t shine. While a great option for those living closer to the equator, those are the areas deemed most likely to become inhospitable in the decades to come.

    Solar generated electricity is a must have transitional energy source, but it will do nothing to solve the liquid fuels crisis that we face. Our world is going to get a whole lot bigger once again. Learn how to make do with much less, much closer to home. Get out of largely populated areas now, while the option is still available.

  11. Joe Clarkson on Fri, 26th Dec 2014 5:45 pm 

    As someone who has been a site manager for the installation of different sizes of solar systems in a developing country (Fiji, late 1990s through early 2000s), I concur with the gist of this article. Although it is not the solar panels themselves that are problematic, just about everything else is.

    One project I was involved with provided a 100W PV array, a battery charge controller, a magnetic card reader and wiring for four 11W CFL bulbs to each home (plus the bulbs themselves). Each homeowner leased the use of the system by purchasing a magnetic card every month at the local post office. They were paying about $1.00 per useful kWh and were happy to do so, since the amount and quality of illumination was superior to and cheaper than kerosene lamps.

    Now for the problems. The PV system user did not own the system and was forbidden from maintaining it. This was to allow the charge and load control system to protect the battery from constant over-discharge. This meant that a technician had to periodically visit each of several hundred homes and water the battery, since low cost maintenance free batteries were not available and the charge controller was set up for only flooded batteries anyway.

    Since the political situation in Fiji was constantly in flux, it was difficult to ensure that revenue from the project actually went to PV system maintenance and equipment replacement.

    In addition, government employees overseeing the project were constantly moving on to other positions and leaving management to a new employee that knew little about the project.

    This same problem was at the heart of the failure of a village power system we also installed (40kW PV, 80kW Bergey wind turbines, 100kW inverter and large 240V battery bank). Every time we trained a Public Works crew on maintenance of the system, they would leave for the private sector or some other government agency.

    The upshot of these and other problems was that the small solar systems and the big hybrid system just gradually decayed and then stopped working after a few years.

    Without direct owner involvement and investment in the maintenance of a system, it probably will not be maintained. The same is true if the owner is a developing country government.

    Private PV system owners who supply electricity for a fee, as discussed in the post, have a much better chance for success. We wanted to try that paradigm in Fiji, but couldn’t find a suitable electric meter. For very low fractional kWh sales, the meter needs to have an ultra-low parasitic load while in operation.

    On the other hand, in the neighborhood I live in there are 24 off-grid homes on my street. Most of them have standard off-grid PV systems with generator backup. Some are installed at the homes of doctors and lawyers who would not know which end of a screwdriver to hold. But there is plenty of expertise available for hire, parts are abundant and cheap in relation to income, so all of these systems are well maintained and people pay them little mind.

    Another thing to remember is that even in developing countries they have decades of experience with diesels and have an extensive maintenance and parts infrastructure, which is a big advantage over the relatively new solar industry. As solar becomes more and more common, the parts and repair systems for solar systems will become more available. Since solar is actually more cost effective and reliable than diesel, it will gradually take over all off-grid power production.

  12. sunweb on Fri, 26th Dec 2014 6:47 pm 

    How do we want to use the electricity from solar and wind energy capturing devices?
    This isn’t a trick question. There is no hidden trap.
    It however is a question that I ask of promoters of these devices and I get no answer.
    So it is business as usual. Put up as many wind turbines and solar collecting devices as the earth can bear. Build all the auxiliary equipment to run these devices. Consume by mining, refining, fabricating, manufacturing and transporting all the toys and tools we want to use.
    Lament climate change but blind yourself to the energy and resource needs of these devices.
    Call yourself green. Call yourself renewable. Call yourself sustainable.

  13. Joe Clarkson on Fri, 26th Dec 2014 8:54 pm 

    sunweb,

    Most of the people our projects served in Fiji (please see my comment above) used about 1/100th the amount of electricity as a typical American. Even that small amount greatly enhanced their lives.

    Most off-grid folks in the US did just fine using 1/10th as much electricity as a typical American. That was true for me for most of my adult life. Recently, with PV modules getting so cheap, my array size has grown and so has my electrical usage. Now I use about 1/5th as much.

    Residential electricity is easy to convert to solar. People will find that their lives do not change much by using a small fraction of the amount they were used to using. Don’t worry about BAU for residential electricity.

    Transportation is a completely different matter. I see no solar substitutes for that.

  14. Makati1 on Sat, 27th Dec 2014 8:45 am 

    Say what you will, but the replacements will NOT be available in 20 years or even less. Why? We have reached peak industrialization/tech and it is based on very complex systems built and maintained with cheap plentiful oil power.

    A simple asphalt road is a complex system, and requires machines, materials and energy in huge amounts to maintain. Even more so for concrete highways. ( A cubic yard of concrete, in place, takes a barrel of oil energy.) You will not get your new panels if the roads to carry them are gone. Ditto for maintaining huge wind mills, hydro power equipment, etc. Not to mention the hundreds of US bridges that are already being closed due to their unmaintained fragility.

    No, the system to support “green/renewable” is disappearing with the disappearance of cheap, plentiful, high net energy oil. (Be patient, today’s low prices are not going to last.) The next economic tsunami could end all of it overnight. Tomorrow? Next year? Who knows?

  15. Joe Clarkson on Sat, 27th Dec 2014 1:31 pm 

    Makati1,

    You are absolutely correct. In fact, replacements may become scarce well before 20 years, depending on how long the world financial system hangs together.

    However, with a little stockpiling of spares and the right battery a home solar system should be able to keep the lights on for 50 years or so, far longer than the grid will last. Better get your gear while the equipment is still available. After that, get a mule.

  16. GregT on Sat, 27th Dec 2014 4:34 pm 

    “However, with a little stockpiling of spares and the right battery a home solar system should be able to keep the lights on for 50 years or so”

    Correct. Solar will do little more than ‘keep the lights on’ in the coming decades. All electronics have useful lifetimes. Most built today will not last for twenty years. Stock up on lightbulbs, batteries, and spare parts now. At some point in the not-so-distant future, they will no longer be available to most.

  17. Harquebus on Sat, 27th Dec 2014 4:45 pm 

    Solar panels can not be made without fossil fuels. As economies decay, manufacturing solar panels will become uneconomical because, they do not return the total energy used to manufacture them. This fact will become evident as fossil deplete.

  18. Nony on Sat, 27th Dec 2014 5:06 pm 

    GregT: and ammo and duct tape. And bicycin’ and recyclin’

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TWC6W1ctkMY

    🙂

  19. Kenz300 on Sat, 27th Dec 2014 5:30 pm 

    The cost of alternative energy sources keeps dropping every year making them more and more competitive with fossil fuels.

    Dizzying Renewable Energy Price Declines Can Help States Meet Ambitious Carbon Targets Under The EPA’s Clean Power Plan

    http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/news/article/2014/12/dizzying-renewable-energy-price-declines-can-help-states-meet-ambitious-carbon-targets-under-the-epas-clean-power-plan

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