Jul 27, 2009

Building a solar future

The path to powering buildings in Pakistan by solar panels is accessible
By Jazib Zahir
Walking around some of the sunny localities of the United States and Western Europe, you will be struck by the ubiquity of solar panels adorning roof tops. The shiny rectangular frames fit snugly within roof tiles and churn out sufficient power to make these units self-sufficient in their electricity needs. Masdar City ensconced within Abu Dhabi is taking the concept a step further: an entire town where the infrastructure is powered entirely by the sun and other renewable sources.
Like the rest of the world, Pakistan has stated a commitment to fulfilling its burgeoning energy needs through environmentally friendly channels. The Alternative Energy Development Board has a stated goal of meeting 15% of our needs through renewable energy by 2010. But the existing legislation only provides subsidies for setting up large scale plants while ignoring smaller but more significant opportunities.
That does not mean that Pakistan has not been able to leverage the sun to power its needs at all. But the deployed solar panels have been limited to isolated areas of the country where they power hand pumps and agricultural machinery. They have just started making their presence felt on streetlights and billboards in cities but there seem to be no plans on the horizon for making them an integral part of building design.
Jehanzeb Muhammad currently works in Germany which has invested heavily in researching and deploying solar power based systems in individual houses. "It's a pretty common solution here with the costs having plummeted over the last 2 years," he says. He points out that the major utility of solar panels has been found to be for heating purposes rather than standard electricity storage and distribution. The popularity of such solutions was initially limited to the rural areas but now they are gaining traction in urban areas since aesthetically pleasing designs and discrete fittings have been made available.
Zeeshan Iqbal is a graduate of National College of Arts architecture program who investigated the fitting of solar power into building structures in Pakistan as part of his thesis. He says that solar panels can be an effective power solution on large houses with vast roof space but many urban houses are small and have limited area over which they can harness power from the sun. He is also wary of climatic constraints that may limit the efficacy of such solutions in Pakistan. While it is true that Pakistan receives abundant sunlight, cities that suffer from abundant dust, fog and overcast conditions are not ideal places to set up such systems.
But experts universally accept that the major constraint to the ubiquity of solar panels is the exorbitant cost behind setting them up. Syed Nabeel Hasnain works as a business analyst for Optisolar in the United States which is attempting to popularise such solutions in residences. He is aware that the initial costs of setting up and maintaining such a system tend to be exorbitant but thinks Pakistan could look into using Chinese manufactured components that result in significant savings.
Nabeel also suggests Pakistan consider using the business models that have been popularised around the world to encourage people to deploy solar panels. One major model involves giving a leasing option to users so that the investment can be spread over a much longer duration. He points out that the lifetime of such panels tends to be about 25 years so the cost is justified but having to part with it in one go is too much for many consumers.
A second model popularised in the United States involves government subsidy of the initial panels. This is coupled with power purchase agreements by which excess power from panels is sold on to the National Grid at pre-defined tariffs. This ensures that spare capacity of panels does not go waste and allows buildings to serve as individual power stations.
Jehanzeb Akbar who works as an engineer at Mobilink suggests that the limiting factor behind the blossoming of this industry in Pakistan is the availability of an adequate support and maintenance infrastructure. He says that it is becoming increasingly common for solar panels to be incorporated into telecommunication towers but if such solutions were to become an integral part of buildings and homes, a new industry would need to spring up to cater to its needs. He says that users in the United States even have internet based tools by which they can calculate their cost savings by using solar panels depending on their geographic location. He feels that university campuses can set an example by powering themselves through solar panels and others will tend to follow.
The practicality of this approach to powering buildings and homes seems to be accepted. It will take a few brave and entrepreneurial individuals to take the lead and show others how it can be done. But most critically giving every building a chance to power itself needs to be a government priority. This approach is likely to prove more efficient and less controversial than pursuing larger dams and dwindling fossil fuel reserves.

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