A technology following a similar route as the PC
An article on the Wall Street Journal website this week looks at the measurable trend by American companies to invest in relatively big solar power installations. “Companies are increasingly choosing to generate their own power, rather than buying it from a utility, spurred by falling prices for solar panels and natural gas, and fears of outages” said the world’s biggest business and financial newspaper in their story.
In Namibia, the same trend can be discerned. Whereas solar used to be a luxury installation affordable only by the rich, it has become the norm in large property developments. At most of these project, at least water heating is done by solar geysers or by hybrid systems using both solar power and electricity. The overall aim is to reduce electricity consumption.
But it is not only in domestic dwellings that solar is becoming a popular substitute, the same move is also reflected in the growing number of commercial installations for companies, parastatals and other institutions. Running through a list of the most recent large solar projects, one sees leading names like Namibia Breweries, Woermann & Brock, Agra and many smaller names, on that list. Even parastatals like the NDC recently announced their intention to install a solar power system for their offices in Windhoek.
In addition, there are now several dozen off-grid, so-called hybrid installations in rural areas mostly for pumping water but also to a lesser degree, for basic lighting and light electricity usage.
Perhaps the one project we need to look at in more detail is the Breweries installation at their facility in Windhoek with the aim of reducing their dependence on mains electricity by some 60%. A similar figure was quoted when Agra announced their fairly big installation at their Otjiwarongo branch earlier this year.
The Breweries’ installation is done by Donauer Solartechnik from Germany indicating just how technologically advanced this system is. Donauer said in a statement about a month ago, this is the largest private solar installation on the African continent. Also, the Woermann & Brock installation in Windhoek can be described as an industrial application, again with the aim to reduce the retailer’s dependence on mains by about 60%, at least during the day.
This wave of new solar installations hints at a new future in energy with serious implications for energy utilities and distributors. One of the most elegant features of a solar installations is that it provides energy at source. Thus it removes the need for long transmission lines and the associated energy loss when electricity is transmitted over distance. Another popular feature is that the technology is based on a modular concept i.e. if you need more energy you only need to add more panels, and perhaps fiddle a bit with your invertors, but once the basic installation is in place, the cost saving aspect kicks in immediately and compounds the benefit the longer it is in operation.
The obvious drawback with solar is that it only works while the sun shines. Trying to overcome this limitation, a number of energy storage systems have been developed and are now freely available. Unfortunately, all the commercial applications depend on a rather impressive array of batteries, which are both expensive to procure and to maintain. But that is where the available technology stands now, and despite the costs, more and more companies are choosing this solution.
Make no mistake, a solar installation is still expensive and very much so. Just to provide a very basic 7kW installation sufficient to drive a modern suburban home, one looks at about N$30,000 for the panels alone. All the peripheral elements like invertors, regulators, chargers, low-voltage lighting, and the many smaller components, add up to double that figure. There are not many homes that can afford a N$60,000 installation up front in the hope that over time, the investment will be recouped from the saving on electricity.
But as similar systems become more popular, the cost will come down as can be seen in the dramatic fall in prices of solar panels from China. An indication of the downward pressure on prices is also reflected in the recent complaint with the WTO by German solar manufacturers against their Chinese competitors, accusing them of dumping.
Still, I believe solar is an energy of the future and that eventually, it will have a dramatic impact on the cost of energy. And at some point, I believe the scientists will also solve the storage problem.