Off-grid solar PV is a rapidly growing market, particularly in emerging economies. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) over 1.3 billion people globally are without access to electricity. More than 95% of these people are either in sub-Saharan Africa or developing Asian countries. Even where a grid power connection is available, supply is often limited -- or there are frequent power outages. Access to electricity could lead to life-saving improvements, be it in the areas of health, communications, or education. But as incomes in emerging markets rise, so does the number of consumers who can afford electrical goods.
Beyond emerging economies and markets, off-grid solar PV also has a place in developed locations. For example, areas of application include barns and sheds in the agricultural sector or energy supply for holiday homes in more remote areas. Advantages of off-grid PV systems compared with grid-connected installations are greater flexibility and mobility.
So far, in emerging economies, many communities and households without access to the grid, or with only limited grid access, have been relying on diesel generators. As the price of diesel increases, off-grid electricity generation is becoming more attractive, even without subsidies or Feed-in Tariffs. The good thing about solar panels is that they don’t have any moving parts that require servicing, and they require no fuel. What’s more, solar PV systems are quiet and clean compared with noisy and polluting diesel generators. They are also much safer than kerosene lamps, which cause health and pollution problems.
Unfortunately, off-grid, rural areas aren’t very enticing for big electricity providers. There is little incentive for them to extend their grid, due to the high cost, poor economics, corruption and red tape.
Off-grid solar PV systems can fill the gap – they can provide a secure energy supply where no reliable public electricity grid is in place, making a significant contribution towards electrification in under-developed areas.
Energy storage and “plug & play” extend off-grid application spectrum. The latest generation of off-grid solar systems comes with batteries. While this makes them more expensive (batteries can add as much as 40 per cent to an off-grid solar system's cost and the batteries will have to be replaced at some point) it also enables them to back up vital energy-dependent areas such as telecommunications, education and health systems and domestic power requirements.
An example for such standalone systems with batteries is the Antaris Solar eKiss (short for “energy – Keep it simple and safe”), a modular PV system that includes a controller box, solar panels and AGM batteries. The system can be adapted to individual power requirements and thus allows for the flexibility that is often necessary for outdoor off grid solutions. It has met interest in Europe but also on the African continent, where Antaris Solar’s sales partners SAF Solaire Africa and Village 21 commissioned the first eKiss in Cameroon in 2012.
What’s important for off-grid solar is good market access and a good product – an off-grid solar PV system has to be robust, have a high output performance and be user-friendly. The goal is “real plug and play”, so that they can be individually aligned to local conditions and put into service without any need for detailed technical knowledge - an electrician is mainly just needed to ground the unit.
Equally important is affordability: access to finance is the main obstacle to the expansion of off-grid solar PV. It may be possible to reduce the cost of off-grid solar systems by increasing the efficiency of electrical appliances -- for example, installing LED light bulbs and newer model refrigerators and computers. However, the initial investment is still a challenge for low income families or poor communities. That’s why off-grid solar systems have attracted the interest of development aid organisations wanting to fund electricity supplies for families and small businesses in rural areas of the developing world.
Read the full article in the January/February issue of Renewable Energy Focus. Subscribe online today!