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Sunshine solutions

By Shahzada Irfan Ahmed

Pedestrians walking along the busy Hall Road in Lahore often come across shining bluish sheets in some showcases. But most of these people are unaware of the fact that these sheets offer something for which they are ready to block roads, pelt stones at law enforcers and put themselves at risk: energy.

Like other parts of the country, Lahore is also seriously mulling over alternate energy solutions and the latest fad is solar energy. The bluish sheets on Hall Road are photoelectric or photovoltaic panels that convert the sun’s light and heat into energy. And among the diehard fans of solar energy is Muhammad Ramzan, proprietor of Prime Corporation.

Helped by a team of seven professionals comprising a mechanical engineer and two electrical engineers, Ramzan claims to offer turnkey solutions to his clients that suit their pockets and their energy needs. The hottest sellers in his shop are systems for running ACs, fridges and washing machines. (“The system that will run a one-tonne AC on solar power will cost approximately Rs350,000. But it will also run a number of fans, lights and other energy efficient equipment”.)

The primary argument in favour of solar panels pitched by retailers is that it’s a “one-time expense”. “Quality solar panels come with a 25-year guarantee and deep cycle gel batteries with a lifespan of 10 to 15 years,” says Ramzan. Once upon a time, consumers said they didn’t have the space to install bulky panels. No more: solar panels capable of producing 100 watts of energy need just 0.8 square meters. “A system producing 1,000 watts system needs just eight square meters, which is reduced further by the fact that these panels don’t lie flat and are to be tilted at a 45-degree angle,” he says. Ramzan should know what he’s talking about: before he set up his shop, he was the electrical supervisor at Sapphire Textiles for 20 years.

Meanwhile, technological developments in the field are also throwing up interesting spin-offs. “There’s now a complete range of solar power-friendly hybrid products in the market,” says Ramzan. “These include hybrid ACs which consume 4.5 amperes instead of the 10 to 12 amperes consumed by traditional ACs.”

That Ramzan is a true convert shows in the fact that his own 125-yard house runs mostly on solar power. A 700-watt system powers all the lights, fans, a small fridge, a television as well as a computer. “When I bought it, it cost me Rs250,000 but prices are lower now,” he says.

Today, it takes about $1.6 to produce a watt of energy (solar panels are priced according to this basic calculation). However, just six months ago, the same watt would have cost $2.2. “The main reason for this decrease is increased demand and competition in this field,” says Ramzan, who is hoping for the decline to pump up his business and fortunes.

Solar energy is even cheaper for those who want electricity only during day time, say retailers. Schools and offices, for example, can do away with the expensive storage batteries and simply install solar panels on the roof and link fans and lights to them.

There are other retailers, however, who say costs for consumers in Pakistan are slightly higher than in other countries because customs officials fleece importers of solar panels and other related products. “We provide them certificates issued by the Alternate Energy Development Board (AEDB) but even then they charge duties from us or ask for money to clear our consignments,” says one importer who insisted on anonymity. The best place to buy solar panels is China, he says, and even Germany and the US are placing their orders there.

While the average consumer dithers over the cost, the NGO sector is proving more adventurous. “We have powered whole villages with solar power which I think is one of the best ways to empower them,” maintains Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund’s senior executive Ghulam Haider. “They are content even if they have enough power to run a fan and a light or two.”

The writer is a staff member.

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