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In need of alternatives: Twin cities’ residents find solace in solar energy

Outside an old electronics store on College Road in Rawalpindi, a handwritten notice is taped to a 2.5-by-5 foot solar panel.

In Urdu, the notice explains to prospective buyers the specifications and potential use of solar panels for sale at the shop.Down the road, at Mubeen Electronics, another notice — this one more stern — is attached to a solar panel behind the counter. “People who need more detailed information about solar panels will be charged a 2.5 per cent fee,” the notice reads. “Every customer who stops by the shop asks about the solar panels, mostly to see if they can afford it,” said Mubeen Electronics Manager Khawaja Muzammil.

Frustrated by power outages and looking for an alternative, the twin cities’ residents are considering renewable energy options. The solar power solutions being adopted by domestic users cover a range of prices and products. Muhammad Farooq, a wily, grey-bearded proprietor of Hussain Electronics, said business has picked up in the past couple of years. “We are a nation of followers,” Farooq said. “People watch others using solar power and they want to try it out too.”

Tanveer Ahmed, an employee of Tesla Photovoltaics, a solar energy company based out of Sector I-10/3, said there is now more awareness about solarisation. “People used to be reluctant before,” Ahmed said. “But customer confidence has improved because you see domestic solar systems installed successfully.” He said people are mostly concerned about powering their homes at night, which requires bigger battery reserves and more investment.

Farooq remained tight-lipped about sales and profits. “When there is more loadshedding, there are more customers,” he said. Muzammil, however, said of every 100 customers at his shop, around 35 buy solar panels and products.

In Rawalpindi, demand is mainly for the Rs7,500 150-watt solar panel that can charge a 175 ampere-hour uninterrupted power supply (UPS) battery in four to five hours, in full sunlight. The use of multiple panels brings the charging time down but increases costs.

In Islamabad, however, most domestic users are replacing their UPS with solar systems that include panels and battery banks, said Awais Riaz, sales engineer at Nizam Energy, a national company that sells solar products in the capital. We sell around one megawatt of solar panels every month, including those for commercial use, he added. “New homebuilders in the capital are also looking for alternative energy efficient solutions.”

The solar panels available at College Road and those sold by Nizam Energy are all imported. At Nizam Energy, customers can choose from a range of imported solar panels from the Chinese-manufactured, priced at around Rs280 per watt, to the German-made that cost Rs340 per watt.

Solar systems require charge controllers and inverters to run alternating current products such as the regular lights and fans used in homes. But direct current (DC) products that run directly on solar power, such as DC fans and LED lights, are also now available in markets.

Ahmed said most of the systems Tesla Photovoltaics have installed in the capital since February are expensive packages that service heavy loads. The power specifications of these systems are above four kilowatts (kW) and cost over Rs1 million, he said. The 2kW solar power system starts at Rs300,000.

The use of solar energy is also getting reflected in public policy. The Punjab government has recently expressed interest in using solar panels to supplement the power supply at public hospitals.

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