Tapping Solar Energy for Home Use Set to Become Viable Option

Compact photovoltaic cells allow travellers to recharge mobile phones and laptops from sunlight.

Published: 27-Jan-2004

Going solar to recharge a mobile device or even run household appliances is becoming a viable proposition among campers and rural residents.

Compact photovoltaic cells (PVC) the size of a compact disc pack are getting trendier among travellers who wish to recharge their mobile phones or laptops using the power of the sun.

With prices of solar panels coming down, the Emirates Environmental Group here is pushing solar energy as an alternative to burning fossil fuel to generate electricity.

Another advocate is Dr Alan Dickson, manager of Solstice International LLC in Dubai.

"Solar panels used to be known as expensive battery chargers. But further price reductions with mass manufacturing offers us hope. In some cases, solar photovoltaic cells are not only environmentally sensible but also cost-effective," Dr Dickson said.

He believes that the latest generation of solar electric panels will get solar energy systems out of their previous 'catch-22' situation.

"Solar energy is a proven technology. For decades, it has powered space stations and communication satellites which carry the bulk of international telephone traffic today."

Most people consider solar energy as an expensive proposition especially in a country like the UAE where power is relatively cheap. But the benefits of mass production are only now coming into play.

Although power cost 20 fils per kilowatt-hour against Dh2 for solar, generating solar energy is still visible taking into consideration that the solar panels can be used for cladding in buildings instead of glass, marble or granite.

"When integrated into the building system, solar cladding is cheaper than marble and granite with a similar life expectancy. Under such circumstances, any power generated over the system's life is effectively free," he said.

Several companies around the world have poured huge amounts of money into new methods of creating cheaper but more durable solar panels.

The benefits of this shift, Dr Dickson said, may soon be felt across the world in the form of lower prices for photovoltaic (PV) cells and wider applications – including the idea of energy-efficient homes becoming more of a fashion, than just a green statement.

During the last 20 years, PV technology has largely been caught in a bind: markets will only pick up when module costs decline – but module costs can't decline much until the market grows much larger.

"I've been involved in the environmental movement one way or the other almost all of my life. My forays into solar energy, to be honest, are more of a hobby, although I realise it has potential."

His bread and butter for over a decade remains the pest control business which he set up in 1982. "I've been in Dubai for 24 years. Solar energy here is picking up, but only very slowly. Part of the reason is that power rates here are too low, about one-sixth the peak rates in Japan," he said.

With the cost of silicon PV cells coming down, there's hope that earth-bound applications of solar energy will be more practical.

"Sustainable energy entails a whole different mindset, really. For example, changing light bulbs from tungsten filament to compact fluorescent can save 80 per cent of the energy for the same amount of light. In addition, you also achieve half as much savings in reduced air-conditioning usage."

High efficiency solar panels
* The lightweight and foldable high efficiency solar electric panels are designed to charge any mobile appliance that is chargeable from a vehicle cigarette lighter socket.

* It can be used to charge mobile phones, satellite phones, including Thuraya, rechargeable flashlights and lanterns, laptop computers and personal digital assistants.

* The portable solar chargers are available in three sizes with output from three to 12 watts and in two coverings — khaki and blue.

* The smallest three-watt unit, about Dh175, is suitable for mobile phones, personal digital assistants and Thuraya satellite phones in sunny climates.

* The larger six-watt units offer faster charging or use in areas of lower sunshine and are suitable for larger satellite phones, camping lanterns and other portable appliances.

* The largest 12-watt unit, at about Dh650, offers even faster charging for mobile phones and is suitable for laptop computers — with up to three hours use a day.

* Also, a basic home solar kit could provide power for up to eight hours of night light and four hours of TV.

* Several experimental projects have evaluated the use of photovoltaic cells integrated into parking structures to charge battery-powered, electric vehicles.

* Vehicle-integrated PV (VIPV) units say this is a realistic, near-term possibility for the widespread use of PV as a source of energy for personal transport.

* According to experts, current oil consumption continues to exceed new discoveries.

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