As the world reels from the effects of climate change, renewable energy sources are being promoted even more aggressively. This has sometimes resulted in the exaggeration of not just the environmental but also the economic benefits of these systems. Though you are unlikely to meet this in any piece of writing promoting solar power, in some areas with even the most intermittent of power supplies, solar power systems usually prove to be more of an environmental investment than an economic one.

Sure some may argue that the cost of these systems is limited to the initial investment which makes them economical but the same argument can be applied to leasing a building instead of buying or using public transportation instead of buying a car.  In a bid to help cut down greenhouse emissions (and move some green energy merchandise) we are forced to exaggerate the cost savings of these systems. While solar power is certainly great when you completely do not have access to the grid, the truth is that in Zimbabwe, most solar power systems will only recover their cost of purchase and installation after more than 10 years (assuming that utility power is the other alternative).

So low is the demand and adoption of these systems in developed countries that authorities are forced to come up with schemes and incentives that attempt to create what is essentially an artificial demand. These include the power utility paying homes for feeding solar power back into the grid.

If grid power is available even if it is unreliable it may be advantageous for some people and businesses if they just stored some of the power when it is available, for use when it is not. In this way they can completely do away with the need for expensive solar panels. This generally means the use of Uninterruptable Power Supplies (UPSs) which are powered by batteries. Buildings which use such systems for providing their regular power are effectively ‘rechargeable’.

We are not yet off-grid

In most countries, the majority of solar installations do not need batteries because their more reliable power grids allow them to switch to mains power during the night time or at any other time when sunlight is inadequate. Even though Zimbabwe runs into an electricity crisis every few years or so, power cuts seldom last the whole day. The short amount of time during which power would be available is enough for recharging batteries. In addition, some may consider installing a complete solar power system in an area with access to a utility power supply to be an expensive redundancy if there are no other significant advantages to be gained by doing so.

A significant number of people lease or are tenants

In most cases, solar installations are basically home improvements. This means that they can only be carried out by property owners. Unfortunately, a significant portion of individuals and businesses do not own the properties they occupy. This means that they cannot install these systems without permission from the landlord or otherwise forfeiting their security deposits and risking eviction. Storable power systems such as those provided by UPSs are a better fit in these instances.

Outdoor panels are at risk of theft

Solar panels are expensive pieces of equipment whose nature of operation dictates that they are left exposed in the open. This makes them the most vulnerable components in solar systems security-wise. As the adoption of solar power increases and the demand for panels surge, these panels will increasingly become a target of theft attempts. In some instances, strategies and additional devices adopted to protect these panels may drive up the cost of these systems. This problem will be more pronounced for more expensive industrial installations which are more likely to be left unattended overnight and other non-working days. UPS systems are safer since they are placed indoors together with their accompanying batteries.

Built-up areas don’t have enough space for solar

Solar arrays do not cope well with even partial shade; shade causes a massive drop in power output. Unfortunately in built-up areas such as central business districts and other places with tall structures this shade is unavoidable. This reduces the amount of potential sunlight which can be exploited. In multi-storey buildings with several occupants, the roof is usually the only practical place for placing panels but the amount of space on this is usually insignificant compared to that needed by occupants to house enough panels for their power requirements.

Despite all this, the solar power system is still a clear winner in places with no access to the power grid such as farms, mines, homes and other facilities in remote areas. In addition, such systems do indeed reduce you and your organisation’s carbon footprint. It is also your responsibility as a citizen of the world to contribute to the adoption of green energy wherever you can.