Twin city residents looking for solar options

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on Jul 21, 2013.

Islamabad – On the shop front of Hussain Electronics, an old electronics shop on College Road in Rawalpindi, a handwritten notice is taped to a 2.5-by-5 feet solar panel.

In Urdu, the notice explains to prospective buyers the specifications and potential use of the solar panels for sale at the shop.

Down the road, at Mubeen Electronics, another notice — this one more stern — is fixed 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 at the shop asks about the solar panels, mostly to see if they can afford it,” said Khawaja Muzammil, the manager at Mubeen Electronics.

The same questions repeated again and again can become annoying sometimes, Muzammil said, but he admitted that solar panels are selling out.

Frustrated by power outages and looking for an alternative, residents of the twin cities are considering renewable energy options. The solar power solutions being adopted by domestic users cover a range of price and products. Electronics vendors and companies selling solar power products say the number of customers for solar products in Rawalpindi and Islamabad is showing a rising trend.

Muhammad Farooq, the 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 a solar-powered system and they want to try it out too.”

Tanveer Ahmed, of Tesla Photovoltaics, a solar energy company based out of sector I-10/3, said there is now more awareness about solarization.

“People used to be reluctant before,” Tanveer Ahmed of Tesla Photovoltaics, a solar energy company based out of sector I-10/3, 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. That would require bigger battery reserves and more investment, he said.

Farooq remained tight-lipped about sales and profits. “When there is more load shedding, there are more customers,” he tried to skirt around the issue. Muzammil, however, said that out of every 100 customers at his shop, around 35 buy solar panels and products.

In Rawalpindi, the demand is mainly for the Rs7,500 150-Watt solar panel that can charge a 175 Ampere-Hour UPS battery in four to five hours, in full sunlight conditions. The use of multiple panels brings the charging time down but naturally increases the costs.

In Islamabad, however, domestic users are mostly completely replacing their existing UPS arrangements with solar systems that include panels and battery banks, said Awais Riaz, Sales Engineer of Nizam Energy, a national company that also sells solar products in Islamabad.

Riaz said they sell around one megawatt of solar panels every month, but that also includes commercial use.

The solar panels available at College Road and those sold by Nizam Energy are all imported. Different quality, different countries, different prices.

At Nizam Energy, domestic customers can choose from a range of imported solar panels from the Chinese-manufactured, priced 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 products that run directly on solar power, such as DC fans and LED lights, are also becoming more visible in the markets.

Ahmed said most of the systems Tesla Photovoltaics have installed in Islamabad since February are expensive packages that service heavy loads. The power specifications of these systems are above 4kilowatts (kW) and cost over Rs1 million, he said. The 2kW solar power system starts at 0.3 million.

Riaz said new homebuilders in Islamabad are also looking for alternative energy and energy efficiency solutions. He said they have several customers who have sent them house maps to get an energy efficient design.

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. The Capital Development Authority is also considering of solarization of traffic signals as well as energy efficient street lights through public-private partnership.

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