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01.04.2020, Mark Hankins

Why Solar PV Systems in the Humanitarian Sector Fail (and what players can do to better manage them)

Humanitarian agencies have a poor record when it comes to installing and maintaining off-grid solar PV systems. Because of this, many agencies historically have been reluctant to invest in solar PV systems and, moreover, often have a negative view of solar technologies. Nonetheless, humanitarian agencies are able to keep far more complex equipment working. Think of four-wheel drive vehicles, generators and the complex communication and IT equipment that is found in just about every refugee camp office.

Today, solar electric equipment and the associated batteries, controllers and inverters that come with them are mature technologies. They work well. Nevertheless, solar technologies are still new in many locations --- especially the remote poorly-served locations where refugee operations are underway. Unfortunately, the delivery chain infrastructure that supplies, installs, manages and finances systems is not yet in there in such places and without it, systems fail.

Before closely considering the reasons for failure, it is useful to examine the necessary life cycle needs of solar PV equipment. As shown in the figure, for any system to succeed energy use needs to be properly audited. Equipment needs to be properly designed, procured and installed. And, critically, the system needs to be understood by users --- and they need to be able to call in an expert if something goes wrong. 

Auditing and designing of solar systems are often not properly done. In order for a solar array, inverter and battery to be specified, an accurate estimate of energy use must be made. For larger systems, energy auditing and system designing is not a layman’s job. Without sufficient expertise in the planning process:

  • Poor designs under or over-estimate energy needs, resulting in systems that do not work or are too expensive.
     
  • Wrong types of or inappropriate equipment is recommended
     
  • Faulty designs result in bad systems
     
  • Critical back-up systems (i.e. small generators) are left out of designs where they are needed (i.e. in hospitals and clinics).

The procurement process itself is a significant cause of solar system failures. Overworked procurement officers without technical back-up are asked to do things for which they are simply not qualified. Issues resulting from poor procurement practice include the following:

  • Sometimes a procurement is rushed, or has too many conditions placed by donors with unrealistic expectations
     
  • Most of the time, procurements do not involve a qualified expert to help the agency choose the right system or supplier --- or to manage equipment installation
     
  • Unfortunately, there is often a lack of transparency in the procurement process. Those in charge of buying equipment knowingly (or unwittingly) use unqualified suppliers who actively lobby to receive tenders.
     
  • Upon installation, a proper inspection and commissioning is never completed, so it is impossible to assign responsibility to a supplier that has not completed the job properly.

In many cases, systems are not properly managed or maintained. End-users often do not understand the limitations of systems and they do not have qualified support that can help them fix even simple problems. For example,

  • Untrained staff mis-use solar PV systems. A common mistake is for staff to connect electric cookers or water heaters to PV systems and drain batteries or for staff to continue using systems during very cloudy periods.
     
  • Remote system operators have no one to call even when there is a simple problem (such as a blown fuse or re-set system)
     
  • Basic maintenance tasks, such as array cleaning or maintaining system connections, are not done.

Finally, the financing needs of solar PV systems are not accommodated by donors or relief agencies. It is easier to pay for fuel on a monthly basis than to purchase up front a solar plant that will provide 20 years of power.

  • Until recently, companies have been unable to finance systems --- and they still are unable to do so with the most common smaller systems (i.e. under 50 kW). Donors do not have the funds to support PV purchases.
     
  • Because of costs, procurements place too much reliance on short-term needs, ignoring quality of equipment and long-term life of systems
     
  • Not enough attention is paid to long term O&M contracts that can make systems work.

The good news is that we know how to make solar PV system work. Moreover, if properly designed they can be more reliable than traditional fuel-based generators. Technology and O&M capabilities are only getting better. If humanitarian agencies are to successfully take up solar PV systems (as they must!), it is necessary for them to observe the same processes they use to make the other technologies work.

  1. An independent energy expert needs to be involved in the energy auditing and specification of the system. This should NOT be the company selling the system.
     
  2. Procurement and installation should be seen as a task that requires resources and expertise. Donors and agencies should take more responsibility in overseeing bidding tenders that are critical to operation of remote facilities.
     
  3. Providers should ensure that staff understands the system. Relief organizations should assign responsibility for equipment operation and always include O&M agreements with local providers. Companies should provide on-line system monitoring and management services.
     
  4. Those that manage and provide finance for relief operations need to pay close attention to developing new finance models for large and small systems. They should use finance tools to broker functionality agreements with system providers.

Finally, humanitarian agencies must realize that they are critical to the process of building off-grid energy infrastructure. Some of the same people and communities that they serve will be critical links in the infrastructure they are helping to build.

 

Mark Hankins works with NORCAP as an off-grid energy advisor. If your humanitarian, development or peace building organization is interested in Solar PV, you can start the dialogue for a request of NORCAP’s expertise to borja.rojo@nrc.no.