MORE solar energy reaches the earth in one hour of sunlight than the total population of the world uses in a full year. Solar power is cheap and presents a cost-effective alternative for Ugandans.
Ugandaâ€™s location, directly on the earthâ€™s equator, where it receives an average of 5 kwhr/m2/day, makes it one of the sunniest places on earth and an ideal place to use developed solar technologies to meet growing energy needs.
Stand-alone solar electricity systems are ideal for supplying reliable energy to remote, rural locations where extending a centralised grid system is inefficient and costly.
Solar energy can also be used directly for heating water more efficiently than electric heaters, which saves consumers money and reduces the load on the national grid. The reliability and easy maintenance of solar electricity has even caused some people in town to install solar backup systems rather than rely on generators to help cope with load shedding.
Solar electricity suppliers in Kampala report having seen a major surge in demand since February, when grid load shedding began getting worse.
â€œPeople are asking for them all the time,â€ says Richard Kanyike, the managing director at Solar Energy Uganda Ltd., one of more than 10 local solar energy firms. Inquiries are coming from businesses, banks, embassies and homeowners in Kampala.
Due to the reliability and easy maintenance of solar electricity systems, these customers have decided the solar systems are worth the investment, despite the large upfront cost.
Unfortunately for many, because almost the entire cost associated with a solar system is the one-time investment in the equipment, the upfront cost is prohibitive and not economical when compared to grid-supplied electricity.
Solar systems require a large upfront investment in the system components â€“ solar panels, which collect the sunâ€™s energy, an inverter and a battery, all of which can be expensive. While solar panels are now tax-free in Uganda, taxes on inverters, energy-saving light bulbs and other components of the solar system add to the price.
However, after the initial investment, there is no charge for fuel, since the sun shines for free and very little maintenance is required.
Despite the high upfront cost, for those further removed from the grid, a solar system is often still the cheapest option for electrification. The expense of laying the power lines for the small, dispersed load and the large energy losses that occur during transmission over such long distances make extending the grid inefficient.
Although the initial cost is high, once the system is in place, the fuel, which is sunlight, is abundant and free, and in the long run the system pays for itself. Generators, another option for electrification in remote locations, are more temperamental, harder to maintain and require a constant supply of fuel. Getting fuel, replacement parts and servicing is expensive and a hassle, particularly for further removed areas.
A small solar system, like the one-bulb, one-outlet system offered by Solar Energy Uganda for less than sh300,000, can make a big difference for rural families while saving them money.
The system includes one solar panel, an inverter and a battery, and can power one light bulb as well as being an outlet for charging a mobile phone or radio.
This small amount of energy can make a huge difference for children trying to read and study in the evening by providing a high quality and reliable source of light.
Solar power saves money that would be spent on paraffin, candles and kerosene for lighting and saves time and money spent charging phones and replacing radio batteries.
Studies find that on average, poor rural households spend $4-$8 a month on lighting which is of poor quality, and that they travel long distances to pay $0.25 at least twice a week to charge phones. This comes to sh130,000 to 230,000 a year, not including the money spent on batteries for radios. Therefore, for the average home, a small solar system pays for itself within two years and from that point on begins to save the family money while continuing to provide reliable energy and quality lighting.
Health clinics and schools in rural areas could also benefit greatly from installing solar systems. Two thirds of all health facilities rely on firewood, charcoal, kerosene or gas to meet their energy requirements, and just 7% are connected to the national grid.
Small amounts of electricity significantly increase the clinicsâ€™ ability to serve the needs of patients by enabling them to install reliable quality lighting, administer HIV tests, have running and warm water for improved hygiene and power refrigeration, which is key for storing testing reagents, vaccines and medicines. The average distance of health centres in Uganda to the grid is 33km, making extension of the grid an
inefficient way to try to get these clinics much needed electricity.
Solar Water Heaters
While solar electricity is relatively more expensive than grid electricity, where the grid exists, solar water heaters, which use the sunâ€™s energy directly to heat water with an energy efficiency of up to 80%, are more efficient and cost-effective than electric water heaters, regardless of location.
Solar water heating is an economical alternative to electric water heating for residential homes, hotels and other larger establishments. A system for a residential home of three to four people generally pays for itself in less than three years. The initial investment cost of the system is sh2.5m.
While this is expensive compared to the purchase price of an electric water heater, the electric bill savings are an average of sh800,000 per year. Electric water heaters typically account for as much as 50% of the household electricity bill.
In hotels, water heating often accounts for as much as 60% of the energy consumption, offering an opportunity for large savings. Again the upfront investment is the largest hurdle because of the expense of the system parts. However, these systems also pay for themselves within two to three years.
Widespread installation of solar water heaters could contribute significantly to reducing the load on the national electric grid, as currently electric water heating consumes an estimated 46 MW. Such installations are a benefit to all. Not only do they save the consumer money, they are environmentally friendly and help to free up more electricity for other uses, reducing load shedding and allowing electricity coverage to be expanded across the country.
Solar Construct, one of two main solar water heating supply companies in Uganda, assembles solar heating panels locally in its shop in Industrial Area.
Government incentives in the form of eliminating or reducing taxes and assisting with access to financing for individuals and companies would allow more people to afford the initial costs. This would increase the number of people able to use solar technology to make use of the abundant sunshine in Uganda in a way that benefits the individual and society as a whole.
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