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Rural Power from Pico and Hybrid PV Explored

Two new reports on rural electrification applications for pico and hybrid PV systems have been published by the Photovoltaic Power System Programme from the International Energy Agency (IEA PVPS).

The reports come from the IEA-PVPS Task 9 group, working on Deploying PV services for regional development, and conclude that with decreasing PV prices, PV/diesel hybrid mini-grids and pico PV are attracting significant attention from institutions in charge of rural electrification and donor agencies.

Such PV hybrid systems mitigate fuel price increases, deliver operating cost reductions, and offer higher service quality than traditional single-source generation systems, the report notes, adding that the combining of technologies provides interesting opportunities to overcome certain technical limitations.

However, the report also notes that a hybrid system has many other components besides the PV array. The cost of the storage component is significant. In addition, the battery charge control feature of the specific inverters for hybrid systems makes them more expensive than grid-connected inverters, and these make a significant cost difference compared to simple grid-connected PV power plants.

Data collected on recent systems installed in Africa and Asia show that the typical real installed cost of a complete PV / diesel hybrid system is in the range of €5500/kWp to €9000/kWp with variations according to system size and location.

While future deployment of hybrid technology in developing countries will be driven by different factors, the micro-hybrid system range for use as a reliable and cost-effective power source for telecom base stations continues to develop and expand.

But, the analysis also finds that applying solar PV technology to reduce generation costs in diesel plants requires significant capital and investment compared to the more traditional types of projects that rural electrification funds and agencies have been familiar with so far.

Hybrids also bring technical complexity in areas where skills are generally lacking and the development of a more secure environment is still necessary for private investors to be willing to participate, the authors conclude. In addition, the lack of locally available after sales service and skilled personnel is hampering the development of this technology in the rural electrification sector. Adequate capacity building and training courses for local operation and maintenance will be necessary to ensure long-term viability, the paper notes.

In a related analysis looking at the role of solar pico systems in rural electrification, the IEA PVPS report finds that pico PV systems  –  which can provide essential services such as lighting, phone charging and a radio – have experienced significant development in the last few years, combining the use of very efficient lights with sophisticated charge controllers and efficient batteries. Expandable solar Pico systems have also entered the market, the report says, allowing additional services to be connected. The great advantage of modular pico PV systems is that rather having to resort to credit, the customer can buy the components of the system step-by-step, the report says.Mobile charging using pico solar technology

Their costs are much lower than those of Solar Home Systems, so a much larger market can be reached, with simpler business models, the publication: ‘Pico Solar PV Systems for Remote Homes’ finds.

This is turn creates a larger role for the private sector and implies a different role for government agencies, banks and donors, PVPS observes. Ensuring proper quality of the products and educating the future users on the benefits of replacing kerosene lights, candles and batteries are major tasks. However, despite the provision of this initial level of service with pico solar PV systems, rural inhabitants should still be considered non-electrified and the so-called “solar trap” should be avoided.

The costs of the smallest systems are between US$10 and $50 – a figure in reach for a growing part of populations living in remote areas and in the same range as those of simple mobile phones. With payment plans through the mobile phone developing quickly, it is envisioned that a “marriage” between the mobile phone and the pico solar PV system could be very productive, and support financing of the PV system, the PVPS concludes.


Photo: Pico solar charging technology, via shutterstock

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David Appleyard is a contributing editor. A freelance journalist and photographer, he has some 20 years' experience of writing about the renewable energy sector and is based in Europe.


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