Can solar panels meet your household heating needs?

energy efficiency

Solar Photovoltaic (PV) is a technology that works well to provide solar electricity suitable for running most of your electrical needs such as air conditioning, lighting, refrigeration, water pumping, etc. However, when it comes to thermal or heating needs, solar PV is not well suited. 

Solar PV can provide thermal energy, but it will require many solar panels than usual making it expensive.

For cost-effectiveness purposes, solar electricity (PV) is a great supplemental source of electricity and when connected to the grid, it can help to reduce your energy costs for on-grid PV systems.

For off-grid PV systems, hybrid solar PV systems such as solar PV /solar thermal with geothermal heat pumps, or with wind power systems or with solar power generators can offer solutions to meet all your energy solutions. 

Solar PV on its own can be an expensive energy option because you still need batteries to store excess power needed at night when there is no sunshine.

However, grid-connected PV systems can eliminate the battery cost. As such, during the day when your solar panels are generating power, it can be fed into the grid causing your meter to run backward helping to reduce your overall energy bill.

At night, this power can be drawn from the grid to power your household. At the end of the month, you can receive credit helping to reduce your energy bill. 

Technological options to supplement your solar PV for thermal or heating needs. 

During the day solar electricity can be used to run your air conditioning (in summer), refrigeration, lighting or water pumping for your pond, swimming pool, etc.

In winter, you might need to supplement your solar PV for heating or thermal needs. Thermal needs come in various forms, energy for cooking, energy for bath or energy for space heating, etc.

As such, the following energy options could be explored based on their cost, efficiency, and application:  

  1. Net metering: Grid-connected solar PV is a great solution to supplement your solar PV for the thermal energy needs that your system may not be able to meet. This is one option that is cost-effective and widely applied in many homes in the USA.  
  2. Geothermal Heat Pump for your home space heating or cooling: This is a renewable energy technology that has started to be applied for home space heating or cooling. It can be used to heat your home in winter and cool it during summer based on the fact that depending on latitude, ground temperatures range from 45°F (7°C) to 75°F (21°C).  As such, the geothermal heat pump takes advantage of this by exchanging heat with the earth through a ground heat exchanger since this ground temperature is warmer than the air above it during the winter and cooler than the air in the summer. However, this technology is still being developed and the cost might be prohibitive for some people, but with tax credits and other financial incentives from the government, it might work based on your budget and energy requirements. 
  3. All solar PV and solar thermal (heating): Rural areas that may be very far away from the utility grid might want to consider going all solar and using battery systems for storage to store excess energy produced during the day and using it at night. You might want to consider other renewable options such as geothermal energy or wind to supplement solar. All these options will depend on what technology is applicable in your situation and whether it is cost-effective or affordable.  Solar thermal (heating) in homes is mostly used to heat water used for showering, laundry, and other household use. 

All of the above options may or may not be feasible for your specific case and today with the advancement of software technology, you can use simple online tools like a solar panel cost calculator from the EnergySage to estimate for example, how many solar panels you need to power home and using their platform you can be guided when it comes to other energy options suitable for your specific case.  

Energy poverty in Africa

Can we end the energy poverty in Africa?

Many countries in Africa remain not connected to the main grid and they never will be. Why do I say this? These countries may leapfrog from using power from the main grid to use of decentralized renewable energy packaged solutions. Just the same way Africa leapfrogged from using grid type connected telephone lines to use of cellphones—there is a potential and the technology is available to use to help homes or businesses in going solar through the use of packaged solar PV solutions, that may include smart grids, smart meters, financing, service, warranties, etc.

With electricity, children would not have to gather wood in order to boil water – a simple electric stove could do that. A light could be turned on at night so that they could read before bed. And the aged grandparents or infant sibling could enjoy the breeze from a simple fan on sweltering, 40+ degree Celsius days – it could make a difference between life and death.

I believe we can make this happen by offering decentralized energy solutions to these homes. Governments alone cannot solve this problem, because we are talking about 600 million people without electricity and this translates to $19 billion a year in energy investments. This huge population of Africans without electricity is almost twice the population of the USA.

Therefore, this problem could be solved by the private sector with support from the governments and civil society. The solutions would center around creating decentralized renewable energy solutions rather than constructing massive power plants or grid extension which may take time to develop and may require huge investments.

It would take simple renewable energy-based packaged solutions that come with power, financing, service, warranties and energy-efficient appliances (in this case solar PV or wind technologies where there is a good wind potential).  This solution has failed in the past, because of the mode of delivery or approach. In the past, the donor approach failed to deliver; because development agencies would provide “free stuff” which would stop functioning at some point, maybe because of lack of maintenance, no training and lack of after-sales service by the provider. This model, therefore, proved it couldn’t work because the donor approach is reliant on “targets” rather than provide a service to the people that would develop a long-lasting customer relationship.

If it was a private sector entity providing this service, this would change because a truly private sector would want to develop a relationship with the community or village, then train the villagers on how to use the equipment, install, and then provide after-sales service if needed. This model would work because the private sector entity is incentivized by profits they make as well as the number of sales they obtain. Hence, it is to the advantage of the private sector to provide a better service for them to remain in business and expand in other areas.

Just like the telecommunications sector changed from the grid type of sector to mobile phones, a similar paradigm shift could take place when it comes to energy access in Africa or other developing countries. These countries may leapfrog to the mobile type or renewable energy packaged solutions. In this regard, solar will play a major role in technology advancement, solar will become cheaper and affordable to reach millions of individuals in rural Africa and other developing countries.

The government and development agencies like the World Bank would provide the regulatory and policy frameworks to eradicate the barriers of inferior quality of solar products entering the market and encourage fair competition among the private sector companies. Also, governments would set up financial mechanisms and schemes to overcome the investment or cost issues by the private sector or the end-user.

Since the initial cost is a huge barrier for rural communities, and a solar set could cost up to $200, the private sector can be provided guarantees or other incentives by the government to allow people to pay small installments or buy in credit in order to overcome this barrier. This lowers the risk for the private sector entity and encourages them to invest in decentralized renewable energy solutions. The communities would get service from the private sector and in-return the private sector will get paid by communities. On the issue of quality, communities distrust solar solutions, because they have been sold cheap products that don’t last long or they’ve bought appliances and haven’t been taught how to use them properly. Private sector companies that are service-minded can help solve this problem.

In conclusion, I would say this issue is solvable and currently many players including the World Bank are already applying these models, but to accelerate and solve this problem will require targeted campaigns that would raise awareness about this issue and how to solve it. It will take you and me to raise this awareness about the best models for energy access, the best financing solutions available, the best technologies to adopt and how or even how to solve the energy access problem. The private sector also needs this information, as most of them may not have the capacity to conduct meaningful data analytics to determine what models work or how to fine-tune them and get the desired results.

To get started in knowing about the benefits of going solar, you can learn more about this solar panel cost calculator.