With the latest round of load shedding darkening our doorsteps, the question on everybody’s lips is, should I go solar? What about portable solar panel systems? Are they worth the capital layout and will I get enough bang for my buck?
Going solar can be a minefield to navigate. However, with the right knowledge, the benefits may well outweigh the cost.
There are varying requirements to consider when going solar. This is true whether you’re exploring off-grid destinations, keeping the lights on at home, or running a large factory on solar power. These include the size and number of solar panels as well as the rate of power transfer needed.
SnoMaster recently spoke to Dave Atkinson from SolarEco Solutions in Africa. In this post, he’ll shed some light on the what, where and how of harnessing the sun’s infinite energy.
What type of solar panel system do I need?
Grid-tied solar panel system:
You might be surprised to learn that the majority of solar panel systems are reliant on the public electricity grid. Because of this, they only work when the electricity is on.
These grid-tied or on-grid systems do not have battery storage. They are only meant to reduce your energy demand from Eskom while the power is on. This way, they can reduce your monthly electricity bill.
For example, Atkinson says large factories or office blocks would replace all their lights with energy-efficient LED lights. They would then run these plus things like computers, modems and printers on solar power. Meanwhile, big-ticket items like air conditioners remain on-grid electricity.
Large industries that want to expand may also install supplemental grid-tied solar panel systems. This helps them meet energy demands that the power utility may be unable to meet on a given time.
Off-grid solar panel system:
An off-grid solar panel system is not connected to the public electricity grid and relies solely on battery storage.
The high cost of batteries make off-grid systems very expensive. Because of this, they are more prolific in remote areas that are devoid of an electricity grid. However, there is no back-up for an off-grid system so it’s best to get a back-up generator in case of a breakdown.
Most homes and office blocks don’t have enough roof space to install sufficient solar panels for an off-grid system. As a result, they are forced to put additional solar panels on the ground. Sometimes, they opt for a hybrid system.
Portable solar panels are classified as off-grid systems. They are designed for wanderlusters who thrive on exploring remote or uncharted territories.
Hybrid solar panel system:
A hybrid solar panel system combine solar and battery storage. This allows you to get the best of both worlds. It can store solar energy that is generated during the day. It also allows the consumer to use it at night or any time the electricity goes off.
In addition to that, the battery can also be charged with electricity. This solar and battery storage combines flawlessly as interdependent back-ups. Together, they ensure better energy security.
With the cost of batteries slowly reducing as technology edges forward, adding battery storage to grid-tied systems becomes cheaper. This can then be used as back-ups to homes, factories and shopping malls.
When installing a hybrid or off-grid solar system at home, switching to a gas stove, gas geyser and LED lights remarkably reduces the size and number of batteries needed to store sufficient energy. It also reduces the number of solar panels required.
How do solar panels work?
Although diverse and complex in their various applications, all solar power systems work on the same basic principles.
First, the solar panels convert solar energy into direct current (DC) power using the photovoltaic (PV) effect. It is very important to install the solar panels to receive the maximum amount of direct sunlight.
In the Southern Hemisphere, your solar panels should be positioned to face the north. With the sun rising in the east and setting in the west, your north-facing solar panel will receive more sunlight from the east in the morning. Conversely, it will receive more sunlight from the west in the afternoon.
Whilst direct sunlight is ideal, solar power systems need only daylight to function. Therefore, they will work on cloudy days too.
Once converted, the DC power is stored in a battery for later use (off-grid or hybrid system). In other cases, it is converted by a solar inverter to alternating current (AC) power (grid-tied system).
Afterwards, it is used to run home appliances. In the case of industrial solar power systems, it is used to run large factory machines.
In a grid-tied system, excess solar energy is then fed back into the electricity grid. Other times, it is stored in a battery storage facility if using off-grid and hybrid systems.
What is a portable solar panel?
A portable solar panel works exactly the same as a larger off-grid system. However, it works on a much smaller scale.
What can you power with a portable solar panel?
Atkinson says with all solar power systems, there is an average of 20% power loss due to conversion. This means a portable 200 Watt solar panel can power essential appliances and gadgets that require about 160 Watt or less. An example of this is a portable fridge/freezer to keep the beers frosty and the steaks frozen for the duration of your overland adventure.
It can also power up creature comforts and essentials such as a box fan and LED lights. In remote areas, it can also power laptops and smartphone chargers.
In addition to those, this nifty little system also packs enough power to run the television during load shedding. Thanks to this, you can still catch the weekend’s Premier League matches.
Running more energy thirsty appliances would need additional solar panels to boost the available Wattage, though. These may include your wife’s hairdryer or an electric kettle.
You may also want to pair the panels with a larger battery that can store more energy and lasts longer before it runs flat.
The good news is, the SnoMaster smart regulator comes with pulse width modulation that provides trickle charging. This enables continuous, slow charging to keep the battery in a fully charged state. This can be a crucial feature as letting the battery drain completely will reduce its lifespan.