Energy is one aspect of our quality of life that doesn’t get enough attention. It’s something that so many of us are fortunate enough to have 100% of the time, which means we often take it for granted. During a disaster, and in rural parts of the world where a crisis is ongoing, energy isn’t something that’s a guarantee. And that’s exactly why solar power is such an essential part of humanitarian aid.
Solar power is a means of leveling the playing field and creating a higher quality of life by providing readily available energy for even the most rural and remote populations.
Solar energy is a powerful tool for lifting people up and delivering a consistent environment that can facilitate other daily events of profound importance like cooking, cleaning, working, reading, learning, and virtually every other aspect of life. Plus, as far as energy resources go, solar power is safe, renewable, and earth friendly.
Before you select any solar products for your next humanitarian or disaster relief project, please consider these five key points that will help you determine which solar supplies will best serve your humanitarian goals and deliver long-term value.
Six things to consider when evaluating solar products:
- Battery Type
- Recommended Uses
- Guarantee and Warranty
With any humanitarian product, one of your first concerns will be durability. These products have an incredibly important job to do, and they need to last for as long as possible to be truly effective.
When it comes to solar-powered supplies, you’ll need to look at how durable the solar panels themselves are as well as how durable any components and attachments may be. Make sure the panels and any critical equipment are tough enough to withstand the weather where it’s going (especially if it’s for disaster relief in an area with severe weather patterns).
Capacity (Solar Panels)
Understanding capacity can feel overwhelming if you’re new to evaluating solar panels, but it’s actually relatively straightforward. The capacity factor refers to a solar panel’s average energy output. So, while you’re looking at solar panels and solar-powered products you may see, for example, a panel that’s listed as 100-watts. That’s a critical detail, but it’s not the only important number you need to know.
You also need to find out what the capacity factor is. For example, a product may be 100-watts, but its capacity factor is 15%. That means the product’s average output is actually only 15 watts, though it’s capable of outputting 100-watts at peak power. Think of the capacity as the panel’s average efficiency rate under normal conditions.
When you’re shipping products to support disaster relief efforts and offer humanitarian aid, you want to make sure the supplies are portable whenever possible. Look for products that are lightweight, well-made and durable.
If it’s not generally used as a stationary product (like a phone charger, which people expect to be mobile), it should be small enough to carry as-is or fold up for travel. However, if a product is designed to be less portable in an effort to increase durability (like some of the bulky, prop up panels), that may be a time when the tradeoff is worthwhile.
When selecting a solar device, another vital element you’ll need to evaluate (if applicable) is the battery. The three most common types are lead-acid, lithium-ion, and vanadium redox flow batteries (usually referred to simply as “flow batteries”). Each type has its own benefits and drawbacks.
Lead-acid has been used reliably for decades and tends to be cost-effective (and therefore very popular). However, lead-acid batteries do require some maintenance and are toxic, so they have to be disposed of carefully.
Lithium-ion batteries are used in all kinds of technology and typically last longer than lead-acid and don’t require maintenance, but they’re also more expensive. Depending on the composition (organic or inorganic-based cells) they can also be toxic and require specific disposal methods as well.
Redox flow batteries (VRFB) are a newer technology and tend to be expensive, but the costs are expected to fall in the coming years and will make this a much more competitive alternative to lithium and lead acid batteries. VRFB doesn’t degrade, lasts even longer than lithium-ion, and has no cycling limitations (how many times the battery can be fully charged and discharged). Lastly, flow batteries don’t get hot, won’t catch fire, and are non-toxic and readily recyclable.
When it comes to solar power, not all devices are created equal. Some products are made to serve a very specific purpose (like powering a connected light source) and aren’t the best choice for versatility.
Always check to see the recommended uses that the manufacturer is promoting so you know what you can expect from the product and can choose one that will serve many, if not all, your power needs. Never assume that the solar panel that comes with a particular device will be able to power other, unrelated equipment or appliances without modifications.
Guarantee and Warranty
Always check to see what kind of guarantee or warranties the manufacturer offers for their equipment and what’s covered (this is of particular importance when there are multiple stand-alone components). Often there will be a guarantee that covers one part of the product, for example, a battery power pack or other parts, and another that covers the solar panels themselves.
Check the duration of each applicable warranty to make sure you’ll have adequate coverage on all the necessary pieces. Also, review what steps the manufacturer will take if a product does fail while under warranty. Some manufacturers will try to repair the product while others will send a replacement or issue a refund.
More Information on Solar Technology
Two great resources for all things solar are Lighting Global and Global Off-Grid Lighting Association aka GOGLA. Lighting Global created an international quality standard for solar-powered devices and home systems and do a lot to facilitate financing and development of the industry. GOGLA is an organization that promotes affordable, quality solar products and sustainable development of the industry. Both websites offer a wealth of information including industry data and policy news.