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Small beginnings, but big plans for solar power

Small beginnings, but big plans for solar power

C AMBODIA'S energy future will be bright if the Kingdom looks to the sun to supply

some of the growing power demand, solar users in Cambodia say. They argue solar energy

is now a serious economic alternative as well as an obvious environmental choice.

The cost of photovoltaics (the sil solar cells that turn sunlight into electric

current) has fallen dramatically in the past 20 years. In the mid-70s when the cost

per watt fell to $500, uses were found for them in remote areas such as transmitting

stations.

Since then the price has plummeted to less than $5 a watt, making for more home use,

and should fall below $3 a watt by the turn of the century.

"Solar is not only for the environmental fringe. It's economically viable,"

said Christina Alfsen-Sirivudh, who has a solar power system on her roof. "Cambodia

would be the ideal country for solar energy. It's available and it's clean."

The Sirivudh's 6.5 kilowatt unit is enough to fully power most homes, but she admits

"our consumption here is enormous". There's eight air-conditioning units,

an all-electric kitchen and hot water.

The unit is paying for itself and serves the same purpose as the diesel generators

most homes and businesses use for power back up.

"I don't like generators. They use a lot of fuel, they're noisy and pollute,"

she said.

Roy Barran of Roymar Services, who installed the Sirivudh solar array, said the economics

are already being recognized. Roymar also installs generators and other systems.

"Cambodia is a perfect location for solar power. There is clear sky and good

sun. And solar power is reliable," Barran said.

He added that solar is actually more cost effective than diesel generators. The problem

is that solar requires most of the cost up front, whereas the generators are a pay-as-you-go

system so don't appear as expensive.

Hooking up to a power grid can cost nearly $1,000 for every kilometer of transmission

line.

A five kilowatt solar system in Phnom Penh would cost about $20,000, Barran said,

big enough to run a couple air-conditioners, refrigerators, lights and basic appliances.

A new diesel generator to handle the same load would cost $8,000.

Solar has minimal maintenance, with panels having to be cleaned periodically and

batteries replaced every few years, depending on use. The maintenance and running

costs for diesel generators will catch up with the solar investment in a few years,

say experts.

Storage is solar's biggest draw-back. Batteries are inefficient yet necessary on

solar units providing electricity 24 hours a day.

Barran said the solar units he has installed so far had been small, for example,

15 solar-powered refrigerators for vaccines which are being placed all over the country,

and small units for NGOs that need a dependable power source.

Hot water systems are the most efficient use of solar. They include panels that absorb

the sun's rays to heat the water which flows to an insulated storage tank, also connected

to the panels. Barran said they start at $1,200. "There is nothing to them.

Hot water systems are not like air-conditioners, they are totally power efficient.

They pay for themselves in two to three years and they're guaranteed for ten,"

he said.

The Anglican Church in Phnom Penh uses solar for all its power. Reverend Monk was

not familiar with solar when he arrived two months ago, but is now a proponent. "I

don't know how it works, I just know it does. Solar is an option," he said.

Cambodia must buy fuel for generators and thermal units, and must in turn sell goods,

mostly natural resources, to pay for imported fuel. "Cambodia sells their forests,

they deplete their own resources to pay for the fuel. It really makes no sense,"

Alfsen-Norodom said.

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