Muhyiddin School in Villingili has switched on 61 kW of rooftop solar panels, enough to power 30 houses and the first panels of a 652 kW watt solar project to be rolled out across six islands.
The panels were switched on Monday morning by Germany’s Parliamentary State Secretary at the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation & Nuclear Safety, Katherina Reiche, with data on the power generated fed into a web browser application projected onto a screen at the school.
The project was the result of a power-purchasing agreement signed by State Electric Company (STELCO) with Renewable Energy Maldives (REM), while German solar firm Wirsol provided technology and financing.
The project was signed in June 2011. The panels to be rolled out include 294 kW in Villingilli, 64 kW in Guraidhoo, 78 kW in Himmafushi, 120 kW in Maafushi, 48 kW in Kaashidhoo and 48 kW in Thulusdhoo.
Panels will be installed at six sites in Villingili. Including the school’s 61 kW, there will be 74 kW at Eduruvehi, 28 kW on Cinamale’, 40 kW on the Judicial Building, 58 kW on the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) flats and 33 kW on the powerhouse.
REM had initially proposed a system to provide 70 percent percent of daytime load across six islands on the back of the government’s proposed feed-in tariff, but STELCO reduced the installation to 30 percent with the intention of later expanding it.
Head of REM, Dr Ibrahim Nashid, said the success of project was an important step that would instill confidence among others in the power sector to invest in renewable energy.
“When we tested the [Muhyiddin] system we found the panels were generating 10 percent more than we had initially calculated,” he said. “It is a good indication of the potential for solar in the Maldives.”
The photovoltaic panels on the roof of Muhyiddin school will power the school across were the first grid-connected solar system in the Maldives, he said. “We are groundbreaking. I say that not as a boast, but because it is difficult to bring across what we do.”
The panels were “plug and play”, simple to maintain, and modified to withstand a salty environment with a lifespan of 25 years, “probably longer than the roof”, Dr Nashid said.
Power from the solar panels will be sold – and fixed – at 25 cents a kW/hour, compared to the current cost of around 35 cents a kW/hour.
Founder of Wirsol, Stefan Riel, said the six-island 652 kW installation would avoid the equivalent of 800 tons of carbon entering the atmosphere every year.
“In the next 12 months, we want to put 20 mW into the grid across several islands, which would mean 25,000 tons of carbon reductions,” he said.
“We are using German technology and experience to create jobs in the Maldives, and give young people here the opportunity to be involved in their energy production. For that to happen we need the continued support of the Maldives government, and the German Development Bank.”
While the final details of the feed-in tariff are still being discussed, the Wirsol system will operate “under a special arrangement between us an STELCO,” Riel said.
Cabinet has embraced the economics of solar and announced plans to generate up to 80 percent of the country’s electricity using the proven technology, while President Mohamed Nasheed has installed solar panels on the roof of both his residence and office.
Research conducted last year suggested that electricity costs could be reduced to 17 cents or even lower on some islands through the use of solar. Many existing diesel generators on islands are extremely expensive to run as they have a capacity far above the demand of their islands, with electricity costing up to 77 cents a kW/hour in some areas. Solar was, claimed the President’s Energy Advisor Mike Mason, “an opportunity to print money – and there aren’t many of those available to the government.”
But the key challenges remain economic and regulatory, according to REM’s Director Hudha Ahmed.
“We have been making 20-25 year contracts on good will. We need to make sure investments are secure and that regulations are in place,” she said. “Contracts also have to be signed by the councils as well as the utility providers, as the councils have the responsibility for providing electricity.”
However capital investment and the lack of financing options was the greatest obstacle, she said.
“It has been a huge challenge – no bank would finance this project,” she said. “We approached every bank in the Maldives but none would invest.”
Very few people in the Maldives would have US$5000 to invest in a typical rooftop solar system, she explained, even if such a system were to cut the average electricity bill in half and pay for itself in 5-6 years.
While elaborate financing mechanisms exist to fund the capital city’s enormous motorcycle fleet, with costs not dissimilar to a solar PV system, no such small loans system exists for solar.
“The solar technology itself is really the simplest part,” Hudha said.