The benefits of solar power systems are well known. They can produce electricity at a lower cost than fossil fuels in many cases, and without releasing harmful emissions into the atmosphere. However, when solar panels are deployed in remote locations, they bring additional advantages that are not evident in metropolitan areas.
When electricity is required in remote places, one of the main challenges is providing the energy input that keeps the generators running. Conventional power plants have relied on fossil fuels like coal, natural gas and diesel. However, these energy sources are not viable for remote locations, since they must be constantly delivered to power plants.
Renewable generation is better suited for remote places, since it can use energy inputs that are locally available. For example, organic waste can be processed into bio-fuel, which can be used as a heat source or to drive a generator. Hydraulic turbines, wind turbines and solar panels can also produce electricity with local resources.
Using Renewable Energy in Remote Sites
Each renewable energy source has advantages and disadvantages, and the best option depends on site conditions and energy needs. However, solar panels have key advantages that make them very useful in remote locations:
- Solar panels are individual modules that can be wired together, adding up any capacity that is required. They can adapt to any project size, from small residential installations to solar farms in the scale of megawatts.
- Solar panels have no moving parts, which means they don’t suffer from mechanical wear. They can last for decades with minimal maintenance, making them excellent for remote locations.
- Sunlight is available everywhere, which means there is no need to schedule fuel deliveries for a power plant. This is a remarkable advantage when electricity is needed in places that are hard to reach.
The main limitation of solar power is depending on an energy input that cannot be controlled. For this reason, solar panels by themselves cannot deliver electricity at night. Also, their output is greatly reduced on cloudy days. Even with clear skies, solar energy systems only reach peak production in the hours around noon. However, this can be solved by combining solar panels with battery arrays.
Solar panels by themselves are competitive in metropolitan areas, but the system cost becomes very high once batteries are added to the mix. However, fossil fuel generation is also expensive in remote places, since the fuel delivery costs are higher. Even when adding the cost of batteries for nighttime power, solar power often beats fossil fuels in islands and remote sites. However, selecting the right type of battery is important to get the best results:
- Lead-acid batteries are widely used, but they are limited by a short service life and a reduced efficiency. Even if you use lead-acid batteries of the highest quality, they will typically last less than 3 years.
- Lithium-ion batteries are more expensive, but more efficient and durable. There are now many products that offer a service life of 10 years.
Depending on local conditions, it may be possible to combine solar panels with wind turbines or a hydroelectric generator. However, among all renewable energy sources, solar power is the least demanding in terms of site conditions. Solar panels can be used almost anywhere, if there is an available area that is not covered by shadows.
Michael Tobias, PE, LEED AP, CEM.
Michael Tobias is the founder and principal of Chicago Engineers, an Inc 5000 Fastest Growing Company in America. He leads a team of 30+ mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection engineers from the company headquarters in New York City; and has led over 1,000 projects in Chicago, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland and California, as well as Singapore and Malaysia.