OPINION: Grab all the free energy you can

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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Got a 12V battery, an aluminum flight case and a spare solar panel handy?

With these components and others, along with a bit of technical know-how, you can build your own portable solar plant, according to one website for garden shed engineers.

A 5W model that the average person could build would be suited to running and charging electronic gadgets, for example, and cost around US$200 in parts.

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A hamster running flat out in a wheel hooked up to a dynamo would likely put up a fair fight in terms of output. OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration. Even if it were the Usain Bolt of rodents, its four limbs couldn't produce the requisite torque. But the serious issue here is that microgeneration has huge potential, whether we're talking about a suitcase-sized solar unit, a brace of wind turbines in a back garden or a PV array mounted on the roof and sides of an office building.

Large-scale solar farms and other generation facilities such as hydropower plants and thermoelectric power stations will always shoulder the heaviest load. But in Latin America, solar in particular should be tapped fully, as the region's not short on sunshine. It just makes sense. 

Mexico, for one, has masses of solar potential, and its businesses are starting to build 100% solar-powered buildings.

And you don't have to stop at simply providing power.

Just as the original Willys Jeep had a power take-off to allow farmers to use the vehicle's four-cylinder lump to turn harvesting machinery, small solar or wind installations could be used in conjunction with water purification or micro-desalination units to support small-scale farming in isolated rural communities. Desalination in particular is becoming an increasingly important option as fresh water supplies in countries such as Chile and Brazil come under pressure from the dual impact of rising demand and falling precipitation levels.

But all this doesn't come cheap – and there's the rub. Households will not purchase and install PV panels unless they are adamant about offsetting their carbon footprint or see real cost benefits. Most property developers are also unlikely to install solar panels unless they are compelled to do so or if it leads to healthier profits. A farmer in Colombia who works just a few acres will unlikely be able to shell out for a solar plant-cum-desalination unit.

To encourage households, Humberto Becerra López of Mexico's electricity research institute (IIE) called on the country to offer incentives to promote the use of rooftop PV panels. He didn't explain what these incentives should be but he was probably thinking of government subsidies.

According to him, Mexico could soon have 500,000 homes with rooftop arrays and power utility customers could see their bills shrink by a minimum of 13%, while CO2 emissions plunge.

Today, the ideal energy backbone of any state would likely be a mixed matrix that is designed to withstand the blows of sustained periods of unfavorable climate conditions and fluctuations in the prices of non-renewable energy sources. The vertebrae are large-scale power plants, but there is plenty of room for microgenerators and self-supply. This means a wealth of business opportunities in R&D, manufacturing, consultation, shipping, installation, maintenance and financing.

Development of the microgeneration sector will be driven further by a combination of rising energy prices and government subsidies, as well as by changing attitudes, changing climate patterns and the development of low-cost production chains.  

We must work to innovate and tighten our embrace of solar and other renewables. And if you do venture to tap the sun's potential by making a homemade solar plant, happy tinkering. And tell the hamster to hit the gym.