The gullible truth about solar power in Nepal

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ July 23rd, 2012. Published in: Travel blog » Nepal.
Solar panels in Nepal reflecting sunlight

Solar panels in Nepal reflecting sunlight … but all is not what it seems

Solar power in Nepal is everywhere

I noticed it the first time I came to Nepal. Sitting in a winters lounge my first morning I grumbled about there being no hot water for a shower.

“Hot water in the afternoon sir,” said an apologetic hotel manager. “We have solar power here. It heats up during the day and in the afternoon there is plenty of hot water.”

Anyone who’s been to Nepal will recognize that line. And also might recall that the “P” in “Power” is said in a highly pronounced way “solar Pha-O-wer“.

Solar water heater in Nepal

Solar water heater in Nepal used to heat pots of water (click to see a larger photograph)

None-the-less sure enough come four pm there was piping hot water coming from the taps. Steam bath ahoy!

Solar powered water heaters on the treks

Yes, even high up at 5,000 meters on the Annapurna or Everest treks you will enter into a small tea house and be told the same thing. Solar power heats the water. There’s even some fascinating evidence of this via a bizarre satellite dish with solar like panels outside.

Shiny metal is shaped into a mini ground based satellite dish construction and pointed at the sun. In the middle of this dish is an iron bar where people will hang a metal container of water.

As the sun beats down on the reflective surface heat is both stored, and reflected on to the water containers. Give it an hour and you will have piping hot water. On sunny days or course. Of which there are plenty, even in winter.

In the shadows it may be freezing during winter in Nepal but stand out into the sun as it beats down from a cloudless sky and you’ll soon warm up. Cloudy days equal no hot water. Not even luke warm.

Yes while this is not “Solar Power” as many will recognize it to be. It works for water heating.  But things are about to get even more bizarre.

Sponsored solar panels in Nepal

Occasionally you will run into a construction of freshly painted long rectangle glass panels on treks in Nepal. Usually just outside a clean-looking guesthouse and covered in “branded” international trekking agency stickers. Aka “Solar heater sponsored by _____”

Impressive stuff. It makes the tourists who buy the overpriced online trekking tours feel a bit better after they’ve realized just how cheap trekking independent trekking is in Nepal.

“We paid extra and we got solar power …” (Well, kind of.) ” … and at least it’s helping in the locals.”

It’s also a nice little money earner for those trying to raise sponsorship cash to heat the little “orphanages” water supply so the children can have hot water to wash in. More later. 

Couple this with a winter (dry season) where there are ludicrous electricity shortages of up to 18 hours a day. And, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that innovative solar-powered electricity might be the answer to some of Nepal’s problems.

Revealing the truth about solar power in Nepal

It took this recent journey to Nepal for me to look beyond the surface of “solar power” in Nepal. Metal dishes to heat water is one thing. But real solar power as advertised to keep things going during power cuts seems like an other ideal solution. Battery inverters are the latest craze. Imported from India they store up electricity when there is power and allow a person to run basic domestic appliances during the electricity power cuts.

However the inverters are really only old car batteries with a few modifications.

A 20 room guesthouse can power one low-wattage light bulb per room for about 6 hours on one charge. A charge takes 8 hours. At worst with 18 hours a day of load shedding it’s split into 2 blocks of 3 hours of electricity in a 24 hour period. Let’s do the math.

“Can’t you switch to solar power to charge them when there is no electricity during the day?”

My question was answered with confused stares and more questions from a city guesthouse owner. It prompted me to ask more of my own and go up to a rooftop and see these “solar panels” myself.

What does a solar panel look like in Nepal?

Well, it looks quite different to the “western” idea of a solar panel. As you can see from the photograph the solar panels are not made of crystalline silicon, semiconductors nor photovoltaic solar cells. They are in fact made of metal pipes covered in black paint. No more.

Close up photograph of a Nepalese made solar panel

Nepalese version of a solar panel – the long flat dark panels are actually planks of wood, and the round pipes aluminium, both painted black (click to for a close up view)

A more detailed description: A metal glass covered frame houses several rows of metal piping. Copper is not used in many cases as it’s too expensive. It’s a case of aluminium for most. They are nearly always painted black. While some people have said this is a special heat conducting paint. I have my doubts in many cases.

The pipes are then filled with water through a valve. As the water heats up from the sun, it slowly flushes into larger storage containers until used. Rarely are these storage containers insulated.

In other words they are not real solar panels but solar water heaters.

Nepalese water heaters work

I’m more likely to call these solar water heaters than “solar-powered”. Maybe it’s just me? Elsewhere in Nepal, particularly in the big hotels, there are indeed real electronic solar panels used to charge up batteries. But, it’s a rarity.

Nonetheless these painted black pipes do work for water heating. There is no question about it. And, I have no problem with it. Some of the best showers I’ve ever had have been in Nepal. I’ve also had to go weeks without, but anyway …

These thermal heaters are a relatively cheap method to heat water for a country without much electricity and plenty of tourists to keep happy.

Enter the confused tourist in Nepal

Many tourists, myself included at the start, don’t quite understand the Nepalese definition of solar power vs their own concept of solar power.

Call it a bad translation, cultural difference or great marketing by the people selling “Genuine solar panels”.

Yes, in many places business people will sell to innocent naive or unknowing locals the concept of the western solar panel. And then promptly install a batch of painted pipes.

They generate hot water, the local person thinks they have modern technology, and everyone is happy. Particularly the person who’s just got paid a lot of money installing “solar power”.

Fundraising for solar power in Nepal

Now enter the tourist who’s just come back from a trek and some time being toured around orphanages in Pokhara. Their emotions and good intentions are at an all time high.

Over breakfast the group tell exciting and motivated plans to help raise money for an orphanage to have solar power. The children can read at night, stay warm and wash.

They spoke of already emailing friends asking for donations. Charity drives and coming back one day to see the results of their work.

And yes, I did break the news to them. And, yes they did have the same wrong concept of solar power in Nepal that I also once did.

Disheartened I raised their mood back up by saying they were raising money for solar heaters. Thus the children they are trying to help would have better sanitary conditions, hot food, and hot water. They felt better.

Truth vs reality in Nepal

I won’t even go into the details of money transfers, an NGO and various local business men that were also in on this “deal”. It’s a reality here. Lot’s of good intentions, without a full understanding.

Imported solar water heater from Singapore

Imported solar water heater from Singapore

Even when a British engineer joined the conversation and mentioned “real” solar panels to charge the inverters he was taken back by a Nepalese man’s honesty.

“The inverters are from India. They don’t hold a charge for more than a year.”

Cheap batteries. But, in typical Nepalese positivity he did mention that the Indian batteries lasted longer than the Chinese batteries.

The only problem was the Nepalese government wants to ban the import of the batteries as everyone is buying them and using too much electricity from the national grid to charge them!

No spare parts to replace modern technology in Nepal

Lastly when a bright spark mentioned they were bringing in their own Solar Panels and equipment from the U.S.A. they came face to face with another reality.

“What about spare parts if or when it breaks?”

The long-term thought of sustainability is often not included in people who come and want to make a difference in Nepal. It hadn’t occurred that getting replacement parts or maintenance related parts for modern high-tech solar systems is not possible in Nepal. A broken system, of which there are several, remains broken.

“We can ship them the parts?”

“Can you tell what’s broken? There are few if any repair people on the ground here trained to know what to do if something goes wrong with this technology? And how long will shipping take on top of that? Weeks, months? In the meantime there goes a business or orphanage relying on it.”

Least of all the ever helpful Nepalese government who levy a huge import tax on all electronics. Why you ask? Well, that’s another story to do with 50+% of government tax earnings coming from imports. Scary for a country that doesn’t produce much. I digress.

Electronic solar panels in Nepal

Real solar panels donated to a monastery in Nepal: problem is there’s no one that knows how to fix them …

The never-ending circle of solving Nepal’s problems

“Solar power” in Nepal is great. It heats water in even the most remote of locations. It’s innovative, a step in the right direction and eco-friendly.

Yes, its solar water heating more than solar power. And, tourists can help provide such pipes that will help many people if they want to. But, all items needed for “Solar Heating” can be bought locally. No need to import from Singapore nor China, nor the U.S.A.

No need to donate massive quantities of cash to an NGO or a collection of business types to provide such electronic panels. Nepalese people have their own solar heating businesses. Help them build their own solar water heaters rather than import new ones that can’t be maintained.

Or if you are extremely affluent fund a school of well-trained qualified solar electricians. Find a way to build genuine solar power in Nepal and then make it sustainable. Or better yet turn on the several giant unused / finished hydro power stations dotted around Nepal and get the fully capable hydro power system working.

If solar water heaters made in Nepal work, use them

Meanwhile in the real world a more immediate good deed would be to help acquire locally made “solar powered water heaters”.

By understanding the reality on the ground in Nepal and helping local Nepalese businesses I think you’ll be helping out a lot more than donating electronic solar equipment which will last a year before becoming redundant.

Solar powered water heaters last years, are easily maintained locally, provide immediate help / relief to both locals and business.

Which makes better sense?

Coming Soon:

A journey to southern Nepal’s jungle

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13 Great responses to The gullible truth about solar power in Nepal

  1. Malcom says:

    This is something I’ve never even thought about. I guess we take a lot for granted today. If a hotel says they use organic chicken they might think having a chicken in a box in a backyard is the same as on a farm. Solar power too it seems.

  2. Cynthia says:

    Do you think people really go on holiday and then want to buy a guesthouse a solar water heater? Or solar panels?

  3. Martin Gunnarsson says:

    In coming to Nepal we also saw these solar systems. If only they really worked well in Kathmandu. I think the valley stops a lot of heat. Insulation is needed. I don’t know if they insulate their hot water tanks enough.

  4. Denise says:

    I don’t think I’d ever have guessed either. They look very similar.

    Thanks for posting about this as I think it will help people make informed decisions about trying to help in Nepal.

  5. Victoria says:

    Very interesting topic! This solar heating is also used in South Africa. A typical use is for heating swimming pools – a panel on the roof with black pipes. Nowadays affluent owners have the real panels.

    Another simple, sustainable method is to install a large winding hosepipe, between the pool filter and inlet, which gets fitted underneath the grass lawn. The water heats up in the sun and gets piped directly into the pool.

    During our recent visit, we saw township homes and huts with solar-panel devices on the roof – wonder if these are solar-powered or solar-heated?

  6. shrestha says:

    I am from Nepal, currently working in Japan. I am planning to have solar heater
    installed at my home back in Nepal. I found your your article when I was doing google search to find some information about costs and time of installation.

    I don’t know which part of Nepal you visited, but as far as I am concerned, I also call
    these heating equipment as ‘solar heater’, not ‘solar powered’. Solar heaters are
    made by local companies, but average Nepalese household can not afford them.
    I agree with you that there are people who call those heater panel as solar power ; they don’t know the real meaning of solar power.(many people working in guest house are less educated)

    I think many people know solar power can be used as source of electricity to charge inverters or light home. But, using solar panel is too expensive for average household including budget guesthouse.

    • Shrestha,

      I think most people visiting Nepal will come across people referring to “Solar Heating” as “Solar Power”. “Solar Water Heater” would be more accurate. But it’s Nepal and many people traveling there will and are being told “Solar Power” when it’s “Solar Water Heating”. So be it.

      While education is factor, the first person to try and “explain” Solar Power to me in Nepal was a university graduate. It’s more to do with urban language than education at this stage. At least for tourists who come across this post they will know that there are some terminology differences in Nepal – and not just just when referring to solar :)

  7. nepalilocal says:

    Hi there, Your article was interesting but you also happen to have the very same closed mindset of a Westerner that has not fully experienced living you entire life in a country that has willed itself to survive and remain positive despite the odds. Yes we call our solar water heaters “solar panels”. It is a panel and it is powered by the sun, what would you call it? Most people in developed countries use up tons of energy using piping hot water as and when you feel like showering or taking a bath. We take 2-5 minute showers powered by the sun. It seems that prior to this visit to Nepal, you have never even heard of solar water heating, now you do, so you should be congratulating the people of one of the poorest countries in the world for being so forward thinking and innovative. And maybe it is a good thing that the government of Nepal taxes the batteries so highly otherwise we would have even more energy problems, our e-waste would be hundreds of times higher with the battery life of only 5-10 years, our rivers would be even more polluted than it is now. We are a country that likes to recycle and make the best of what we have. So why does your article focus on stupid things like correct terminology or what the people of Nepal dont have? You should highlight what the people have been able to do, instead of what is not available in comparison to Western countries. In the US, only Hollywood celebrities living in CA use solar panels to power their homes, well here in Nepal an affluent person is at least easing the burdens of the government and planet by using solar panels and an average middle income family will certainly use solar “water heaters”. And in a couple of years Nepal’s hydroelectricity will relieve a majority of its energy problems.Villages already have hydro microgrids so they can generate electricity at home from small rivers,rivulets. And solar panels are subsidised by the government. Above 100 watts, you can apply for a subsidy. So please dont talk about you “solar power knowledge” without even researching.

    • Hi “NepaliLocal”

      Let me dissect a little of your comment in to some reality.

      “It is a panel and it is powered by the sun, what would you call it?”

      A solar water heater… It’s also not a panel as described in the article. It’s a series of metal pipes filled with water that have pane of glass on the front. As opposed to an actual electronic solar panel filled with solar receptors. Quite different in all respects.

      “Most people in developed countries use up tons of energy using piping hot water as and when you feel like showering or taking a bath. We take 2-5 minute showers powered by the sun.”

      Yes many people in developed countries use other means to heat water. In iceland many people use volcanic thermals to heat water. Sadly in places like the UK the weather is not as good as Nepal’s for heating water. So just like today in Kathmandu it’s cloudy and cold so no solar water heating today. Good thing the majority of hotels and guesthouses here in Kathmandu have electric powered geysers to heat water too.

      “We are a country that likes to recycle and make the best of what we have”

      If you could show me one Nepalese recycling plant it would be great. Meanwhile I’m sure the one’s in India where the majority of Nepal’s batteries come from will be doing the brunt of the work. Same can’t be said for plastic water bottles I see burning in Nepalese homes and streets everyday.

      “in a couple of years Nepal’s hydroelectricity will relieve a majority of its energy problems”

      Well I’ve been hearing that for the past 10 years. I think the 340 megawatt facility (you’re welcome for the donations, sponsorship and volunteers by the way) should be online … by that time the population will have out grown it’s capacity … but hey! Maybe reopening some of the USA, Japanese etc funded power hydro plants that were shut down before even being opened would be an idea. Oh wait, all the parts were sold off or disappeared.

      “Above 100 watts, you can apply for a subsidy. So please dont talk about you “solar power knowledge” without even researching”

      Great stuff and let’s see how many Nepalese house owners can pay for a solar system even with a subsidy. By the way … where do those batteries come from again? At least, in fairness, to the Nepalese companies importing them they do provide a 3-5 year guarantee on the batteries.

      Now then, how about less lashing out with “Nepalese Pride” and generalization and actually doing something or saying something positive and constructive. Kind of like writing an article for tourists about what to expect in Nepal when it comes to “solar power”