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“.
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.
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.
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.
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?
A journey to southern Nepal’s jungle