Going solar

The need to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and embrace renewable sources of energy is critical for the future. In the Cayman Islands, where sunshine is plentiful, it makes perfect sense to harness this energy to power homes and businesses.

In the past the expense of purchasing and installing solar power systems was prohibitive for many, and the output limited, but technology is constantly improving. Not only are solar panels producing more watts of power per square foot, but the cost is also decreasing, says David Phipps of Electra Tech.

“Cost per watt reduction has been successful with gains in PV efficiency, material costs and fabricating efficiency. PV panels, for instance, have never been as competitively priced as now,” he adds.

An alternative type of solar panel, in a laminate form, is also now being offered by Watler’s Metal Products, the latest company on island to offer solar energy solutions. These lightweight, almost invisible panels adhere directly to metal roofs – as opposed to the conventional crystalline panels which must be attached with brackets. As well as being simple to install, there is no chance of the laminate panels blowing off in a hurricane, says Bob Watler.

Although these panels are not as efficient at generating power as their crystalline counterparts, this shortfall is made up for in the longer production time afforded by laminates. Crystalline panels can typically generate power for around six hours per day, whereas laminate panels can turn sunshine into electricity for eight or more hours per day.

For those wanting to power their homes or businesses from renewable energy resources, there are two options.

One can remain connected to the grid, through CUC’s CORE programme, or one can go “off the grid” completely.

In the first scenario, one can still draw power from the grid at night, or when one’s system is not generating sufficient power. Any surplus energy produced can equally be sold back to CUC.

The original CORE programme was revised in February 2011 and a Feed In Tariffs structure introduced, designed to provide greater incentive to consumers generating energy from renewable sources. Under this scheme, consumers sell the power they generate to CUC at a fixed rate of 37 cents per kilowatt hour.

They are then billed for power at the normal retail rate (currently 30 cents per kilowatt hour) for energy consumption. Any accumulated credit is paid out to the consumer quarterly. Nine customers are currently signed up to this programme.

While it is possible to go “off the grid” completely in Cayman, only a handful of residences have done so. One reason, says David, is that architects, designers and builders may still not be comfortable in their understanding of alternative energy systems. The main reason, however, is the cost.

In order to be off the grid, a large battery system is required, in order to store power when none can be generated. The battery system accounts for 40 to 60 per cent of the total cost of a solar power system.

It would typically cost in the region of $40,000 to install a solar power system for an average size (3,000 square feet) two to three bedroom house. When operating at optimum efficiency it would take around five to six years to see a return on one’s investment. It’s therefore a significant long term investment.

“Residential customers here are not being offered ‘green loans’ if they want to add solar to an existing home,” explains David. “Banks worldwide offer these as an increase to a homeowner’s mortgage and the increase in the homeowner’s monthly payment is much less than the consumer’s savings on their energy bill.”

It’s a solution that would put the homeowner in a stronger financial position, which is the primary concern of the banks. There is hope then that this could change. Indeed, Bob Watler is currently in talks with banks to make such financing available to those wishing to install solar systems.

All being well, home and business owners may soon be able to take out a mortgage on their solar power systems and pay off the loan in monthly installments.