Solar Panel Maintenance Poses Unforeseen Challenge in Developing World Electrification

One major hurdle for installing solar panels is the lack of skilled workers to do the job. Customers for solar panel installations could range from hospitals requiring over 20 kilowatts of power to small villages needing less than 500 watts to power the entire village. Some training is necessary to understand the complexities of these systems. This problem is being approached in a few different ways. Some companies are hiring and training dedicated installation crews to travel around vast areas doing the work. The problem with this arrangement, though, is that traveling between job sites is inefficient, and any downtime becomes very costly for companies trying to keep dedicated crews on payroll. On the other hand, if these companies hire independent installation crews then ensuring quality standards is harder to do. Also, companies are at the whim of the rates that the independent crews set. Not to mention, in some areas there are no independent installation crews for hire. However, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) is stepping in to help. Recently, Not only does this solve one of the difficult problems with solar installations, but the training also provides an economic boost for the entire village. Women are now able to earn a living wage to help further support their families.

Another challenge has to do with how transactions to purchase solar panels are structured. Most solar panel installations are a one-time transaction where a customer pays for the panels, equipment and the installation. The company delivers these products, then either installs the panels themselves or hires independent installers. In these deals, it is often unclear who will pay for maintenance when the solar panels break down. Many companies have little financial capacity to bring repair technicians out to remote locations years later to service panels (aside from reputation and customer satisfaction, which some corporations are not necessarily interested in), since most are struggling to make money as it is. Customers are often not in a position to pay much extra for maintenance either since they already paid a large up-front premium for the installation. Hospitals, schools, and businesses cannot afford to continue pouring money into solar systems that unexpectedly break down after two years, when they were supposed to work for twenty years.  But if no one is able or willing to pay for maintenance, the panels go unused and wasted.

Also wasted are the high hopes and expectations of the people who purchased the products. Because solar panels can be a novel technology in remote areas, if one person in a small village has a negative experience with solar, it is likely that others in the village will dismiss it. Entrepreneurs should not rush into high-minded plans of remote rural electrification unless they can ensure a very pleasurable and positive experience, because they might spoil the market for future years. If people are skeptical of solar, then they will continue to fall back on outdated diesel generators, which need just as much maintenance and costly fuel. Not to mention, these generators perpetuate adverse climate effects by pouring CO2 into the atmosphere. For these reasons it is especially important for like-minded entrepreneurs to share successful strategies and business models to tackle the problem of remote rural electrification and maintenance.


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