Off-Grid DC Solar Kits for as Little as $1,200?

Solar panels on rooftops in Afghanistan.
Solar panels on rooftops in Afghanistan.

By Sohail Hasnie

The answer is yes – off-grid is the future, and the only way to bring electricity to all by 2020.

The answer is – yes. I am convinced.

I asked myself this question in early 2014, when the $1,200 price for off-grid solar electrical systems was a stretch, but by this December I think it will be possible. My earlier doubts were a reflection of the relatively high price of solar panels and batteries, which have come down dramatically in the last 18 months.

Off-grid electrification is slowly becoming a viable alternative to grid-based electricity in Central Asia, and we want to speed up the process. That’s why ADB recently approved a $2 million grant under ADB's Clean Energy Financing Facility to design and assess the technical and economic viability of a low-cost kit for wider adoption in five Central Asia Regional Cooperation (CAREC) Program member countries. We will pilot 100 units in each of the pilot CAREC countries—Afghanistan, Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, Pakistan, and Tajikistan—and hope to develop a project to bring electricity to 100,000 homes.

We will work closely with the energy ministries, power utilities and interested civil society organizations in each of the pilot countries to determine if we can design a kit for as little as $1,200 or a maximum $1,500. This may seems like a big figure for citizens of these countries, but it comes out to more or less $20/month over 60 months, and let’s not forget how much people in these countries now spend on expensive kerosene, new connections charges, and diesel generation to power basic modern conveniences like lighting, a fridge, fans, a TV, and phone chargers.

All the selected appliances that will be part of the kit will be energy-efficient to minimize generation and storage direct currency (DC). Our preference is to have a 12 volt USB, or RCA, or any suitable 12 volt connection type (not the cigarette lighter type socket) connecting the panels, to batteries, to controllers, to the appliances. Solar panel wattage can be 150-250 watts, and batteries 12 volts with 70 Ah to 140 Ah for 2-day storage. User feedback will decide the optimum panel size and battery storage capacity.

Our vision is that of electricity in a box. Simplicity will be the key. Since the target beneficiaries are poor people, many with little education, all connections will be color-coded and with proper symbols. Anyone should be able to put together the kit with a 5-minute instruction video. That's the test of a good design.

We want quality products, with reliable brands and warranties, and a design that can be scaled up. To procure these, we have two options:

  1. Design, develop specification, and then procure. A team of experts recruited under the project will design a kit and develop its complete specifications. Procurement will be based on the expert design.
  2. Procurement with loose specifications, allowing the market decide on the product within broad requirements and a price cap, and 2-stage bidding with strict technical evaluation for contract award.

Which is the best approach? We will discuss expert opinions and ideas on the merits and demerits of each approach. In any case, ADB guidelines will apply to all procurement, with competitive bidding as the key principle.

The ideal outcome of the project in the short term will be a quality off-grid solar energy generation kit that is trusted because of its quality components and branding. In the medium term, we would like to scale up to 100,000 units in Afghanistan or Pakistan and other pilot countries from 2017 onward.

Off-grid is the future. This is the ONLY way to bring electricity to all by 2020.