Image via: James Kao
Last week I spent the week in Nicaragua, with Power to the People, installing solar panels, painting libraries, taking a million pictures and eating my fill of rice, beans and plantains. While out there, one issue that came up repeatedly is the lack of a way to ensure that the panels stay put, once installed. Many of the areas we visited were so remote that they lacked electricity. Homes maybe have a few CFL lightbulbs and maybe a few outlets for tv, cell phone charger, and small appliance. In this case, one solar panel can power the entire house. For someone that can find one - it means a huge step up in quality of life - and if they can find several - Jackpot! With such a high value added to solar, how do you keep them on the roof? The system we installed, for example, was 8 (123 watt) photovoltaic panels on a school way up in the mountains. The location was so remote that it was almost impossible for the 4-wheel drive truck used to carry the panels and inverter to make it up the mountain to the school. The system we installed powers 8 CFL lightbulbs inside the school, and 3 lightbulbs on the exterior of the school. In addition, there are 4 electrical plug/outlets to be used for laptops, cell phone chargers and other equipment necessary for education.
While we were there, the community was involved throughout the entire installation process and there was party/meeting during installation to discuss how to maintain the system. The citizens said that more than likely the system will be taken by people traveling through the community - someone that does not have a vested interest in keeping the panels within the community and available for the children's and the community's use.
Image via: James Kao
The only thing holding the system on the roof is some custom-made racking - meaning that it's not the typical expensive racking that you find in the United States, but rather racking made from supplies you find locally and then cut to fit the system. The panels are screwed right into the rails/supports instead of using clamps and other framing materials, meaning that anyone with a pair of plyers, channel locks or just the sheer will to get those panels off essentially can.
So the question is: how do you keep solar panels in developing countries from being stolen. Here in the United States, homeowners can put them under their homeowners insurance, but no such system exists for remote communities in the developing world. In addition, systems in the US are more complicated and larger, so if someone takes your panels there is a good chance that they knew what they were doing and it was an inside job. While in the field, we pondered this dilemma - hey, we'd worked hard enough to get those panels up, we didn't want the community to lose them any more than they did. Here are a few ideas we came up with, but what do you think - how would you keep solar panels from being stolen?