Solar powers water
Reflections on how the use of solar photo-voltaic technology can reduce operational costs in the delivery of safe water by water enterprises.
June 06, 2017
This guest blog is by Jonathan McGrath, Communications & Engagement Manager at Safe Water Network.
Safe Water Network uses innovative technologies in our mission to ensure millions gain access to safe, affordable water—and solar power is no exception. In Ghana, we are demonstrating how the use of solar photovoltaic technology reduces our energy costs by up to 80%. The payback period for incremental investment in solar panels is approximately 11.5 years through energy cost savings.
Operational and financial sustainability have been primary concerns since our organization’s inception. Founded in 2006 by the late actor and philanthropist Paul Newman and a group of prominent civic and business leaders, Safe Water Network is advancing the potential for small water enterprises: locally owned and operated water treatment businesses that meet consumers’ safe water needs. Working in over 250 communities in Ghana and India, we’re demonstrating the affordability, effectiveness, and sustainability of this enterprise approach.
However, we know that affordability, effectiveness, and sustainability is tough to come by in the rural and peri-urban communities that need water the most. Ghana, for example, has been experiencing an energy crisis in recent years—a product of rising petroleum product costs, climate change (which impacts hydropower), and other factors. As a result, electricity tariffs have escalated by an average of 80% per year between 2012 and 2016. The financial viability of our stations is highly susceptible to the increasing rates, as energy presently accounts for approximately 20% of our water enterprises’ operating costs.
Intermittent power supply is also an issue in Ghana, which can damage not only our equipment, but also our brand of reliability among consumers. For many Ghanaians, however, the true energy crisis lies in the fact that a substantial portion of the country lacks electrical grid infrastructure altogether. How can we hope to power small water enterprises at scale in a country with such expensive and unreliable power?
This question led us to consider solar power as a means to enable safe water access to off-grid communities, insulate our small water enterprises from electricity rate escalations, and protect our operational equipment from grid power quality fluctuations. We started testing the technology in an off-grid community, Ananekrom. After three years of operation, the Ananekrom water enterprise has run almost entirely on solar with minimal use of a generator, leading to a 95% reduction in energy costs, compared to the average grid-powered water enterprise.
The Stone Family Foundation took an interest in our solar initiative early on. In 2015, Safe Water Network’s Ghana team hosted the Foundation on a field visit to water enterprises in the Ashanti region. During the visit, the opportunity for photovoltaic technology became clear, and we mapped out how solar power could be used to provide water to rural and peri-urban communities in Ghana.
Now, thanks to a grant from the Foundation, and in partnership with Water Mission, we are retrofitting a significant portion of our water enterprises in Ghana with solar panels. The results are promising: based on the first few months of post-solar retrofit data, stations with solar experienced 50% less downtime compared to stations running on grid power. We’re also anticipating up to a 20% reduction in operating expenses at retrofitted water enterprises.
As Safe Water Network continues building solar-powered water enterprises throughout Ghana, we’re sharing the results of our work with the sector to improve understanding on how solar power boosts operational and financial viability. In the latest edition of our Field Insight publication series, “Improving Station Viability with Solar”, we describe how investment in solar power is already having a meaningful impact: solar power fulfills the majority of equipped enterprises’ electricity requirements and lessens the need to purchase electricity from the electric utility.
Based on these promising results, we will continue to use solar power as a primary power source for all our water enterprises in Ghana.