- General Mackevili
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Solar-powered building looks for all the world like a cube of colored Lego blocks dropped in a factory lot on the cityâ€™s industrial outskirts. Covered in some 1,350 solar panels â€” including large panes of multi-colored solar glass â€” the three-story building has the capacity to produce up to 135 kilowatts of power per hour of sunlight. The roof above the buildingâ€™s parking lot is covered with solar tiles, and the product showroom across the road is fronted by even more.
For Star8, the Australia-based company that inhabits this futuristic facility, it stands as a testament to the great potential of solar technology in Cambodia. â€œThe solar radiation here is phenomenal,â€ says Star8â€™s managing director Philip Stone. â€œIt will revitalize and bring Cambodia into the 21st century.â€
You canâ€™t accuse Star8 of aiming low. Next month, the company will launch its first Asian production hub at this futuristic factory site in Phnom Penh, turning out products like solar panels, batteries, roof tiles, solar glass and a range of innovative sun-powered contraptions.
In the Star8 showroom, icy-cool with air conditioning, Stone shows off the range of products that will soon be produced on-site: unobtrusive batteries, solar-enabled glass and roof tiles that can be substituted for traditional building materials. The company has also developed a flexible thin-film solar panel, a descendent of the tiny solar strips that have been used for years to power pocket calculators. â€œWeâ€™ve developed it, modified it, intensified it,â€ says Stone, â€œso instead of just running your calculator from it, you can run your company from it.â€
Cambodia is primed for a solar power boom. The power supply is so unreliable and grid electricity so expensive here that the country was one of the fastest adopters of renewable energy sources (mostly hydropower) between 1990 and 2010, according to the World Bank. Add in the sunny tropical climate, and Cambodia seems like the perfect place to harness the sun.
â€œCambodia has remarkable potential for solar energy development,â€ says Rehan Kausar, an energy specialist at the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Kausar says the potential is helped by the falling cost of solar technology, which has dropped in some countries to around $0.13 to $0.15 per kilowatt hour â€” less than the cost of grid power in many parts of Cambodia.
All this offers a possible solution to the power crisis in Phnom Penh, a city where a large recent influx of rural migrants has put great strain on the power grid, resulting in frequent rolling blackouts in the hot season. Stone of Star8 says the country gets 5.5 hours of sunlight per day on average over the course of the year, including the monsoon months, when the weather is often overcast. On clear days, solar panels often begin producing power as early as six in the morning, compared to eight or nine in Western counties. â€œThe solar starts producing at sunrise,â€ Stone says.
Stone speaks of a future in which everything in Phnom Penh, from homes and small businesses to satellite cities and garment factories, is powered by the sun. If Phnom Penhâ€™s solar revolution ever comes to pass, Star8 will undoubtedly be in the vanguard. Stone shows off the large factory floor where the company will soon employ up to 250 local staff manufacturing its range of solar products. To demonstrate the potential of the technology, production will be completely powered by the sun, and will even push surplus electricity back into the power grid. In a small side-room, a bank of batteries and inverters stands side by side, their green lights blinking, small digital panels recording the oscillating flow of power from the panels.
Parked on the concrete are two prototypes of what might well become Star8â€™s best-known product: the solar tuk-tuk. Distinguishable from the standard Cambodian variety by its larger frame and quiet engine, the â€œSolartukâ€ (available in various models) has a top speed of 37 miles per hour. Prices start from around $2,500 â€” cheaper than a garden variety tuk-tuk â€” and financial plans are being readied for tuk-tuk drivers to be able to purchase one of the new vehicles. â€œWeâ€™re going into full production straight away,â€ Stone says. â€œWeâ€™ve got orders for just over a thousand.â€ A range of other solar vehicles are also in the pipeline: delivery vans and solar-powered trucks capable of driving 180 kilometers (112 miles) on a full battery.
Star8â€™s most futuristic plan is to build a solar roadway made of specially engineered slip-resistant glass. Stone says the components are ready, and the company is talking with a developer who owns concessions on National Road 4, the highway linking Phnom Penh to the coastal resort town of Sihanoukville. After building a test stretch of roadway, the ambition is to.....
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By SEBASTIAN STRANGIO
"Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh."
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