Arifur Rahman, Deputy Manager of the ICT Division of Dhaka Stock Exchange Limited, always wanted to use renewable energy. He was planning to use a small solar panel to run one or two small DC (direct current) fans during the day time.
As the energy crisis hit the country (and the world) hard, and load shedding returned, Arif took the endeavour more seriously and decided to set up a system to run some of his regular electric appliances on rooftop solar panels - which sit idle on most rooftop in Dhaka anyway - instead of grid electricity.
After consultation with an expert, Arif determined that he only needed an MPPT (maximum power point tracking) solar charge controller and some cables to be able to use what he already had - an inverter (his IPS, in fact), a battery and solar panels.
The plan was to transmit solar electricity from the roof to four stories down below in 40v DC, convert it to 12v DC to charge the 12v battery pack, which will power the inverter. He chose an MPPT charger because it converts the higher voltage to more amperage, just like a step-down transformer used in the grid. In other charge controllers such as locally-made auto cut-off and PWM (pulse width modulation) controllers, any voltage above the charging voltage is basically wasted.
MPPT controllers are 30% more efficient than PWM controllers, and much more expensive. The use of MPPT controllers also prevents power waste through heat as seen in low-voltage transmission.
After some research on the internet, Arif found a store in Nawabpur, Shangjog Power Pack, that sold MPPT charge controllers. Along with the controller, he also bought a coil of cables for the transmission.
Arif was excited to finally go green. But his enthusiasm soon perished. Two days after setting up the system, it was clear that the system was not providing enough power to run his appliances.
After a thorough checkup, it was found that the charge controller was actually a PWM one, labelled as MPPT. It does lower the voltage to charging voltage for the 12v battery, but does not multiply the current, a major function of such devices. As a result, the inverter was getting only a third of the power supplied from the rooftop solar array.
Also, the transmission cables, marked 70/76, were actually thinner than what the numbers represent, and were warming up at a mere 7.5 amp current.
Arif is not the only one who got deceived by solar market sellers, nor is MPPT charge controller the only item that is wrongly labelled with an intention to deceive customers.
A renowned electric appliance seller based in the city's Stadium Market in Gulistan, used to sell solar items even a decade ago. Suddenly, a couple of years back, they stopped supplying these items. Turns out, widespread malpractices in the market played a role.
"Many suppliers re-label solar panels to show a higher wattage than the actual power rating. In doing so, they can ask for a lower price per watt, rendering us uncompetitive in the market. No one will purchase our panels since there are cheaper ones in the next shop," said the proprietor who requested anonymity fearing reprisal from fellow businessmen.
"The average buyer cannot detect the fraud, so they go for the apparently cheaper solar panels, although in reality they are paying more," the electric appliance seller added.
This is not a new phenomenon. The marketing fraud has existed since the solar market began to expand to the urban areas of the country more than a decade ago. And this continues uncontrolled due to lack of monitoring, although there are necessary rules and regulations in place.
Currently, 229 products are under the compulsory Certification Marks (CM) scheme of BSTI (Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution). A number of photovoltaic products are mentioned in this list, solar panels and battery charge controllers included.
"For every manufacturer or importer of such products, it is mandatory to have the products tested and quality ensured," Md. Nurul Amin, Director (CM), BSTI, told The Business Standard referring to the products mentioned above.
Providing further details to the issue, Arafat Hossain Sarker, Assistant Director (CM) of the same institution said, "The standards adopted for different solar products are identical to IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission) standards. Solar products can be tested in the BSTI laboratory and in another laboratory set up on public-private partnership, where they are given certificates."
However, BSTI has not issued certificates to any solar charge controller brands so far, the AD mentioned. The institution has certified 23 solar panel and inverter companies or consignments as of yet.
These certified products are basically used in larger, grid-tied rooftop solar projects. After BSTI's clearance, the users also need to get permission from the government's Sustainable and Renewable Energy Development Authority (SREDA) if they intend to get net-metering privilege.
And for solar inverters, there is no full-fledged testing lab facility in BSTI, but they accept clearance from accredited foreign standards and testing labs, so projects are not hampered.
However, for the rest of the products in the solar market, there is no effective system in place to monitor and ensure quality. But a customer, if deceived by a seller with sub-standard products, can turn to both BSTI or National Consumer Rights Protection Directorate for remedy.
"We have a mobile court team, and if we get information on such frauds, we can and will take actions," the BSTI official said.
The retail sellers in Nawabpur and Sundarbans markets are aware of the standards issue but they said only big suppliers involved in government projects take the necessary certifications.
This writer contacted Saiful Islam, the proprietor of Shanjog Power Pack who sourced the charge controller to Arifur Rahman, to verify the complaint. Saiful at first denied that he had sold a substandard item. When shown the evidence - the money receipt and his company's name engraved on the device, as well as a video of the device not working properly - he blamed it on the importer, who is located in the Sundarban Market in Gulistan. However, sensing trouble with the involvement of the press, the seller said he would take back the product and repay the cash if the customer wanted, which he later did.
The owner of MM Electronics, who imported the item from China, seemed aware of the substandard quality of the item, but defiantly said the product is marketed the way it comes from China.
"I'm adamant about pursuing my solar project despite facing this unfortunate situation," said Arif, after getting his money back. He is, of course, unsure about where to buy his charge controller from, given the widespread marketing fraud in the sector.
The rest of the renewable energy enthusiasts, however, remain unprotected, until the government agencies decide to crack down on the deceitful solar market sellers to bring order and ensure standards.