Pocket-sized solar panels for rent

The Solar Pocket Factory fits on a coffee table and produces mini panels, which can be equipped to connect to cellular networks for isolated areas like Alibijaban.

For one fifth of the world’s population that can’t connect to the grid directly, there’s a new experiment to equip homes with cellphone-enabled mini solar panels. Fast Company reports.

To get to the Philippine island Alibijaban, you have to take an 8-minute boat ride from the mainland:

The outpost’s roughly 300 households buy car batteries to power lights, charge phones, and run TVs, DVD players, and fans. Each week, residents carry or courier their batteries to San Andres, a town on the mainland with electricity, where they recharge them at a hardware store or welding shop.

When Alex Hornstein was a senior at MIT in 2007, he worked on a solar energy project in Lesotho, a small country in southern Africa. Their work showed how it’s possible (albeit difficult) to build a sophisticated device in an isolated rural area.

A year ago, Hornstein and Shawn Frayne started the Solar Pocket Factory: the world’s first automated tabletop microsolar production machine. It’s about the size of a coffee table, and it makes small panels that can power pocket-sized devices. They raised nearly $78,000 via Kickstarter last year.

Alibijaban’s remoteness led the duo to the idea of Tiny Pipes: “solar panels that are controllable over a cellular network,” Hornstein explains.

Last month, together with Philippine utility Quezelco, they began installing a 60-watt solar panel on the roofs of about 20 of homes. Each panel comes with a card that connects it to the cellular network.

Each household draws power to a battery, which stores the charge. Customers rent the panel from Tiny Pipes and pay for the power they use. Fast Company reports:

The deal stands to be a bargain for Alibijabans, who consume the energy equivalent of about one U.S. cent a day. Residents currently pay anywhere from $1.50 to $2 a week to charge batteries, in addition to incurring the expense and hassle of hauling them back and forth to the mainland.

“The aim is to find an elegant way to produce energy for people who are using little energy,” Hornstein adds.

If the panels can withstand typhoons, he hopes to expand Tiny Pipes to another 200 homes on Alibijaban, and maybe even to 1,000 homes in Bacolod, a city with half a million residents.

[Fast Company]

Video/image: Solar Pocket Factory

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com