Thursday, April 24, 2008

I’ve Got One Hand in My Pocket and the Other is Holding a Solar Panel

This post is published simultaneously in The Green Leap Forward.

Ecopowered Solutions (EPS), a Beijing and Colorado based startup, aims to bring pocket-sized solar cell batteries, especially to the remote areas of the developing world. EPS’ product, dubbed the SunCell, is a portable solar chargeable battery device that can recharge a whole host of consumer electronics including mobile phones, mp3 players, digital cameras and bluetooth devices (but not laptops as laptops charge at a much higher voltage than SunCell’s maximum voltage setting of 9 volts).

Measuring 5.1 by 3.4 by 0.9 inches and weigh just half a pound (225 kg), SunCell consists of 1.5 watts of monocrystalline photovoltaic panels coupled with an internal lithium ion battery. The SunCell requires 8 to 12 hours of direct sunlight to be fully recharged and when fully charged can typically recharge mobile phone batteries of average capacities three complete times before the SunCell itself requires a recharge.

One of the drivers of growing electricity demand worldwide is the proliferation of portable consumer electronics. A report by In-Sat forecasts the market of portable consumer electronic devices to grow from 2.7 billion units in 2007 to 3.1 billion in 2011. Harnessing solar power to power these portable devices addresses two major issues–first, it relieves electricity demand from an already overstrained electricity grid. Second, it allows users in remote areas without access to grid-based electricity (read, people in much of the developing world) to recharge their mobile phones.

Indeed, besides being a clean tech company, EPS has a social mission to bring clean solar power to the developing world. Kip Stringfellow, the founder and CEO of EPS sat down with The Green Leap Forward to talk about his business, his product and his vision.


GLF: How did the idea for creating a portable solar powered battery charger come about?

KS: Basically, when I first started I felt that there is a lot of potential out there for products that can be really useful and also utilize renewable energy. People are starting to care more and more about renewable energy and everyone always seems to be running out of power for their various electronic devices like cell phones, cameras, and mp3 players. I though a solar powered battery charger would really be a unique product to fill this demand and solar products also allow me to focus on another area I’m really passionate about, international development. There are billions of people in the world without access to electricity and by providing a power source, a whole new range of opportunities become available. Lighting systems, cell phone use in off grid locations, and many other applications open up once you have a reusable power source. I’m trying to find as many ways as possible to get my products into the hands of people that could really use them to change their lives by donation programs I am setting up and also through partnerships I am trying to form to distribute the SunCell in developing countries.


GLF: There are other competing products now in the market. How does the SunCell distinguish itself from other solar powered batter chargers?

KS: There are two main differences between the SunCell and other solar chargers. The SunCell features an internal lithium-ion battery that has over twice the battery capacity of many of the other solar chargers on the market. This means that you don’t have to recharge it as frequently and you can have more power available for when you need it the most. Also, the SunCell has a built-in LED flashlight that comes in handy at night. It can run nonstop for about 6 days so you always have backup light source if you need one.


GLF: What is the biggest market for SunCell currently, and where else are you seeking to expand?

KS: Right now our largest market is in the US but we are actively trying to expand into Europe and other locations around the world. We have received a lot of interest so we are working hard to set up partnerships in different countries in order to distribute and sell as many SunCells as possible. It’s a win-win situation because by expanding sales we do better as a company but we also provide more and more people with a portable power source charged from renewable solar energy.

We are also really trying to expand our donation program by working with international education and health organizations that focus on communities with no access to an electricity grid. So far, donated SunCells have been sent to Haiti, Malawi, Rwanda, Lesotho, and Panama.


GLF: And what about China?

KS: China is an enormous market and like many countries in the world, it is obviously a place where renewable energy is definitely needed. We are working on trying to get a sales program going in China even though this currently presents more challenges than operating a business in the US.


GLF: How is the SunCell priced? How does this compare to competing products in the market?

KS: The SunCell currently retails for about $120 in the US. I believe the SunCell is well priced because of its advantages over other solar chargers. Some other solar chargers in the market are cheaper and others are more expensive. From all the competition I have seen though, I believe the SunCell is definitely the best value and it has better capabilities than some other products that are more expensive.

We also have special pricing for countries where we feel the full $120 retail value will prohibit people from being able to buy the SunCell. I am really focused on trying to get as many SunCells out there as possible so in developing countries, a lower retail price may be the only way for the SunCell to make a real impact. We also have special prices for NGOs and other international organizations that want to purchase the SunCell to distribute them in developing countries.


GLF: Tell us a little more of the donation program.

KS: EPS’ mission is to promote the use of alternative energy technologies and also to provide a vehicle for donating SunCells to people and organizations that can utilize the device to dramatically improve the quality of life in the communities where they are used. There is a link on our website that accepts donations that we pool together, and then we use the donated money to send SunCells and other products to programs in developing countries at cost. Currently, we are donating all SunCells to Partners in Health, one of the largest and most effective international health organizations. SunCells are currently being used by Partners in Health in many of the countries it has operations in such as Haiti and Malawi. They are used by the communities they work in to power cell phones in remote areas and they can be used as lighting systems for people that have no access to electricity.


GLF: It would seem that the needs of the customer in say a mature developed market like the US full of affluent eletronic gadget collectors would differ from that of low-income villagers in Kenya. The practical use of SunCells in developing countries with no grid electricity is pretty obvious. But how do you sell these to urbanites in well developed cities?

KS: You are right, we are really trying to address very different markets in very different countries. The SunCell clearly has a more vital use in places with no grid system but its versatility makes it a great product for those urbanites you mentioned in developed countries. The SunCell, at its core, is a portable battery that has the additional functionality of being able to recharge itself from the Sun. Its internal battery can be recharged with a power adapter that is included with the SunCell so it can be used as just a portable battery. So for urbanites it may be easier to recharge the SunCell from the wall, but with its solar panels the SunCell still provides a lot of value as an emergency power source and can also be extremely useful if those urbanites head out for a camping trip or spend some time off grid.


GLF: And I suppose there is also a symbolic value…

KS: Absolutely! EcoPowered Solutions is trying to combine two areas of focus into one. We are trying to promote clean, renewable solar energy and also improve the quality of life for people with no access to electricity. Solar power is currently one of the best and most effective ways for people in developing countries to have access to electricity and it’s just as easy for people to use in developed countries. All you have to do is put the SunCell in sunlight and everything else takes care of itself! We are really trying to provide simple, cost effective power solutions that anyone on the planet can use and enjoy. The idea is about everyone being able to have access to electricity no matter where they are or where they live.

2 comments:

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