Solar Charging Stations for Mobile Devices


WrightGrid is developing solar powered charging stations that can help rural communities in the developing world gain access to electricity and lead the transition to renewable energy. In today’s world of mobile technology and rechargeable batteries, people don’t necessarily need electricity delivered to their home – they need a battery charged. By providing lockers at a station, members of the community can drop off their device (or battery) for charging, and feel confident that their property will be secure and charged reliably. A simple, modular, central charging station, simplifies logistics and maintenance and lowers the cost of delivering renewable energy.

 

To start, each station will have a small 150w solar module (or two) and an ~200Ah lead acid battery (although Li-ion will also be supported by the electronics) and ten lockers. Depending on the climate, the season and other factors, each station can charge from 30 to 150 phones per day. Solar and cell phones are just the beginning. The core of the system is our Charge Wright Technology (CWT), a low-cost integrated circuit board and firmware package designed to efficiently charge the “Base Battery” in the bottom of the station from any DC source (solar, wind, pedal power, etc.), manage and monitor the distribution of power from the base battery to a set of charging plugs in each locker. The load management and charging technology can be used no matter what the surce of power or what the loads are. The CWT core is capable of curtailing power draw from the loads by limiting the number of phones that can be charged at any one time in order to maximize the life of the base battery and optimize energy harvest.


A single LED next to each locker indicates if the locker is available and if the device is being charged properly – this improves the user experience in case not all lockers are available for charging.In addition to this basic function, by integrating intelligent software into the charger electronics, and with a cellular connection to the station, advanced services can be provided at limited cost, such as a Wifi access point, mobile billing, and station maintenance and performance diagnostics. These services can increase potential revenues and reduce operating expenses, which, of course, helps get more renewable energy to more people. Alternatively, if stations are funded through government aid programs or NGOs, the onboard diagnostics could easily provide statistics about the number of devices charged and how effective and reliable the stations are for delivering energy – critical information for any aid or public service program. There are also possibilties for electronically interfacing with the phones from the station, which could be explored, responsibily, but of course security and privacy are of the utmost importance.The stations and electronics are designed to be inexpensive, rugged, reliable, and easy to service and transport. By demonstrating a sustainable revenue stream, we hope to build out a network of dealers/owners and people qualified to service the stations.


The stations will create local jobs and economic stimulus – A local entrepreneur could microfinance a station and earn a livable wage by charging $0.20 for cell phone users to charge their devices. Or farmers who have a good crop year could invest in a charging station to provide another source of income for their families to help offset years of drought and lower crop yield.We believe the model of small modular centralized charging stations will prove to be a better solution for many situations than alternative methods currently being used for delivering renewable energy in rural communities.



WHAT COMMUNITY DOES THIS IDEA BENEFIT AND WHO ARE THE MAIN PLAYERS?

This idea benefits people and communities in the developing world that do not have reliable access to electricity. Most of whom have cell phones. One quarter of the world’s population is still without electricity, yet according to a recent U.N. report, 6 billion out of 7 billion people on earth have mobile phones.

Cell phones can greatly improve quality of life in a rural village by providing access to medical care and financial services, improving community safety, and enabling local business and commerce.

Each station or network of stations will need to be operated by a local organization or individual.


 

HOW DOES YOUR IDEA SPECIFICALLY HELP YOUR COMMUNITY RAPIDLY TRANSITION TO RENEWABLES?

These stations provide an alternative to running diesel generators to charge batteries, and will reduce pressure to extend the grid from centralized fossil fuel plants. Just as the developing world leapfrogged land-based telephone lines to mobile technology, so too will it leap over the model of a centralized power grid for delivering electricity. As the developed world is looking to smart grids, micro-grids and energy storage to increase resiliency of the power grid and enable greater penetration of renewable energy, this same technology will be leveraged to more quickly and affordably electrify rural developing markets.


Our stations will help pave the way for larger renewable power stations, that will likely be based on similar technology and concept, to provide a wider range of services to heavier loads, perhaps even electric vehicles, or to power loads in homes and community centers.


 

WHAT EARLY, LIGHTWEIGHT EXPERIMENT CAN YOU TRY OUT IN YOUR OWN COMMUNITY TO FIND OUT IF THE IDEA WILL MEET YOUR EXPECTATIONS?

WrightGrid is currently deploying our stations at schools and Universities across the US, as well as taking them to outdoor music festivals and other outdoor events to engage the public, develop our technology and better understand how people interface with the stations and what the expectations are. The response to our charging stations has been overwhelmingly positive thus far in the domestic market. People need and want continual use of their cell phone and are less concerned with how this is enabled. So the real value of energy is the service it provides to the end user.


 

WHAT SKILLS, INPUT OR GUIDANCE ARE YOU KEEN TO CONNECT WITH FROM THE OPENIDEO COMMUNITY TO HELP YOU BUILD OUT OR REFINE YOUR IDEA FURTHER?

We would love to hear insights from the folks at Ideo.org and others with experience working in the developing world about the best ways to deploy our station and build a local presence. I’m sure there are conditions ‘on the ground’ that we haven’t anticipated that will influence our design and business strategy. We are hoping to connect with folks who can work with us to design the human interface to be more intuitive and accessible for people who speak other languages or cannot read. We would love to hear ideas about the possibilities of connecting our stations with mobile applications and services. We need to identify strong partners and we also need to continue to work on developing models for funding the stations and generating revenues.


There are many other considerations, design options, ideas, statistics and data we can share to help facilitate the conversation, but had to omit for the sake of brevity. And while we could spend a lot of time talking about our ideas so far, we really want to hear YOUR ideas!

This article, by WrightGrid advisor Randy Batchelor, was first published on OpenIdeo.com