Last Updated on March 6, 2023
For the Western world, “going solar” generally means costly investments, a degree in tax law, and being labeled a treehugger by neighbors. Until this past month, my knowledge of solar energy began and ended with the large panels placed on rooftops. In the past, I’ve worked on clean energy campaigns and I did some work in the field of solar energy. But that work only included how progressive, upper middle class residents of Berkeley or Boston could take steps to reduce their carbon footprint. I considered myself well-informed. I could explain the differences between monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels over cocktails and later chat about which companies offered the quickest return on initial investment over coffee at the local organic coffee shop.
Though I thought I knew about solar, it wasn’t until I started working in India in the field solar energy solutions that I realized that I had barely scratched the surface. Solar panels sitting atop charming, suburban homes are barely the beginning. Although still a worthy endeavor — check out Google Maps’ new project to see if your home could accommodate solar panels. But rooftop panels are yesterday’s news; Building Integrated Photovoltaics (BIPVs) are now taking over the market. These micro-panels can be sprayed onto glass window panes, gathering energy from sunrays as they enter. BIPVs can also be built into different materials such as shingles, curtains and siding. They are significantly less expensive than panels, don’t require any extra installation, and are quickly emerging as a better and more affordable alternative to traditional panels. And it’s not just homes — everything from cars to space stations, from iPhones to backpacks to Kindles is going solar.
These advances are amazing, but I find it even more impressive that solar energy is revolutionizing the developing world. All the technological advances mentioned above allow the Western world to weave sustainability into their lives, sometimes even adding in a dose of convenience along the way. The technology being rolled out in the developing world, however, is life-changing. It’s one thing to handily charge your iPhone on the go without searching for a power outlet, but it’s an entirely different thing to bring electricity into a home that previously had none. That’s a game-changer. All of the products below are paving the way in their respective fields and have huge potential to impact the developing world — most are already in the field and powering communities around the world.
This “fabric” collects body heat, or the heat emitted from any object (like the sun) and turns it into energy. In other words, build a little of this into a phone case and the phone charges by sticking it in a pocket. Or, make a small “charging mat” and set it in the sunlight. A bit of this fabric hooked up to a solar battery could light a small house, night and day. Or, sew it into a handbag to gather sunlight while running errands — the options are limitless. One of the aspects that I like best about the Power Felt is its discreteness. In the communities where I work in India, theft is a large consideration when buying a new product. No one is interested in an item, no matter how great, if it needs to be left outside for extended periods of time. This Power Felt addresses that issue by allowing its owner to keep it on their person or inside the house.
One Laptop Per Child
OLPC got a lot of press a few years ago for their initiative to bring technology to rural students. Admittedly, they had some initial bugs to work out. Their products were expensive and many of the rural Kenyan schools where trials began didn’t have desks, books, or chairs, let alone electricity. Debates waged (and still do) on whether technology is a priority for these students who study under large trees instead of in a classroom. OLPC’s most recent laptop, which is actually a tablet, is a great example of using feedback to create a product able to better meet the needs of the developing communities.
According to their website, their product is “an Android tablet designed for children 3-12 years old that brings OLPC’s expertise to both educational and retail markets.” By far my favorite aspect is the charging capabilities — the tablet can be 100% solar, powered by hand-crank, or used with traditional energy. Another key feature is that the tablet is easy to take apart and fix on site — which better ensures that the expensive technology stays in working condition for longer.
Liter of Light
This low-tech solution for a massive, global issue is possibly one of my favorites. Liter of Light manufactures and sells solar lights that use recycled soda bottles filled with a mixture of water and bleach to refract light and spread it throughout a home. In addition, they share all of their blueprints and best-practices online, allowing anyone to create their own light. I highly recommend checking out their website; they have a great business model (they even take volunteers!) and they offer a great product.
Companies such as D.Light and Greenlight Planet also create small, durable solar lights at affordable prices which are having huge impacts in low-income communities. Within the past few years, distributors like Solar Aid and Pollinate Energy have developed businesses to connect sustainable products, including solar lights, to interested people in both Africa and Asia.
Kick this soccer ball (dubbed “Soccket Ball”) around for 30 minutes and generate 3 hours of power. The ball acts as a mini-generator and is then converted into a small lamp. Uncharted Play, the company behind Soccket, makes a jump rope as well. I love that this combines renewable energy with exercise. Each one costs $99 — so it’s not too applicable if you are living in poverty, but it’s pretty cool idea all the same.
The Soccket has generated negative press recently due to quality control issues. Despite some shoddy products created in their first production round, I thought they were worth leaving in here for both their ingenuity and the lessons that can be learned from their mistakes. Soccket was developed as part of a class project by a group of university students in the USA. The students created a Kickstarter campaign to launch their product in rural Mexico. Unfortunately, their lab tests were flawed and there were issues with the materials they used to construct Soccket. As a result, many balls sent out to Mexican villages simply fell apart. Uncharted Play received a lot of flack for their admittedly low-quality product, but they immediately issued an apology (multiple apologies, actually) and began fixing their issues. This TedTalk on accepting and admitting failure in the NGO sector is a worthy 15 minutes of your time.
The key with each of these, at least for me, is that the people coming up with these innovations aren’t professionals — many times they are bright students with bright futures but with little-to-no business experience. This is one of the best parts (and my favorite part) about crowdsourcing solutions. It does, however, lend itself to a higher level of errors as the people who dominate the market are generally inexperienced in many aspects of their respective fields. Every country, every city, and every village has their own set of proverbial Soccket inventors working tirelessly to improve the lives of others, and it is because of these bright minds that unelectrified villages are lit, disconnected towns receive cell phones, and diseases like malaria can now be detected with no more than a fingerstick. As we continue deeper into the age of Kickstarter campaigns and crowdsourcing solutions, it will be interesting to see how our society develops systems to help fledgling ideas grow to meet global needs.
Check out other pieces in the Invention Series here, and stay tuned next week to learn about innovations taking the healthcare field by storm. There are always new products entering the market. Know of an awesome product I missed? Let me know!
Cindy is a traveler with an insatiable urge to immerse herself in other cultures. She is currently working on a project providing solar lights (among other things) to urban slums in Bangalore, India. Follow her adventures at Casilocal. She is also a GV Ambassador helping map the world of social enterprises and sustainable volunteer opportunities.