I first started thinking about starting a consumer solar appliance company shortly after the massive earthquake and tsunami struck Japan on March 11th. For the first few days, I was glued to my computer, listening to live web-streams of NHK radio broadcasts from Japan. They naturally included live reports from the ground, and the news casters would ask reporters and interviewees what kind of relief was needed most. The answers were pretty predictable: water, food, fuel, medicine for the sick and elderly, milk for the babies.
And then they’d add: “Oh, and we can’t charge our cell phones.”
The cellular network had been badly damaged and was overloaded, but by most accounts, it continued to work in most places. When disaster strikes, it is natural for people to try and reach out to others, to let them know they are safe, to find out about the whereabouts of friends and loved ones, and to send/receive life-sustaining —life-saving, even— information. None of that can happen if the end terminals, the phones themselves, can’t be powered.
Now, delivering large quantities of water, food and fuel is difficult. But delivering power, isn’t. I know because when the disaster was unfolding, I was living in my off-grid cabin, where my only source of electricity is a meagre 145 Watt solar array. That kept me in touch with the world, and even powered my laptop all day. Keeping a bunch of cell phones charged is much cheaper and easier than even that. In all, about $100 worth of solar equipment the size of a backpack, hooked up to a car battery can easily keep at least a few phones charged continuously, even on a dark winter day. A few phones can keep dozens of people in touch with their friends, family and loved ones. A few smart phones can even broadcast requests for help, pictures and even video out to the entire world over the web.
Keeping cell phones isn’t a challenge just in the first days after a disaster. From mid-April to mid-June, I spent two months volunteering in the tsunami-struck areas of Japan. During my time there, I spent a few weeks in a small community called Yamada, where we set up our base (campsite, really) in a damaged house with no electricity. Since our team could be split up into as many as 3 sites during the day, we relied on our cell phones to keep in touch and coordinate. But without electricity in our camp, it was obviously a challenge to keep our phones charged. We had a 2.3kW gas-powered generator, but that was clearly overkill for charging tiny 4Wh phone batteries. Fortunately, I had an inverter with me, so we plugged that into our van to charge our phones, but that was far from ideal. Since many cars require the electrical system to be powered in order to use the 12V outlets, we risked running down the car batteries if we weren’t careful. The whole time I was there, I kept thinking how even a small solar panel and battery pack would’ve made things easier…
Thus was born the idea of creating a solar-powered phone charger. That in itself is not a novel idea. There are a number of commercial products out there that claim to use solar power to charge phones. But all the ones I’ve seen are either over-priced, or under-powered. So I did some research…
And decided I can do better.