• Bright ideas

    From flat-screen TVs and AI-operated cameras to ovens and coolers, solar-powered technology is becoming ever-more advanced and accessible

    Bright ideas

    CES is where the future happens. It’s where iPhones are launched, where Windows are opened, and where the world’s tech geniuses come to parade their latest inventions and innovations. It’s also a good barometer of where tech trends are going, and where the world’s R&D budgets are being spent. At this year’s CES – officially known as the Consumer Electronics Show, which is held annually in Las Vegas – the spotlight was on solar power. Sure, you had the expected array of bigger-than-usual screens, talking toilets and robo-sharks, but the real show-stopper was a device called the Solar Cow Project.

    Winner of a CES Innovation Award (chosen from the event’s 4 500 exhibitors), the Solar Cow Project is the brainchild of South Korean solar energy company Yolk. Its intention is to encourage Kenyan parents to send their children to school, rather than using them as child labour.

    As the company explains: ‘We understand that child labour is essentially a money problem: according to the 2008 report by the International Labour Organisation, poverty is its single largest cause.’ It argues that its solution is to persuade parents to let their children go to school by compensating them with ‘aid value that is at least equivalent to or larger than the economic [benefits] of child labour’.

    That ‘compensation’ comes in the form of free electricity access, which is incredibly valuable in areas that aren’t connected to the national power grid. In their pilot project in Pokot, western Kenya, Yolk installed a solar charging system – the Solar Cow – at a local school, allowing children to plug in solar batteries shaped like milk bottles – Power Milk – which charged while the kids were in class, saving those households a six-hour round trip to the next nearest charging station.

    The Power Milk batteries ‘contain enough capacity to meet most needs for electricity for the average local household: charging cellphones and powering a flashlight, a radio or other gadgets’, says Yolk. By providing households with free access to electricity, the company says it is helping families save up to ‘20% of their average monthly income that they spent on electricity’.

    It makes sense for African countries to look skywards for renewable energy solutions. According to Statistics South Africa, 22 South African municipalities were, in 2018, providing free solar-electricity systems, with 3.2% of the country’s 3.5 million indigent households benefiting from this service. It said it came as ‘no surprise that this percentage has gone up from 2.8% in 2016. The country basks in sunshine throughout the year’. The same goes for the rest of the continent. If there’s one thing that Africa’s known for, it’s its blazing sunshine.

    When the winners of the Hogan Lovells Community Solar Innovation Awards 2017 were revealed during the 2018 SEED South Africa Symposium in Pretoria, six of the 10 finalists were African. The range of solutions reflected the basic needs of the communities they served. Mali’s Oolu Mali, for example, is the country’s first pay-as-you-go distributor of off-grid solar energy, while Malawi’s Kumudzi Kuwale supplies charging stations so that local villagers can rent solar lamps and batteries and charge mobile phones. Also in Malawi, Masole Ammele promotes the use of solar water pumps in organic fish farming; in Kenya, Solar Freeze provides smallholder farmers with access to portable solar cooling units to prevent post-harvest loss; and in the DRC, rural women’s organisation SAMWAKI runs a solar-powered radio station, providing listeners with portable solar radios and solar charging units.

    The overall winner, Uganda’s Village Energy, designs and installs custom solar installations for businesses, agriculture and community institutions, and offers a mobile academy to train rural youth and women as solar technicians.

    The Solar Cow Project provides power for remote Kenyan communities, while encouraging parents to send their children to school

    Those solutions all point to an explosion of innovation in the solar space, with solar power being positioned as a viable alternative to grid power and as a realistic option to power an emerging range of everyday electronic appliances.

    Of course, solar power itself is not new, but viable mass-market solar-powered TVs, laptops, ovens and security systems are. To give you an idea of just how new that concept is, consider the SOL laptop. Launched in 2013, Canada-based WeWi Telecommunications’ Ubuntu-operated SOL promised a great deal: with a rugged build and a US$350 price tag, it ran directly from power generated by its built-in solar panels, or allowed users to recharge its 10-hour battery with just two hours of sunshine. But those solar panels made the laptop bulky and unwieldy, the detachable solar panel array was impractical and the unit’s performance didn’t receive the most glowing reviews.

    Rather than offering a scalable solution for off-grid communities, it ended up being a specialist option for military or adventure users. And after great pre-launch hype, the SOL faded into the shadows.

    Now, barely five or six years later, pay-as-you-go solar power provider Mobisol is selling 43-inch solar-powered TVs to off-grid Tanzanians. The DC LED flat-screen TV complements Mobisol’s Solar Home System, and is sold as part of a 200W solar package that includes four lights, a radio and a torch.

    Speaking at the product launch in Arusha last June, Patrick Juma, head of sales and marketing at Mobisol Tanzania, said: ‘Business owners and home users in urban areas do not want to limit themselves to smaller solar-powered appliances. Televisions are not only an integral part of social life, they also allow for educational benefits and income-generating opportunities for a lot of our customers, be it bar and restaurant owners, village cinemas, schools and other education centres and families.’

    This follows the AzuriTV offering from UK-based solar-energy equipment supplier Azuri Technologies. It includes a fully integrated pay-as-you-go solar satellite TV package, as well as more than 60 satellite channels and a 24-inch solar-powered TV set. AzuriTV’s battery system provides up to five hours of TV viewing per day, and is designed to work even on cloudy days.

    Solar-powered big-screen TVs are a significant step up from smaller solar-powered pocket calculators and smartphone chargers – and they’re a clear sign of how quickly the technology is maturing. It’s now quite possible to run a complete modern household using only solar-powered devices. To the solar-powered TVs, manufacturer GoSun recently added its new Fusion solar-powered portable oven. Launched at CES 2019, the Fusion’s integrated heating system can heat up to 280°C using only sunshine. GoSun claims that it’s five times more efficient than a traditional oven, and that it can cook food with the same amount of energy required to power a light bulb.

    Yet while the big appliances – TVs, ovens, coolers, water pumps, laptops – may catch the eye, perhaps solar power’s most impressive recent breakthrough came in the form of a battery-free, solar-powered device about the size of a South African ZAR2 coin.

    In February, Seattle-based AI company Xnor.ai unveiled a small camera, mounted to a field-programmable gate-array board that uses AI to capture and store low-resolution (320×320) photos and videos. Those images are then saved onto the device, with the AI algorithm identifying objects and sending a wireless text-message notification of anything out of place. All of this is achieved using only solar power.

    It’s a significant breakthrough, as it uses edge computing instead of the cloud, allowing the AI device to do its computation without an internet connection and – in this case – without a battery. All of that, at a unit cost of just US$10.

    ‘Power will become the biggest bottleneck to scaling AI,’ says Xnor.ai co-founder Ali Farhadi. ‘What Xnor has proved today is that it is now possible to run AI inference at such low power that you don’t even need a battery. This will change not only the way products are built in the future, but how entire cities and countries deploy AI solutions at scale.’

    With AI innovators exploring the bounds of the technology, and with household appliances and remote community power grids increasingly turning to solar power, we’re fast reaching a point where visions of the future won’t only be found inside a big convention centre in Las Vegas. If you really want to see what the future of tech looks like, take a walk outside and look up – but not directly, and not for too long – at the big shining orb in the sky.

    By Mark van Dijk
    Images: Azuri Technologies, Yolkstation