A newly launched pay-as-you-go home solar power system is the latest demonstration of the creative ways in which solar companies are finding new customers for solar products. The new product is called IndiGo, by the U.K. solar company Eight19. Targeted primarily to off-grid households in the developing world with very low energy demands, the IndiGo system operates on a much smaller scale than the typical western home solar energy system. However, it fills vital needs at an affordable cost, and the global market potential is practically limitless.
More Low Cost Solar Power for Western Households
As the Solyndra bankruptcy shows, solar companies need to be fast on their feet and alert to new opportunities in order to survive, and thrive, in a viciously competitive global market. Here in the U.S., property owners who want to have their own on-site solar array need to make a considerable investment in a relatively large installation to fill a relatively large energy demand, which limits the potential customer base. Low cost loans, tax credits, incentives from utilities, and buying group discounts have stretched that out to include more households, but the cost is still prohibitive for many. To keep growing, more solar companies are starting to tap into power purchase agreements, and some are adding perks distinctive to the Western market, such as a solar installation package that includes an EV charging port.
Solar Markets Beyond the Western Hemsiphere
All of this activity still leaves hundreds of millions of households in search of a low cost, low output solution, and that is where IndiGo comes in. For a modest price (about $1.00 per week, with a one time $10.00 lease fee according to an article in New Scientist), the user gets a small-scale solar installation that feeds through a high-tech meter. The user puts credit on the meter through a secure, remote system accessed by mobile phone. The system comes with a battery and it supplies enough power to charge a mobile phone, power an Internet connection and keep a high efficiency LED light running (the light and a phone charger adapter also come with the system).
Pay-As-You-Go Solar: Everything Old is New Again
If the feed-the-meter system seems a bit familiar, old movie buffs may recall scenes in which characters have to dig through their pockets to find a few coins to feed the gas or electric meter affixed to a wall. The basic concept is to break payments down into the smallest reasonable increments, making energy accessible to households that don't have the savings to buy in bulk.
Minimal Solar Products for Minimal Needs
Running a light and a cell phone would barely make a dent in the energy needs of a typical U.S. household, but it makes a vital difference to off-grid homes in the developing world. The IndiGo solar power system could replace hazardous and unsustainable fuels like kerosene and firewood, while enabling people to function effectively in the evening - doing schoolwork or chores, or keeping a stall or small business open after dark. In its press materials, Eight19 also states that the cost of IndiGo is less than that of kerosene, which could provide additional benefits to local economies by enabling more money to circulate around products and services other than fuel.
New Solar Markets, New Partners
Eight19's product is based on low cost, high efficiency print-on-plastic solar cells developed at Cambridge University, but the price of the product is only one factor in its hoped-for success. The other important factor is Eight19's partnership with a non-government organization called SolarAid. SolarAid and other organizations have already established a track record of introducing solar phone chargers and solar lighting to off-grid communities, and it will be working with Eight19 throughout a rollout period in Kenya. That trial is already under way and additional trials will take place in Zambia, Malawi and the Indian sub-continent before the commercial launch early in 2012.
Image Credit: IndiGo Pay-As-You-Go Solar Power System courtesy of Eight19.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.