Talk is not cheap in the mountains of Nepal. Getting a mobile phone charged can cost $5 in areas where there is no electricity and backpackers have to rely on diesel generators used by locals to power up.
John Hingley had a solution stuffed in his rucksack: a thin and lightweight portable solar panel that unfolded and could generate enough energy to power his phone, camera, and computer. As well as keeping him charged in the mountains, the simple device commonly used by travelers and outdoor enthusiasts gave him an idea – to make a much bigger version.
“The reason why this worked so well was that of the big surface area that you have got … and I started working on ways to scale this sort of concept,” he said. Three years after returning from his world trip, Hingley has developed a large steel container that contains a long spool of solar panels, all attached together on a strong flexible fabric that can be pulled out into a 50-meter long system in two minutes.
The portable carpet-like solar system, which stores generated energy in batteries in the steel housing, is expected to be used for disaster relief where power systems have been knocked out, by armies on the move, and in mining stations located in areas without any power. “The market for off-grid energy is huge and growing – 24% of the world is off the grid but everyone needs energy these days,” said Hingley.
The system uses copper indium gallium selenide solar cells (CIGS) that are bonded with a tensile fabric. The strength of the combined material can cope with being rolled in and out, said Hingley, and it can be in full operation a few minutes after it is deployed. “It is like a microgrid in a box. It has all of the components integrated into it that you need to run a 24-hour microgrid.”
The spool of solar panels is typically pulled out by a vehicle, which takes about two minutes, but can also be done manually, albeit by a number of people. When ready for market, after it goes through regulatory checks, Hingley’s company Renovagen will make the solar power systems bespoke, according to what size the buyer wants. The surface it is placed on does not have to be flat, he said.
An initial prototype had a capacity of 6KW, about twice that of a solar array on a typical family home. The current generation will have a capacity of up to 18KW, said Hingley, and similar levels of efficiency to solar systems sold for homes in the UK. However, since they may be used in countries where the demand for energy is much less, the Renovagen system will be able to serve many more homes than a comparable solar array in Britain, he said. The steel unit in which the spool of panels is housed has lifting rings on the top which can be attached to helicopters so that the unit can be dropped by air.