Dan Porras is Vice President of Sustainability at Better Energy Systems, makers of the hugely popular Solio solar charger which we have reported on here, here and here. In this interview Dan discusses the core appeal of Solio, its role as a ‘trojan horse’ for renewable energy, and he gives his views on why Solio really is more than just a gimmick for ‘green consumerism’. He also reveals a little more about the next products that Better Energy Systems are working on, and he gives us his thoughts on what every TreeHugger can do to speed the transition to a society based on clean, green energy.
TreeHugger: There is no doubt that Solio has been a hugely popular product - what do you think is its core appeal?
Dan Porras: I think it’s empowering to hold a piece of clean technology in your hand. In a small but tangible way, Solio frees you from the grid, reduces your footprint, and says something optimistic about the future. Mostly, people like Solio because it’s practical. But I also like to think that people who buy the product are making a sort of declaration to do something positive.
TH: The Better Energy Systems website describes Solio as a 'Trojan Horse' for renewable energy - can you explain a little bit more about what that means?
DP: Putting PV cells in a portable charger with a cool design, and making it accessible to the average person, is actually a great way to inject awareness of renewable energy into the mainstream. Chris - the founder of Better Energy – saw a gap in the solar market big enough to drive a bus through back in 2002. Between tiny solar cells on calculators and enormous rooftop arrays, there were basically no practical consumer products that integrated solar. So, I guess penetrating an electricity grid-based economy with a sexy product that promotes energy independence is basically what the ‘Trojan Horse’ metaphor is about.
TH: George Monbiot recently rounded on green consumerism , calling it a 'pox on the planet'. Is there a danger that devices like Solio will remain a statement, or even gimmick? How much net energy (and pollution) can one small device like this really save?
DP: The energy saved by replacing all of your wall and car chargers with one Solio is more significant than just the amount of carbon offset by plugging Solio into the sun to charge your mobile devices. Over the next five years, we will import and use 2.5 billion chargers for handheld electronics in the U.S. alone. Over this time, these chargers will create a total of 9 billion kilograms of carbon in the form of embodied energy. This is equivalent to the pollution created by five year's-worth of driving by 1.8 million cars in the U.S. With Solio, whenever you get a new device, you just swap out a small tip rather than get new chargers. So, contrary to Monbiot’s observation that a gas-saving Prius gives owners ‘permission’ to drive (consume) more, owning a Solio gives consumers permission NOT to buy more chargers. It's a small step in the right direction. Now we just have to get more telecom companies to offer sustainable charging solutions and do away with wall chargers altogether.
TH: Aside from its obvious attraction to travellers and outdoor enthusiasts, the Solio has caught the attention of aid and disaster relief agencies. Can you tell us more about your work to bring power where it is most needed?
DP: Studies show that there are numerous benefits - what economists call 'positive externalities' - to providing cellular communications to off-grid villages in the developing world. With a cell phone, a farmer can find out the true price of corn, for example, to better negotiate with middlemen; a mother can call a hospital to make sure it's open before walking 10 hours to get there; a park ranger can call for back-up to confront poachers in a preserve. The problem is, there are plenty of cell phones and not a lot of reliable power, especially in places like East Africa. We supply Solios to many amazing non-profit groups and individuals that are engaged in Aid and development work. Also, we are working with experts in the field of LED lighting to bring solar-powered light to impoverished regions of the world.
TH: What's next for Better Energy Systems? When will we be able to plug our laptops into the sun?
DP: We have two new Solios coming out this fall that will give customers more of a choice. There's the super portable and simple Hybrid 1000 as the 'entry' model and the highly advanced Magnesium Edition for people with higher energy needs. We've also just announced a partnership with Working Assets Wireless who've created the world's first carbon-neutral wireless plan. Moving forward, I will be putting more focus on our projects in the developing world and really trying to leverage our products and customers to create sustainable change. As for laptops, let's just say that we're working on it.
TH: Are we on the cusp of a tipping point regarding renewable energy, clean technology, and solar in particular?
DP: The solar market is definitely moving in the right direction, but the limiting factor is polysilicon. Polysilicon is very expensive and there is not currently enough of it being processed to meet the demands of both the solar and semiconductor industries. Thin film solar, however, uses a fraction of the polysilicon as traditional PV and could be just what we need to make solar cost-competitive and boost it into the mainstream for good. In California, where the cost of electricity is high and we have decent incentives for solar, we are closer to seeing the day when solar will compete with fossil fuel-based electricity.
TH: What can every Treehugger do to help speed this transition from fossil fuels along?
DP: Write your congress people and demand that they eliminate subsidies for the oil, gas, and coal industries and channel funds into appropriate incentives for renewable energy. With the right amount of government intervention, Germany transformed itself into the world’s biggest solar market. We can do that here in the U.S, if we try. Also, change your wireless plan to Working Assets!
[Disclaimer: Sami Grover, who conducted this interview, is Director of Sustainability at The Change. At the time of commissioning this interview, no business relationship existed between Better Energy Systems and The Change. However, since that time, The Change has been involved in some limited work with Better Energy Systems on projects largely unrelated to subjects covered in this interview. Sami was not directly involved in this work.]