News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

U.S. Renewable Energy Fans No Longer Need to Envy Ugandans

The Fenix ReadySet with solar panel | Photo courtesy Fenix

Those of us in the developed world generally assume that we're envied from afar by people in poorer countries who long for our smartphones, our high-speed Internet, and our other tech toys -- not to mention our regular access to food, power, and potable water. That assumption is correct, for the most part. But a socially conscious tech firm based in San Francisco has provided an intriguing counterexample to the general rule: U.S. customers are lining up to buy one of their hot-ticket products that had previously been available only to struggling entrepreneurs in Uganda.

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The product is Fenix International's ReadySet, a high-tech makeover of the old-school lead-acid car battery. Fenix has been making the ReadySet available in Uganda for the last two years, and ever since its launch the product has been the object of frank gearlust by american technoscenti.

The ReadySet was designed to address a social and environmental problem that is increasingly rampant in developing nations. Some 2.3 billion people either lack any access to electrical power or have power only intermittently. An informal industry of power providers has sprung up in many countries that distribute electrical power in what is likely the least efficient way possible: they use gasoline or diesel engines to charge standard car batteries, then carry those charged batteries from place to place, allowing customers to recharge their mobile phones and similar appliances for a fee.

Car batteries are hazardous to carry around, and using internal combustion engines to charge them adds to air, water, and soil pollution in countries already struggling with significant pollution -- as does the inevitable disposal of lead from used-up batteries.

Fenix introduced the ReadySet in 2010 as a safer, cleaner alternative energy storage system that could easily be "plugged in" to those emerging social power networks. The ReadySet is lead-acid based, just like car batteries, and offers similarly high energy storage capacity. But Fenix's battery is sealed against acid leakage, and includes embedded computer systems that keep the battery from being completely drained, which extends its usable life by 50%. The ReadySet is equipped with both USB and 12-volt cigarette lighter sockets, and uses standard electrical "banana" plugs and bind posts for charging, meaning that shade-tree engineers can easily rig power sources using solar panels, bicycle-based turbines, micro-wind, or even the local power grid.

According to GigaOm's Katie Fehrenbacher, Fenix has shipped thousands of ReadySets to Uganda, where they're sold through a national telecom firm, and is exploring markets in Rwanda, Kenya, and Tanzania as well.

An entrepreneur in Rwanda charges appliances with a ReadySet | Photo courtesy Fenix International

There is no particular lack of similar products available in the US, but Fenix's design apparently tapped a nerve among American aficionados of off-grid renewables. In an attempt to raise some capital to develop its work in Africa, the company set up a Kickstarter campaign, with a ReadySet package as incentive for donations of $200 or more. The campaign, with a goal of $20,000, was fully funded within a day and a half. The campaign plays up the unit's potential uses as a charger for mobile phones and laptops, though at seven pounds (and another four pounds for the included 15 watt solar panel) each unit may make only a few trips to the nearest outdoor cafe before the novelty wears off.

But if Fenix can take advantage of U.S. social networks to make clean power more available in places that need it for everything from charging mobile phones to purifying water, that seven-pound battery may seem just a little bit lighter.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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