Joe Kobus was on his way back from a Colorado whitewater rafting trip about a decade ago when he got the idea for his company, EnerFusion Inc. Flying standby, he ended up waiting in the Denver airport for the better part of a day and in search of a convenient, free way to charge his laptop.
An engineer by trade, Kobus started thinking about solutions to his charging challenge.
Today, his growing company employs more than a dozen people with the goal of ensuring fewer people find themselves stranded without outlets to charge their cell phones, computers, tablets and other electronics.
Kobus’ solution? Public charging stations powered by solar energy. EnerFusion now has its solar charging stations in more than 50 locations – including the island nation of Trinidad – and has no plans of slowing down any time soon. Their main clientele are college campuses, with captive audiences of green-minded, multi-tasking, on-the-go individuals – all armed with mobile devices, laptops and other gadgets in need of frequent charges.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” Kobus quipped, “so I looked at several different ways of providing a sustainable way to plug in outdoors and developed our Solar-Power Dok flagship and then a few derivative products. We incorporated a lot of different functionality in terms of allowing people to plug in – USB ports, LED lighting. You can work at night. It’s all off-grid and fully sustainable. You can put one in the middle of a tropical island.”
EnerFusion’s most popular product is its “Solar-Power Dok,” a circular picnic table made of recycled plastic with solar panels atop its umbrella cover, outlets on its stem and Wi-Fi capabilities as well. Other products include more compact, standalone structures in a couple different sizes mounted with a single solar array and outfitted with different charging capabilities, for use at bus stops or other high-traffic areas.
EnerFusion isn’t the only company aiming to capitalize on the surge of interest in renewable energies and the declining cost of solar technology in recent years. Large corporations like NRG Energy, the largest independent power producer in the United States, have gotten into the solar game as well in response to what it sees as a legitimate and growing market desire.
“Millennials are coming into play,” said Kise’ Zettel, business development manager for NRG’s Portable Power Division. “They want to decide how to get their power and we support people making their own decisions, keeping powered and on the go. Our product Street Charge station really demonstrates how NRG is trying to meet those needs and be responsible as well.”
The Street Charge, which looks like a sleek, slender windmill, can be seen in dozens of locations throughout New York City, as well as on a number of college and corporate campuses and various public spaces. The idea arose in the wake of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, when many residents, stranded without power, were in need of accessible, free power sources.
AT&T, which had provided mobile charging units powered by diesel after the storm, partnered with an NRG-owned solar company called Goal Zero to roll out the mobile, solar-powered unit. The Street Charge can now be found in more than 100 locations, including internationally.
“Not only are communities loving them, but cities are loving them too,” Zettel said.
Other companies, like the San Francisco-based Sol Design Lab, have uncovered very specific niches for their products. The company got its start in Austin, Texas, in 2009 after one of its two principals, Beth Ferguson, created a solar charging station as her graduate research project. Her post-graduation efforts in the solar arena caught the attention of planners for the popular annual film and music festival South by Southwest, which began supporting her work and featuring her distinctive, repurposed 1950s gas pump charging stations at subsequent festivals. Sol Design Lab’s solar charging stations have also been featured at the Bonnaroo, Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals, among others.
“Music festivals really inspired me, the first couple years, it was just music festivals,” Ferguson said, adding that the festival exposure gave the company a footing among a young population eager for sustainable, communal, free options for charging their phones and laptops. “Students started contacting us, asking us to bring [charging stations] to colleges … Clients are often 19 years old.”
Sol Design Lab has just two employees, to keep costs down, and contracts out for services, such as installation, when needed.
“Depending on the project, we do a lot of creative partnerships so we don’t have a lot of overhead,” Ferguson said. “That’s the secret to a lot of this. We get fabricators, web designers, tech people when we need to. We work with universities, partner with offices of sustainability, get help with project management and accounting, along with grants.”
The company’s artistic charging stations can be seen on campuses including Stanford University, the University of California at Santa Cruz and Ferguson’s alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin. Ferguson said she loves working with students and is exploring the possibility of bringing Sol Design Lab’s solar charging stations to high school campuses as well.
The frequent placement of solar charging stations on college campuses is no accident. Not only are college students typically more open to new products, but they also tend to travel with at least a couple electronic devices at any given time. And in addition to being a savvy marketing move, it’s also wise financial strategy. Ferguson pointed out that some college campuses, including UT-Austin, collect student fees for sustainability initiatives, generating a fairly accessible pool of resources precisely for projects like solar charging stations.
Solar charging stations can cost anywhere from several thousand to tens of thousands of dollars each. Some companies, including NRG and Sol Design Lab, also rent their charging stations, including some big-name clients like Whole Foods and the Sierra Club. Charging stations are also low-maintenance.
“We haven’t had to touch any of [our installed charging stations] yet,” EnerFusion’s Kobus said.
NRG, on the other hand, prioritizes training people on the ground, such as campus facilities managers, in the event of any maintenance needs on their products, though they also offer a maintenance package with their products if customers want it.
“They are easy to purchase, easy to install and easy to take care of and use as well,” Zettel said.
Location is obviously an important consideration for a solar installation, and can be tricky, but for the most part, as long as stations are exposed to sunlight at least several hours a day, they can continue to do their job. Stations also can be customized with university colors or branding, features that both EnerFusion and NRG offer their customers.
While tracking usage at charging stations remains anecdotal for the most part, their popularity among the general public – particularly youth – is unquestionable. Sol Design Lab has recorded some usage by having “data counters” document each user, as well as by having people provide a signature when they charge their device. In order to better monitor how much their stations are being used, the company is currently developing software that can track usage more accurately and give users relevant information about, for example, the energy they are saving by powering up with solar.
But for these companies it’s just as much about educating the public about alternative energy choices as it is building a product.
“They’re a marketing tool and an education tool,” Zettel said. “They’re also cool looking and aesthetically pleasing. People see them and think it’s so cool. People ask questions and then they’re able to really talk about it.”
Solar-powered charging stations growing in popularity