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Aug 16, 2012  | Tom Cheyney  | 5 Comments

Really small-scale solar

Pair of inventors launches ‘Solar Pocket Factory’ Kickstarter campaign

My introduction to Kickstarter came from the guys in I See Hawks in L.A., who reached out to their friends and fans (I’m both) in late 2011 to back their self-recorded, self-produced all-acoustic album, New Kind of Lonely. Not only did the deserving-of-wider-recognition alt-Americana group meet their modest goal of raising $7000, the 154 contributors (including the Curator) help them blow past that target by more than $2000. Lesson(s) learned: crowd-sourced funding can work (and the recording is one of the ‘Hawks’ best).

In the solar space, Solar Mosaics’ grassroots project development approach was the only crowd-funded scheme that came to mind—until now. Alex Hornstein and Shawn Frayne, two Asia-based indie inventor/entrepreneurs with a hankering for clean energy gizmos, have launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $50,000 to perfect what they call the “Solar Pocket Factory.” Their goal is to produce and proliferate a design for an automated, tabletop mini-solar panel (solar minipanel?) production system capable of outputting a device every 15 seconds. The clever, relatively inexpensive manufacturing setup can be installed and operated wherever “microsolar” (defined as devices <25W) demand might be; in other words, most of the electricity-deprived developing world. The first prototype is going through its paces, and apparently doing a bang-up job of making minipanels.

Although the rooftop/ground-mount residential-, commercial/industrial- and utility-scale sectors hog the attention span of most of the solar community, microsolar is already a billion-dollar market with a multibillion-dollar upside. Up to this point, according to Hornstein and Frayne, it has been underserved, especially when it comes to workmanship, product quality and lifetime, among other factors. The pair has done their homework, visiting factories in southern China where they witnessed less-than-optimal, defect-prone (15% solder failure rate!?) manual production lines churning out the small stuff at even smaller margins. They wrote about their findings earlier this year in a  fascinating blog post (one of many) at Solar Pocket Pages called “How Baby Solar Panels Are Born.”

The duo’s presentation of the Solar Pocket Factory on Kickstarter provides a serious yet humorous (though hopefully not ultimately tragic-comic) overview of their plan, and is replete with videos, photos, and charts. The slightly goofy yet earnest passion they bring to their dream of microfactories making high-quality microsolar products for less than the Chinese sweatshops is palpable throughout the write-up and multimedia arrayed on the site. The lads say they have made “hundreds” of solar gizmos by hand (and worked on a lot of products with their global partners), and offer a variety of “do-it-yourself” kits for assembling micro-scale panels, chargers, and the like. Those kits are included as thank-yous for most contributions; pledge levels start at $10 a pop and range up to the “$500 or more” echelon.

The tagline on Hornstein and Frayne’s “Solar Pocket Kit” package reads “For Beautiful People with Bright Ideas.” As their Kickstarter campaign rolls out (cutoff is Sept. 14), watch for regular (and “brutally honest”) updates, as a pair of beautiful people with a bright idea try to turn their dream of reinventing microsolar production and deployment into commercial reality.


Sources: Kickstarter, I See Hawks in L.A., Solar Pocket Pages, SolarCurator

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