5 Energy Innovators Driving Personal Energy Independence

From parades, fairs and backdoor BBQs to sporting events, pontificating politicians and splashy fireworks displays, Independence Day is associated with a dazzling display of events celebrating the history, government and traditions of the United States.

It’s a good time to reflect upon the liberties and unrivaled quality of life we Americans enjoy. An abundance of clean, fresh air; access to water and power; the pervasiveness of amenities like paved, lit roads and highways, good schools, parks and public libraries; a bounty of fresh, healthy food and a mind-boggling array of affordable products make our lives more productive and comfortable.  This all serves to remind us that we are a fortunate lot — sure, we’ve worked hard for it, but we also take it for granted. 

This quality of life hasn’t come without a price. Well over 1.3 million men and women have given their lives in American conflicts over the last 238 years — or sacrificed their lives in covert and overt operations such as Grenada, Panama, Mogadishu and the Balkans — to protect the freedoms and interests of United States of America.  And countless inventors and entrepreneurs have fueled America’s economic engine with a grit, genius and creativity that’s created jobs, improved lives and propelled us to enviable standards of life.

One powerfully-common thread among industrialized society is access to energy.  The next pages in this article present snapshots of five unique companies whose products are putting personal energy independence within reach of our fellow citizens here and abroad.  Some of them are helping the poor.  Some of them appeal to a more affluent demographic. All have created solutions that empower citizens to live more sustainably — a lifestyle choice that spurs a brand of entrepreneurism that ensures a cleaner, healthier world for us all.

Read on to learn more about these personal energy innovators.


Light, Liberty & the Pursuit of Happiness

Given our Independence Day celebration, I’d like to ask your indulgence in taking a few liberties with the Declaration of Independence and suggest that, in addition to all men being created equal to enjoy “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” we update that line to emphasize the inalienable right to “Light, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”  (Note:  The Declaration of Independence was issued in 1776; Thomas Edison invented the light bulb in 1879.) 

1) Nokero: The World’s Most Affordable Solar Light Bulb

An astounding 1.3 billion people currently live in what’s known as energy poverty, with no access to consistent sources of electricity.  On June 27, Nokero International, LLC announced availability of its ultra-efficient solar light bulb, the N182, billed as the world’s brightest and most affordable LED solar light bulb. Offering double the light output in housing two-thirds the size of its predecessor, the new, trimmer N182 employs the most efficient LED on the market today, a radically redesigned circuit board, and a cost-effective, 1-1/2” micro solar panel to collect the solar energy from which it gets its charge.  With a free six- to eight-hour charge from the sun, Nokero’s N182 can provide light for five or more hours, depending on charging conditions.

“Product innovations like this matter because every increase in efficacy translates into longer run times and increases in brightness.  This allows businesses to stay open longer, children to study longer, families to recreate more safely in areas without electricity and medical personnel to better provide humanitarian aid in event of a disaster,” noted said Nokero founder and CEO Steve Katsaros.

The patented, pocket-sized N182 housing is configured so that it may be used as a hanging light, a standing task light or personal flashlight.  Nokero has worked with NGOs, corporate partners and distributors to provide 1 million solar light bulbs to people in 130 countries, 600,000 of those were provided to the energy impoverished free of charge.  Those interested in becoming distributors or learning more can ‘see the light’ at www.Nokero.com.


More (Clean) Power to the (Renting) People

According to the U.S. Census, 34.5 percent of Americans live in rental housing, where they’ve had little choice of what they pay for utilities — or the source of the energy that powers their dwellings.  That source usually involves electricity that comes from dirty, fossil fuel-fed power plants.

2) HG Fenton’s Solterra: Sustainable Energy Options for Renters

San Diego-based HG Fenton is breaking new ground with its net zero energy Solterra eco-luxury apartments, which employ virtual net metering, in-home energy displays and NESTsmart thermostats to empower residents to manage their energy usage from their smart devices.  A 334-kW solar PV system provides up to 100 percent of the complex’s power needs.  Solterra also features a high-efficiency laundry, HERS-rated HVAC, low-E windows and other construction techniques that far exceed California’s stringent energy standards.  All garages are pre-wired for electric vehicle (EV) charging.

“The virtual net metering capabilities we incorporated here really do give more power to the people,” noted Home Energy Systems President Martin Learn, whose company designed and installed Solterra’s solar PV system.  “Solterra’s NESTsmart thermostats allow residents to monitor and adjust household energy usage to ensure they don’t exceed their free monthly solar PV allotments. And if they exceed those limits, they are individually billed by the utility.” 

The project has also proven a smart business move for Fenton; Solterra was leased to capacity in record time.

Image: HG Fenton’s Solterra via Home Energy Systems


The Water-Energy Nexus

The water-energy nexus is the relationship between how much water is evaporated to generate and transmit energy, and how much energy it takes to collect, clean, move, store, and dispose of water.  Twenty percent of the cost of water in California, for instance, pays for the energy to deliver it to end-users. Simply put: saving water saves energy.

3) Levi’s Finds Sustainability Fit In Water<Less Jeans

Levi Strauss & Co. has introduced a denim manufacturing and finishing process to conserve water in the U.S. and in over 110 countries around the globe.  Known as Levi’s Water<Less™ collection, its techniques have saved a whopping 770 million liters of water around the world.

“It’s part of a global initiative to improve the way Levi’s produces all of our products, to save water and to help deliver this excess water to the communities that need it most,” said Levi’s Vice President of Social and Environmental Sustainability Michael Kobori. 

This strategy highlights how all who touch the product — from cotton farmers to manufacturers, retailers and consumers — can contribute to reducing the substantial water footprint these products create. 

An environmental product life-cycle assessment on a pair of 501s found that — from the raw materials stage of growing cotton through the manufacturing, finishing and distribution stages to consumer use and care — there’s a significant amount of water used: 919 gallons.

Levi’s took that number and charged its concept design team with figuring out how to produce the looks and finishes their customers love using less water.

A stringent global conservation policy is in the interest of Levi’s consumers and shareowners, as the company knows the anticipated water shortages of climate change could inhibit cotton growth — or stoke its price-point out of range of some consumers.

Kobori says the company identified potential water savings at every stage of the product life-cycle.  First, they reached out to cotton growers — from India, China, Africa and Brazil to here in the U.S. — to introduce innovations in irrigation, pesticide use and rainwater catchment that improve growing practices and enhance crop yield while reducing cost.  Those adopting the recommended approaches reduced water and pesticide use by an average of 32 percent and increased profits by a formidable 20 percent.

Just this Spring, Levi’s introduced its recycled water standard, producing 100,000 pairs of women’s jeans using 100 percent recycled water. This one initiative saved nearly 12 million liters of water, enough to fill almost five Olympic-sized swimming pools.

From cotton field to closet, these products present opportunities to protect the planet.  Because some of the largest environmental impacts occur after consumers take Levi’s home, the company is now sewing care tags into its jeans encouraging consumers to wash them less — and to do so in cold water.  “If people wash their jeans less — say every two weeks — their estimated water consumption goes down by about 32 percent. If they launder their jeans every four weeks, it goes down by 48 percent,” said Kobori. 

So does this idea hold water with the buying public?  People have cottoned to the concept.  And given the tens of millions wearing Levi’s worldwide, that’s more than a proverbial drop in the bucket.

Image: Levi’s Water<Less Jeans via Levi Strauss & Company


The Big Solar Chill: AC, Refrigerators and a Freezer on Wheels

4) Green Energy Innovations Address Age-Old Entrepreneurial Challenges

Running a small business is demanding.  Running a small business in a developing country presents challenges few of us can fathom. Despite the hardship of living without electricity (or where power interruptions are common), the developing world is full of entrepreneurs — visionaries who with access to education, equity and credit, would pay a key role in improving the economic situation of their countries, notes Nobel Peace Prize-winning banker, social entrepreneur and economist Muhammad Yunus. 

New Jersey-based Green Energy Innovations (GE Innovations) aims to do their part by harnessing the most consistent source of power on the planet — clean, plentiful solar energy — to provide innovative, customer-driven solutions to age-old challenges. 

With an emphasis on product lines that reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, the 5-year-old company has introduced a 100 percent DC-powered solar air conditioner, its first line of 100 percent DC-powered solar refrigerators and freezers and its latest sensation: a solar freezer on wheels. 

“With dealers in over 30 countries, we are constantly working to bring energy independence to people around the globe,” said Green Energy Innovations President Chiranjit (CK) Khanna.  “We look for solutions that enhance people’s lives given the resources available in different parts of the world,” he added. 

All of its solar air conditioning, refrigerator and freezer units are DC-powered and can operate independent of the electric grid. Requiring as little as 45 watts of power, the entire line of solar refrigerators can operate using a single solar panel and battery. All units work with either a 12- or 24-volt battery and can provide multiple days of operation on a single charge. If electricity is available, an optional AC adapter may be added to provide security and back-up power should the batteries fully discharge. These product lines operate fully on DC power; they require no inverter.

The products were well-received in the Middle East, Africa, the Carribbean, India, Korea, the Philippines and the balance of Asia — countries where electricity is either extremely expensive, inconsistent or unavailable. 

Khanna says that as his company’s solar air conditioning and refrigeration lines took off, the company began fielding calls from NGOs phoning on behalf of medical dispensaries and doctors in remote villages who needed some way of safely storing their vaccines.  In response, GE Innovations recently launched its first solar-powered medical refrigerator line.   

GE Innovations then started hearing from contractors and distributors in energy-anemic areas who, after seeing the response of the solar streetlights and related products they were installing, wanted to identify products the villagers might need.   “The solar-powered air conditioning is great, but it’s expensive.  For many it’s more of a luxury item,” noted Khanna. They started asking around.

“We heard that food for many of these people is very expensive, because you have to buy it in small quantities — often daily — to prevent spoilage,” said Khanna.  That’s why the solar-powered refrigerators began taking off.

“And there are fishermen who after a long day of fishing need to head home, get up early and get their catch to market before it goes bad.   Or farmers who harvest their vegetables in the morning who need proper storage or refrigeration to keep them fresh and appealing to consumers.  The solar refrigerator solved the problem of perishability, but how do they then transport their harvest while keeping it fresh?” CK recalled. That collaboration led to the solar-powered trike.

With two sizes and freezer capacities, this new freezer on wheels allows entrepreneurs and consumers alike to transport perishables safely and easily, while addressing a larger public health issue.  When entrepreneurs bring fresher meat, fish and produce to market, there is less likelihood of food-borne illness.

Khanna says it’s rewarding to enable people to build a better life by providing them useful products that solve a problem.   And he welcomes the collaboration of other companies, inventors, distributors and consumers.

We recognize that while we cannot create all the solutions that our customers demand,” reasoned Khanna, “we can partner with other innovators and manufacturers to bring products to customers here and abroad that can solve their everyday problems, reduce dependence on fossil fuels and conventional sources of electricity as they build better lives.”

Image: Solar freezer on wheels (trike) via Green Energy Innovations


Driving On Sunshine:  EV-PV On Demand

5) Envision Solar’s EV ARC

Attention employers, retailers and EV drivers: Envision Solar International, Inc. is making it easier than ever to get charged up over the economic, emissions-free benefits of electric vehicles (EVs). 

Just last month, Envision introduced the EV ARC™, an autonomous easy-to-install EV charging station that allows retailers and employers to provide solar-powered EV charging for a single car, truck (or between four and six electric eMotor scooters, eBikes or eMotorcycles) on demand — without the need for costly foundations, trenching, building permits or grid connection.  Unlike systems tethered to the grid, if site conditions change, the EV ARC can be easily moved to a more desirable location.

Invented, engineered and fabricated in the U.S., the independent EV ARC fits inside a standard parking space.  Its solar canopy features a patented solar tracking system that optimizes power production by following the trajectory of the sun, which enables the EV ARC to generate 18 to 25 percent more electricity than a conventional fixed array.  The EV ARC delivers up to 100 electric miles per day. The average EV- driving employee commutes about 15 electric miles per day to and from work; the average American has a 35-mile daily commute.

“One of the main prerequisites to mass adoption of electric vehicles is having broadly-dispersed and rapidly-deployed charging stations,” said Envision Solar President and CEO Desmond Wheatley. “The EV ARC is ideal for any entity looking for rapid, hassle-free deployments of a charging infrastructure without all the challenges associated with conventional units. The fact that the energy is clean and renewable, unlike 75 percent of America’s grid-supplied electricity, is important, too. EV ARC makes EVs truly emissions free. It changes the deployment story and advances us to a day where range anxiety is a thing of the past.”

The EV ARC is warranted to generate approximately 16 kilowatt hours (kWhrs) of clean electricity per day for decades. It is currently at parity with the charging time of traditional grid-tied charging systems, for example it can fully charge a Chevy Volt in a little under four hours. The EV ARC’s 22-kWh on-board battery storage provides charging day and night. 

The price tag for the EV ARC can range between $40,000 and $60,000 (depending on optional features, including customized branding), but local, state and federal incentives can eliminate up to 50 percent of the cost.  On the benefits side of the equation are fewer hook-ups to grid-supplied electricity, cleaner air, more freedom to roam to and from an EV ARC host’s site (extended range), and free daily EV charges for employees-of-the month or sustainably inclined customers — something that could ensure many happy returns.

Image: Envision Solar’s EV ARC via Envision Solar International


Call to Action

Today, put your green on and bring some personal energy independence to your Fourth of July celebration.  Wear clothes with a sustainable back-story.  Bring solar-powered beverages to a BBQ.  Educate a friend.  Walk, bike, take public transportation or consider cleaner energy alternatives wherever you travel.  Support sustainable brands and companies that are helping drive America’s clean energy economy.  Bring some solar light bulbs as a hostess gift or donate them to a third-world village in need. 

In other words, help bring personal energy independence to those around you, and don’t forget the 1.3 billion living in energy poverty.  It’s the American way — and it will inspire a world of good.

Lead image: Fireworks via Shutterstock

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Terri Steele is a principal at SolarSavvy Communications, a sole proprietorship. She is a San Diego-based writer, marketer and clean energy evangelist who’s written for National Geographic-affiliated Water for Tomorrow, Clean Technica, The Eco Report, Hearst’s The Daily Green, Solar Today, InterPV Magazine and elected officials and executives within the clean tech, telecom and IT space. Follow her @SolarSavvy; find her at SolarSavvy@cox.net.

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