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What Are “Solar Boxes” and Will They Revolutionise Renewable Energy?

What Are “Solar Boxes” and Will They Revolutionise Renewable Energy?

Planes, submarines, velcro and cat’s eyes – nature is an endless source of inspiration for the world’s inventors. The field of energy might seem too complicated for such analogies, but for one electrical engineer, it was a school of fish that inspired his original solar energy design.

They look more like red Lego blocks – and stack up like them too – but ‘Power-Blox’ work in the same way as a shoal, co-founder Alessandro Medici tells Euronews Green. Just as fish can grow, split and re-group, the blocks’ batteries combine to create an ‘energy swarm’.

What we are talking about are ‘energy cubes’, with batteries powered by portable solar panels. One of these solar boxes can meet most of a home’s electrical needs, and is easily plugged into another box to generate more energy for a community.

This is a more flexible system than mini-grids, and the technology has huge potential in some of the world’s poorest and most remote places. The Swiss company has distributed some 2,000 power blocks in around 20 countries since 2018, and is now on the verge of releasing an even more powerful device.

It’s all with a key UN sustainable development goal in mind: providing affordable, clean energy for all by 2030. 10 per cent of people, mostly in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa, still lack access to electricity, according to the World Bank.

PowerBlox
Alessandro Medici wanted to create a universal battery that can be used in many different environments.PowerBlox

Simplifying that challenge is a driving force for Medici, who is also the firm’s chief technology officer. “We need a kind of internet of energy,” he says, recalling the early, centralised days of computers, before the web connected us. “We have to integrate energy systems, we have to make them individually, we have to make the possibility to combine them and scale them up, [so they still work] even if there is a breakdown in part of the grid.”

It can run off wind or hydro power too, making it perfectly adaptable to different climates around the world.

The beauty of Power-Blox technology is that it can easily expand as a community’s energy needs grow, just by plugging in more blocks and solar units. In fact it can run off wind or hydro power too, making it perfectly adaptable to different climates around the world.

Revolutionising energy from Mozambique to Vanuatu

Mariano Silva/PowerBlox
In the village of Mabime, Mozambique, the energy storage has helped people build up their businesses.Mariano Silva/PowerBlox

Partnering with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and other aid organisations, Power-Blox has brought its energy storage solution to dozens of communities so far.

In one recently electrified Mozambique village, people have used the energy to start selling items from cold drinks to fridges and offer customers mobile charging stations.

It’s not only power, it’s also power that animates people to do something because they can start various kinds of business.

Alessandro Medici CTO, Power-Blox

“The whole village somehow developed, you even could see that from space,” says Medici. “It’s the same on the ground; it’s not only power, it’s also power that animates people to do something because they can start various kinds of business.”

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MARIANO SILVA/PowerBlox
Villagers in Mabime, Mozambique, now have electricity to work and study at night too.MARIANO SILVA/PowerBlox

Power-Blox has also electrified the off-grid island of Lelepa in the Republic of Vanuatu, and last year equipped entrepreneurs in an Ugandan refugee settlement.

“We often use it in disaster relief situations where there is an earthquake or tsunami,” adds Medici. “The Swiss government flies our power blocks to the place, even though they don’t know how much [energy] is needed, in the beginning.”

The PBX-200 supplies energy within minutes.

Have they considered sending them to Ukraine? “Absolutely,” says Medici, “We have already told our partners [also numbering USAID and Médecins Sans Frontières] – if you have any questions regarding power needs in Ukraine, please approach us, we can find the right solution.”

Amid the devastating heatwave in India – which has led to a surge in electricity demand blackouts – Power-Blox is looking to help speed up the transition to sustainable transport.

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