Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

The unavailable gadget we badly need to invent

As a bit of background to this post, its worth noting that I am massively into solar panels. I have 10 in my driveway, and I even started an energy company to build solar farms. Bizarrely, I currently own over 3,000 brand new solar panels, and they are sat in a warehouse. Its a very very long story. Anyway…

Solar power has a problem. Its a problem that we are working around, but it also represents an opportunity, because if someone can seize the opportunity, its seriously going to help everyone. It will help energy security, it will help the cost of living, it will help equality, it will help fight climate change. An opportunity existing precisely because solar power has a problem:

Solar panels are things we all know about. You can get big ones, and small ones, even tiny ones that power something as small as a pocket calculator (remember those?) or that unroll and plug into your phone to charge on a sunny day. We all know about solar panels. What most of us are not aware of, is inverters, and how our home wiring works. The big thing I need to get across in this post is that right now there is a LOT of complexity and crap that goes in between those solar panels you see on someone’s roof, or in a field, and the wall socket you plug your TV into.

Solar panels generate DC power. Houses use AC power. Basically AC is safer. AC gives you a shock that throws you across the room. DC is the one that locks your hand in a grip, and makes you look like wile-e-coyote when he gets electrocuted. Its the one that will kill you. Because solar generates DC and we need AC, you need a gadget that swaps one to the other. This is an inverter, and in most solar installs its a pretty big box of electronics and wiring that is usually hidden in someone’s attic or a cupboard somewhere. Here is mine:

The solar panels get connected in one end, then you get AC power out the other end, that goes through a big DANGER cutoff switch and then onward to a meter that calculates how much of a feed-in-tariff I get (old discontinued subsidy), and eventually feeding into the main energy supply for the house.

There is a big bit missing (for another 6 weeks!) from this picture, which is battery storage. To be of any REAL use to me, I need to store that power somewhere so I can use it later. I need home storage. I have ordered 2 big 8.2kwh batteries that will get connected to all this, involving yet more cabling. Each one of those is about 50% bigger than the inverter, and they ALSO need their own inverter, and their own cutout switch, and will be wired up in the cellar.

So to recap, to have a decent bit of renewable energy and home independence that lets me help prevent climate change, gives me energy security and independence, improves the resilience of the national grid etc… I need… *deep breath* Some solar panels, an inverter, a cutout switch, cables, a battery, another inverter, another cutout switch, more cables and a meter.

Actually thats not really the problem. This is the problem:

To even have THE OPTION to have all that, I need: A roof that I own (or in my case a yard/driveway), a cellar or similar space to stick a big box or three… oh and about £10,000 minimum. ($12,000). Yikes.

So what this means is… solar is really a nice handy, excellent option for middle+ income homeowners with a house and access to twelve thousand dollars. Great news for us I guess. Go team us! But hardly much help to people who live in apartments, or who rent, or who frankly are having to struggle financially as it is, ironically in no small part due to high energy bills. How can we solve this?

What we really need. What we REALLY BADLY need, is a way for people in any situation to be able to do their bit. They may not have $12k to invest in renewable energy, they may not even have $1,200 to do so, but they might have a few hundred dollars, or even fifty dollars. We need a way to dramatically scale DOWN solar power so that pretty much anyone, regardless of circumstances, can do something.

The big problem we have is that the entire solar and storage industry is designed to scale up. Just like with wind energy, it seems the easiest way to get costs down per megawatt is to go big. Bigger panels, better panels, bigger batteries. Big solar farms, Big battery storage. Not powerwalls, but powerpacks, or megapacks, or bigger. Bigger is cheaper, so bigger is better right?

The trouble is, this strategy is a way for the rich to get cheap energy, and leave the poor in the dust. Its great news that solar panel prices are falling and battery prices are falling, fantastic news for people who already have a pile of money. But where is the solution for people who are struggling? how do we avoid leaving behind everyone on average or low wages? Are we heading towards a society where energy bills only matter to the poor (who are crushed by them) because the rich generate their own power quite happily, and don’t know what the fuss is about. Maybe they don’t even know the price of energy any more…

What we need is a gadget most people probably already think is there. We need a gadget that you can plug a solar panel of any size into, and then plug it into your wall socket, and have your own micro version of the 4kw + big battery setup that those people with money already have. It needs to be really cheap, and really easy to use. It absolutely needs to be something that does not involve an electrician to install, and is totally safe. Just like plugging in your TV, although you plug in your solar panel instead, and it automatically sorts out whether to charge it’s little mini battery, or feed that power immediately into the house to supply anything that’s currently running…

The thing is… batteries scale down really nicely. My car (Tesla model S) is just a big fat block of small cylindrical batteries known as 18650s. They are used in EVERYTHING. I noticed our vacuum cleaner uses the exact same batteries. You can even just buy a bunch of them on ebay, they are not super obscure tech. And solar panels… they are pretty much a commodity. There are differences at the high end, when you build a solar farm, but you want a 400w panel? a 200 watt one? a 50w one? a 2w one? you can get anything you suit your budget.

The tricky bit is the integration with a small inverter, and the knowing what the house is doing. With current solar installs, this involves additional cables and things called CT clamps to work out if power is flowing in or out. Its complex, and messy, and annoying. Maybe electrical wiring means we just cannot do that, which means we have to go with a bit of a bodge solution, which is one of those small battery/inverter ‘powerpack’ gadgets that you CAN get on amazon:

These are obviously cool, but they are absolutely aimed at people who are going camping, and want to power a laptop or a small TV or whatever, while they are out of the house. Again…its a luxury product aimed at people who want to mess around with a mains-power TV while out on a camping trip. Its not designed to be something used as part of your house, and the assumption with most of these is that you are either charging from the house, or from solar… and then at some later time watching TV.

We need that…but as a permanent thing, in a fire-and-forget setup. In an ideal world you would output from this to a big powerstrip with a ton of devices that you use a lot on it. So TV, plus any speaker system, or streaming stick or DVD player…whatever, so it gets a bunch of use. Something you can buy once, and just use to reduce your household energy bills.

And we need this to ABSOLUTELY become a thing that people do. Not solar geeks, not environmentalists, not people who go on demonstrations, but it needs to become a thing that yeah…if you have $200, then you obviously get the powerpack+battery kit, you stick the solar panel in the window, and plug it in, plug some appliances in…and then your energy bills go down. Not a lot, for sure, and you would be WAY better off with 4kw of solar on a roof, but for someone in a small apartment who has high energy bills and a window that gets a ton of sun…we need this.

All the big tech companies are wasting their time, messing around with nonsense none of us asked for like ‘the metaverse’ or mobile phones that you can fold (why?) which cost $2,000. Or they are working out how to make your next unaffordable luxury phone just slightly thinner. Whatever…

Where is the apple iSolarPack? the google solarpack? the amazon solarpack? the brilliantly engineered (and produced in massive, massive volume) solution that helps absolutely anybody in the world feel like they can partake even slightly, even in a really small way in the revolution in renewable energy. We absolutely massively need this, and if you can make a thing that just unpacks and plugs in and saves everyone a bit on their energy bills, its going to sell like mad.

Even if we cannot do anything better than just make the existing idea of a powerpack much more affordable, and pair it with recommended solar panels in a nice easy package aimed at people whose idea of technology is plugging in alexa once… we really need to do this. Sadly nobody of any size seems to be bothering :(

5 thoughts on The unavailable gadget we badly need to invent

    1. Thanks for sharing this recommendation! The kit and its “Beembox” to convert DC to AC looks super simple. Comes at 780 EUR for a ~300W producing kit with wall mounts. This does look intriguing!

      All that’d be left is a battery pack and a way to use the energy. Maybe two battery packs, so one can charge during the day while you use the other to run devices.

      That’s the weird part, for me at least: how can you make solar in your home *part* of the network? In Germany, the default solution apparently is to connect your solar devices to the main power grid, and then let the grid handle everything, like a distributed buffer of sorts. It’s costly to set this up, too, though.

  1. I was thinking about something like this the other day. Like a UPS but with solar input to supplement it during the day.

    1. The UK is famous for clouds and rain. The best scale solution for rainy Europe would be nuclear reactors, or fusion if they ever make it work, but politics stops anything sensible happening on that front. If you live in an area near the equator with lots of sun, and little rain, then solar and batteries would be great.

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