Temporary and emergency power generation is a niche that few are working to decarbonise.
This is mainly because of how little it emits compared to other sources like agriculture, global transportation, and grid-scale energy generation.
We’ve previously covered portable kite energy and portable micro-nuclear as container-sized energy solutions for this niche.
A niche that is currently monopolised by the polluting diesel generator.
In this article, we take a closer look at portable solar energy and battery storage as an alternative to decarbonising the temporary energy niche.
A niche in need of innovation
Maintaining power generation at all times is essential to modern society.
Not only because the world is dependent on digital systems for communications and supply chains but to guarantee basic necessities like winter heating, water pumping, medical equipment and food refrigeration.
For almost 100 years, versatile diesel generators have done a splendid job of providing emergency power and has probably saved millions of lives.
But these are changing times, and every niche must do its part in decarbonising, so a solution that is equally reliable but clean is the goal.
Particularly when considering that the emissions of diesel generators are 2.15 larger than those of the U.S. national grid, which has one of the highest carbon intensities.
In comes solar energy
We came across the concept of portable solar farms in this video produced by the World Economic Forum (WEF).
A series of rapidly deployable solar panels stored within a container that can be transported anywhere with road access in the back of a lorry seem bound to replace diesel generators in a heartbeat.
Ready to produce energy in as little as 15 minutes, these could replace generators in multiple temporary and emergency settings like construction sites and emergency power for hospitals, refugee camps and any other immediate energy needs.
And when combined with a battery system, these portable solar units could produce energy both day and night, and if large enough, could even help with a nation’s baseload in times of increased demand or reduced supply.
But as usual, it is never a straight-up fairytale story…
Remembering the Lindy Effect
We soon found out that the trailblazing company behind this portable solution had actually put the project on hold “due to the huge interest in our other industries”.
Polish company Moveit specializes in trailer and container innovations and has been in the market for decades. Their working prototype appears to have been well-tested, and the green technology niche appears to be in its prime.
We soon realized that there were a number of similar portable solar prototypes from different startups, some of which had seemingly vanished after posting well-edited marketing videos.
We were quickly reminded of the Lindy Effect and how novel concepts that appear to have high chances of success actually need to stand the test of time before acquiring trust.
To be precise, the Lindy Effect is a theory that robust innovations will remain relevant for as long as they have survived in the past.
For example, if containerised solar power becomes commercially used throughout the world for 10 years, it is very likely it will survive another 10.
In other words, new concepts need to stand the test of time to prove themselves as truly revolutionary, and this niche is no different.
And so far, it is not looking as promising as we thought. Let’s have a look at some of the containerised solar innovations of the last couple of years and how they have fared the test of time.
This is the self-unloading portable solar system displayed in the WEF video, and produced by Polish company Moveit.
This impressive system fits in a container and can be self-unloaded using a system pioneered by the company, where the panels automatically deploy from the roof.
The opening process resembles a sped-up scene of a growing seedling with the panels opening up like the petals of a flower once the supporting structure reaches its desired position.
Also, the panels automatically track the sun’s position during the day to maximise power production, and when installed together with a battery can provide 24-hour power generator.
But despite what looks like an absolute winner, this project has fallen off the company’s priorities.
We found this prototype on Youtube, showing a series of panels lugged by a truck and automatically unloaded from a truck.
The solution wasn’t containerised so would only be deployable locally.
The concept appears to have remained at the idea stage as their website only shows a containerised portable home concept which looks interesting in its own right but is beyond the scope of this article.
This German company has also been testing out its solar container prototype for many years in multiple scenarios.
The photographs on its website suggest that they’ve deployed it for military and humanitarian purposes across Europe and Africa, as well as in sites across Germany.
They’ve been working on containerised solutions for over a decade, and their idea of a “plug-and-play” model has in-built energy storage and smart energy management.
The maximum output of a single container is 52kW (at peak) and its in-built battery can store 100kWh of energy which is enough for a small refugee camp, a hospital or even emergency water desalination.
Their prototype even won an Energy Globe World Award in 2016, a clear show that we aren’t the only ones to think this is promising.
However, the projects now appear abandoned, as there haven’t been any marketing updates for the last couple of years, with their last tweet coming out in 2018.
This Belgian firm specialises in “unique metal innovations” and has been in the market since 1929!
According to their website, they provide highly customisable solutions like containerised portable LED screens for large events, press lorries, residential car lifts, fairground solutions and finally their portable solar solution.
Their website described their 45′ solar container that can provide up to 38kW (peak) of energy production and includes in-built battery storage of up to 120kWh in detail.
The system’s solar auto-tracking makes it 45% more efficient compared to a static installation, which is similar to that of Moveit.
Despite the richness in detail, there are no photos or videos of it being used or trialled in real conditions, and there is no clear actionable button on their website to order this prototype, suggesting it is not easily available for purchase.
Solar Gem – Akuo
This containerised solar solution by French renewables company Akuo is different.
The panels come folded up within the 20′ container and are deployed by unfolding them onto the ground like an accordion.
A series of rails with small wheels are installed facing the container, allowing the staff to unpack it within 30 minutes by rolling the panels out.
The unloading and loading process is not fully automated and requires some manual labour or forklift to deploy.
Scaling the system simply requires ordering more or fewer containers, with each one providing up to 75kW (at peak).
According to their website, up to 1000kW (peak) can be installed in a week, in this plug-and-play system.
The system can be packed during hurricane conditions, and provide 24-hour energy supply when combined with a portable battery system.
What really makes them stand out is that their website indicates that the system is “Available for immediate delivery”, indicating that the system is actually available.
We speculate that this may be because the project is run by the Akuo Groupe which is one of France’s household renewable names, and perhaps has more financial firepower to take on this bet.
Despite the promising marketing material, it looks like most of the solutions proposed are finding trouble getting to market.
Out of the five prototypes we looked at, only one appears available, with the others apparently falling out of favour.
There may be many reasons for this. Perhaps it’s a lack of financial incentives to switch or a lack of trust that a solar system could be as reliable as the robust diesel generator that most mechanics know how to fix.
Perhaps it’s cost-prohibitive, or maybe just too big to fit compared to a more versatile generator.
Or maybe it’s a lack of marketing, where these small companies simply cannot reach their customers, be it rural communities, the military, construction, etc.
Whatever it is, at AquaSwitch we do hope that these solutions succeed, under the condition that they’re capable of competing in a free and open energy market.