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TinyPipes

In a sentence, Alex Hornstein runs an electrical utility in areas that the grid can’t reach.

He’s been interested for a long time in how people in off-grid areas electrify themselves. One thing that he sees a lot is that a homeowner will buy a car battery, haul it into the nearest grid-connected town to charge it up, and then haul it back to his house to run lights, charge phones, and run TVs, radios and other appliances. Alex really likes this — it’s the DIY version of a grid, replacing the expensive, fragile and slow wires that transport energy with the more robust people that transport energy. Hundreds of millions of people around the world use this method to get access to energy.

Alex started tinyPipes as a way to build tools for energy access that tie into this ecosystem. He builds internet-connected solar panels that he installs on off-grid homes electrified with a car battery system. Instead of hauling a battery to the grid and paying someone in town to charge the battery, users purchase energy from his panels by sending money through their mobile phone, and his panels charge up their batteries. It works just like a power grid, only there are no wires.

A big challenge with tinyPipes is building a system that can scale. He needed to make panels that he could communicate with and control, no matter where in the world they were, so he builds a layer of infrastructure that lets him monitor and control panels anywhere in the world through the Web. Now, if a panel has a problem in another hemisphere, he’ll know immediately, and can get a maintenance guy out there to fix it.

Alex is building an analytical model to let him predict, based on historical energy use data, when a village is going to use enough energy for it to make business sense for a utility company to run a power line to that village. Big data has a place off the grid, as well.

He currently has panels deployed in the Philippines, and is working to expand in the country and beyond. A quarter of the world’s population doesn’t have access to reliable grid electricity, and he wants to be able to deploy panels at a scale that can change that number.

Alex has always loved building and being around people who build. Before long, he started picking up skills just by watching and talking to talented builders, and started making and sharing his own projects to be part of a group.