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tinyPipes: An Electrical Utility that Goes Where the Grid Can't

Alex Hornstein (TinyPipes)
Location: Fleet Room
Slides:   1-PDF 

It costs $16,000 to build a mile of power lines in the Philippines, more if you’re going somewhere tricky like an island or a mountain. This number is part of the reason why 1/3 of the Philippines population and 1/5 of the world’s population doesn’t have grid electricity, but it’s not the whole story. The thing is, power grids are good at moving large amounts of energy, but they’re not that great at moving small amounts. That fifth of the world that doesn’t have grid – they’re not using kilowatt hours a day. The ones who do have energy access, often by shared generators or hauling car batteries into the grid to charge use tiny amounts of energy – less than one us cent a day at US grid rates. Even if we gave utility companies the money to build power lines out to every unelectrified home on the planet, most of those power lines would lose money for the utilities – the losses and maintenance cost more than the users would pay. This is the electrical quagmire that the off-grid parts of the world are stuck in.

This is where tinyPipes comes in. Instead of the traditional approach of building high-capacity infrastructure to areas that use less than 1/1000th of the available capacity, we’re building a distributed energy utility based on solar panels that are connected to the internet through the cellular network. Rather than the traditional approach of selling small solar panels, we install solar panels that can produce 3x the energy that households currently use, and we sell the energy that our panels generate. We’re able to distribute so broadly because of a simple, $10 circuit that we put in each panel that lets us communicate with each panel, and we tie all of our panels into a website where we can monitor and control them, no matter where they are in the world. We’ve built mounts that let us install a panel on any rooftop in half an hour. This means we can go places that no utility can reach for hundreds of times less than it would cost to build a traditional power grid.

Electrification is a problem of distribution, and solar panels are inherently distributable. Over four hundred million people live off the electrical grid but within reach of cellular networks. To bring energy access to those people, we need to build up tools both social and technological that are distributable, as well. This isn’t radically difficult technology – we use circuitry that you might find on an arduino shield, just adapted to this particular scenario. Socially, we think about how to tie energy access into people’s social networks – is your energy usage better if your neighbor has access to energy? Can we add structures or incentives that help us tie into the social networks that are the most pervasive and persuasive means of dissemination in the areas where we install panels? Building in a technology layer that closely ties to a social layer lets us collect empirical data on how our ideas work in practice. Each time our network reaches a new order of magnitude, we have to find the right mix of technological fits and social fits to continue growing.

This is a compelling business that can do a great deal of good, but it’s no slam dunk. The idea that you can install profitable infrastructure in poor, remote areas is looked on with suspicion, and it’s an uphill battle to tie into the networks of finance and distribution that can help us reach orders of magnitude more people than we can on our own. So in the meantime, we’ll keep on doing what we do best – we ask utility companies to tell us which areas are the most expensive, most heinous, biggest pains in the ass to electrify…and that’s where we go.

I’d like to do a live demo to show what it’s like to add more panels to our system and to run them like we do in the field. Before the talk, I’d set up a few of our solar panels outside and link them into our system. I’d need a reliable internet drop somewhere – it could literally be anywhere with a good cell signal – where I can plug in a piece of hardware that links our system into the cellular network, and I’d only need internet access for my laptop on stage.

Photo of Alex Hornstein

Alex Hornstein


Alex Hornstein is an independent inventor. He spends his time dreaming, designing and building impossible, impractical, and wonderful things, and he’s particularly fascinated by communities of people that work creatively with technology. Nowadays, he works mainly on clean tech and digital manufacturing technologies.

When Alex isn’t building stuff, he’s usually goofing off with friends, playing with motorcycles or walking on a trail.

All of this is a whole lot of fun.