BARCELONA -- The future of mobile usage is accessible and flexible. Beyond the shiny gadgets and techie toys, the 72,000 mobile junkies that were attending this week's Mobile World Congress learned how new technology can allow you to use and charge your phone literally anywhere in the world. Whether it's tiny solar panels on top of African huts or simply a cell phone that takes advantage of that harsh fluorescent office light, the reliance on CO2-emitting energy to stay connected is becoming a thing of the past.
Kicking off this year's mega-conference at Barcelona's FIRA exhibition center was a forum on Energy+Mobile for Development. Representatives running for-profit and not-for-profit organizations spoke about how they're using solar energy to jump start electricity and local economies in India and Africa. The sponsors of MWC and representatives of the world's nearly 800 mobile operators, GSMA (Global System for Mobile Communications Association), estimated that, in 2012, more than 500 million mobile connections were made off-grid. These are part of the 1.3 billion people globally who do not have access to electric energy, that rely on kerosene, if anything, for power. Solar partnerships with already-in-place mobile providers are opening up access to power in the farthest ends of the earth.
The need to have cell phones to pay bills, investigate crop failures and just to stay connected has created a need for cell phone charging stations for new entrepreneurs in off-the-grid, emerging markets. However, these normally come at a high risk with the expensive and often dangerous kerosene that the owners have to use to power stations.
Mobile networks are the first and predominant infrastructure in many rural villages and poverty-stricken cities. For the large mobile operators that have been there providing prepaid mobiles for more than a decade, helping the locals charge their phones is mutually beneficial. Companies like Vodafone are partnering with small start-ups, so that, for the first time ever, villagers can have low-risk, low-cost access to electricity, which they can use to power their homes and small businesses.
People in Rwanda, Uganda and now Tanzania can access this energy by buying 15-watt solar panels, controls and grid adapters. Solar panel start-ups, like Fenix International, allow individuals to save for and invest in these items and are able to work through the already existing mobile infrastructure, without having to go through the time and energy of approaching national governments to set up grids. Fenix has partnered with Vodafone to sell their ReadySet solar kits to individuals. Fenix and its CEO Mike Lin see an eligible market of $70 million to help set up solar-powered mobile charging stations in Africa.
"This is not charity. This is an actual for-profit with a community benefit," said Lin. He stresses that Fenix is not an NGO, but a for-profit company, which, he said, in fact guarantees greater success with the proven profitability and backing of big mobile names. For agrarian societies in which people earn only about a dollar a day, paying $150 to $200 for a solar panel may seem like a lot of money, but this is the sort of project that zero-interest, micro-financing NGOs are eager to support. That one-time investment can allow owners to charge six to eight phones a day, at a profit of between 25 and 50 cents per phone. Plus, they are saving on the cost of between $200 and $250 spent annually on kerosene and mobile charging.
Lin said of the cost, "Poor people can't afford cheap products, products that fail," saying that the cost is reflected in the reliability of the solar kits. So far, Fenix has sold 2,000 ReadySet kits, which means that 100,000 mobile phones have been able to be charged without kerosene. And for the less-sunny regions, Fenix also offers an alternative of bicycle-powered electricity, which is how their conference booth was being powered this week.
In addition to the benefits to the poorest of the world's poor, solar-powered charging stations are said to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by nine gigatons.
There's no doubt that photovoltaic energy is the direction of the future, but it's often misunderstood. As sales rep from Wysips, Matthieu de Broca, pointed out, it's not just solar energy, but the absorption of any kind of ambient light, indoor or outdoor, that can can create energy. Wysips -- "what you see is photovoltaic surface" -- is supposed be the creator of the world's first 90-percent transparent photovoltaic film. This means that, in the developed world, PV energy can finally get past the loud barriers of design and architectural naysayers that find solar panels to be ugly or tacky. The Wysips goal is to make the PV panels invisible to the eye, but just as functional.
Of course, being at the MWC, the most tangible example de Broca had to show was his cell phone, a jerry-rigged smartphone with a wisp of a PV panel under the touchscreen connected to the electrodes that, when under light, create a 20 percent increase in battery power. "Not a full charge," he said, but like it is in "infinite stand-by mode." If someone were outside -- because direct sunlight is still the strongest -- talking with a hands-free device, holding his phone towards the sun would recuperate the battery power of one out of every five minutes of conversation. With 90 percent transparency, when he shined a flashlight onto the screen, you could kind of see a glimmer of a reflective quality, but the view and touchscreen worked as well as always. All the while, the battery was charging.
Some other uses of these invisible solar panels are on the changeable electronic prices on shelves in stores or, like along Barcelona's main streets, to power notifications on bus stops. Both are information screens that don't need a lot of energy to power and are exposed to many hours of direct light a day. Now the Wysips team is looking to partner with companies that create end products like smartphones and tablets to integrate their technology into the production process, since there are so many different kinds of screens, such as Kindles versus iPads.
One of Wysips' other patented projects is Chameleon, which, as it sounds, works to disguise normal solar panels.
Solar energy is no longer just a thing of the future. Now it's about how it's packaged and presented to the world.
Photos: Felix International/ Jennifer K. Riggins