Let There Be Light

The United Nations estimates that 1.4 billion people worldwide don't have electric light. See how a Charlotte company's easy-to-use solar power system is lighting many homes and clinics in the developing world.

CHARLOTTE — Most of us don’t think twice about what happens when you hit a switch on the wall as you walk into a room: the light turns on.

If you are reading this, chances are you also didn’t give a second thought to the notion that when you opened the screen on your laptop or hit the power button, the computer would turn on.  

It’s also just assumed that your cell phone is left on most of the time and, when the charger symbol shows “low power”, you plug it in to charge the battery.

That’s not the case for everyone. 

The United Nations estimates 1.4 billion people, about one fifth of world’s population, does not have electrical power.   A Charlotte engineering firm wants to change that with an invention it calls Firefly.

“You just put your solar panel out and by the end of the day the battery will be fully charged and that will give you plenty of light and phone charging ability all night,” explains John Swann, Renewable Energies Engineer for AEG, American Engineering Group.  We’re standing in the lobby of their Charlotte Offices looking at a display rack. There’s a solar panel array with a hinge in the middle. It opens up like a futuristic book. 

The panel is connected to a black box, which has five cables coming out of it. Each cable carries power a separate LED light. There is also a USB port on the box.

“Each of these lights has five meters of cable,” Swann continues,  “So you mount this head unit in a central location in your house and then you have a lot of cable that can go in any direction which takes care of most homes.”

Like its namesake in nature,  Firefly is small, portable, and bright.

The 20-watt solar panels can recharge the lithium ion battery in about six hours.

The system’s five LED lights and one USB port can be powered for up to 12 hours.  The parts can be easily swapped out and replaced if there’s a problem

It’s all the brainchild of AEG engineers who are designing Firefly not only for the commercial market, think camping, hunting and even tailgating and picnics, but also for developing nations where large areas don’t have electricity.

“The beauty of this system is that without having to build a lot of infrastructure, power plants and transmission lines, people living in rural areas can quickly set up a small system and be self sufficient,” says Scott Draffin, AEG’s VP of engineering, who helped design Firefly.

Firefly is the result of a commitment by AEG’s executives to dive deeply into R&D, research and development. They built a new 8000 square foot building strictly for R&D, and turned their engineers loose.  It took a few years, but Firefly, and several other products, was the result.

“What we arrived at, after all of that work, was off-grid solar renewable energy.” says Tod Skinner, President of AEG. “We learned a lot about it, some of those things were practical and some weren’t, but the key was that we understood how to  do distributed energy, how to put in place a power system that is solar powered, at the point of use, that is not related to the grid.”

AEG is selling Firefly and some other products commercially, but the company has made a big commitment to bring power to developing nations. The firm has an office in Tanzania and agents in several other countries.  The company works with some non-profits but the primary focus is social-entrepreneurship.

“We want to build local teams and profitable companies that are able to expand and scale,” says Matt Tarney, who spent 13 months as an in country operations manager in Tanzania. In other words, he helped start those small companies.

“That allows the company to grow into something that continues to impact lives beyond when a grant or donor funding runs out,” Tarney continues. “This is a sustainable model that can grow within the country. And this can grow from the ground, so it’s not us trying to impose or make money overseas, we actually built a team of local individuals that are now running sustainable businesses over there.”

The goal is to provide basic services: with a primary focus on clean power. Tarney recounts his visit to one village in Tanzania when he delivered a Firefly unit. 

“It’s important to demonstrate the unit as well as explain how it works,” says Tarney.

He describes the dozens of mud-brick houses with thatched roofs that make up the village. There are no doors or windows on the houses. The road is a dirt road. The path into the village is gravel and mud.  It is not a primitive place, but it is not developed either.  If there is an image of a small village in Africa that would slip into your mind, this would be it.

Tarney says even though it is still very bright at five o’clock in the evening, the inside of the village clinic is dark, except where the sun’s rays peek through cracks in the walls. Dozens of people gather in the clinic for the demonstration. 

Tarney has used the solar panel to charge the unit, so as soon as the cables and lights are plugged in and the button is pushed, light fills the room.

“People started clapping and cheering and thanking us,” Tarney recalls, smiling, as he remembers the scene. “They couldn’t stop thanking us.” 

The lights were hung by the next day. The solar panel was mounted on the clinic roof.

“We’ve put Firefly in churches, clinics, hospitals, homes, all kinds of places where light is needed,” adds Swann. “It’s really cool to take the power of the sun and convert it into light you can use to provide power to all kinds of places.”

The clinic in this village in Tanzania is just one of dozens of small buildings that doesn’t have electricity. None of the houses do as well.  And while you might think that this is just a small corner of the world that doesn’t have electricity, it turns out there are many small corners just like it.  The United Nations estimates one-point-four billion people, about one quarter of world’s population, does not have electrical power.   A Charlotte engineering firm wants to change that.

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