The latest generation of small power stations are impressive. Ecoflow, Bluetti, Goal Zero. These are versatile, nice looking machines, great to have handy for emergencies or when visiting the great outdoors while still wanting to run your espresso machine and a small AC — modern glamping, in other words. I have one, love it, and highly recommend it. But I don’t actually use it. I mean, hardly ever. Let’s be honest, no one really uses these and, well, of course — that box sitting in the corner of the garage is there for peace of mind in case of TEOTWAWKI and for the half dozen adventure trips we had planned to take last year but only managed one. Grid power is just much more convenient. A powerhub does, however, come in handy when there’s a power outage, but in the USA that’s maybe a few hours here and there over the course of a year.
Contrast that with much of Africa, where there are several power outages lasting a few hours every single day, and that’s if there is any grid at all. Solar-charged power stations are a necessity here, not a luxury. Sadly, you almost never see solar-charged power banks being used in places like Nigeria. What is common instead are fuel generators. You can likely guess the reason. Poverty. A cheap fuel generator is $200, while my solar-charged power bank, with its fancy OLED display, is more like $1200 (plus $200 for a 300W panel to charge it). It’s a classic debt trap — lack of productive power keeps people from being able to afford productive power. This is why universal access to modern affordable power is UN Sustainable Development Goal #7. Call it SDG7 if you want to sound like you’re dialed into this sort of thing.
There is more to it than the high upfront cost however. Besides the obvious environmental downside to running legions of small fuel generators, fuel is expensive and getting more so. If you run a quick analysis of fuel costs to run 1 kW of power (inefficiently with these cheap gensets) for several hours a day, then over a year, you’ve spent about as much as if you had bought the cool solar thing. Still, there are relatively few takers though. Look closer and one can see why. The systems available today don’t quite work in the majority of African settings because they were never designed to. So, what’s wrong?
Everyday use is one reason. My system will see 80 hours of use in its 5 year lifetime, tops. A poor entrepreneur running his shop with one of these products will run more than that on her system in 2 weeks. Lithium-ion batteries are great for low cost, high energy density, but they wear out pretty fast when pressed. You know how you’re not supposed to run your cellphone dead every day, and if you do, it basically won’t hold a charge after a year? Like that. Expect it to die young.
Dirt and dust are another reason. Inverters and charging circuits make lots of heat, so most rely on fans to circulate air over the internal power boards. In most of the places I’m describing, that quickly means dirty PCBs, which is bad especially if the dust attracts some moisture and the clay is alkali or salty, or the box gets rained on, etc. These are high-voltage circuits, after all. Spritz some water into the side vents on your …….