In remote, off-the-grid lands, millions of people would be pleased to plug in a small fridge, or use a blender, or even just turn on a lightbulb. But power grids still don’t reach over one billion people worldwide, so these people often still read by candlelight and use diesel generators to charge their cell phones.
One company with a new, high-profile Hollywood connection is trying to change this through distributed solar power installations.
Actor and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio has joined an off-the-grid solar company, Kingo, which seeks to power lights, refrigerators, and laptops for people in remote areas, like those living in the Guatemalan mountains. DiCaprio, who has invested millions in conservation and renewable energy causes, not only became an investor in Kingo — he also joined its board of advisors, the company .
In three years, Kingo says it has grown from 500 to 60,000 customers. The company installs solar panels and batteries in rural homes — critically, at no cost. Off-the-grid customers walk to a local store and pay to have their solar electricity activated when they need it, similar to how a prepaid cell phone works.
“They’re just like us — they just want a better quality of life,” Juan Rodriguez, Kingo’s founder and CEO, said in an interview.
Rodriguez, a Guatemalan native who still lives in the country, has ambitious plans to expand the company’s solar projects into other nations in South America and Africa, one day “hoping to have the largest user base of renewable energy in the world,” he said.
While an admittedly lofty goal for such a young company, Rodriguez said bold ambitions are necessary if Kingo wants to actually make a meaningful dent in these hard-to-reach places. Getting backing from a wealthy environmental advocate who is blunt about the need to address climate change and poverty, could prove vital.
“Solar power is key to a future without fossil fuels, and Kingo’s technology will help enable broad use of clean energy across the developing world,” DiCaprio said in a statement.
Kingo wouldn’t provide details about the amount of DiCaprio’s investment.
Bringing solar power to isolated communities, though, has been tried many times before, and it hasn’t always proven successful. Solar panels are sturdy, but they usually fail when the conventional lead-acid battery dies.
In the western world, buying a new battery isn’t a big deal. “But when you’re living on a couple bucks a day, that’s a big investment,” Hope Corsair, program director and associate professor in electrical engineering and renewable energy at the Oregon Institute of Technology, said in an interview.
Corsiar previously spent time in Guatemala, researching the successes and failures of off-the-grid solar ventures.
“A big obstacle to people using solar is a lack of capital,” she said, noting that poorer people don’t have money to sustain the solar systems after they’ve been installed.
But Kingo has tried to learn from these past failures. For one thing, its solar batteries are of a more reliable sort — lithium ion — and the company says repairs, upgrades, and swaps are completely free for users.
Efforts to bring electricity to isolated people is still a positive endeavor, Corsiar said, even if there’s been a learning curve on how to make it work. Giving people the ability to charge their phones can have far-reaching effects, connecting them to businesses, relatives, and even politicians. It simply allows more voices to be heard.
“It’s really transformative in terms of your place in society just to make phone calls every once in a while,” Corsiar said.
Kingo’s off-the-grid solar venture isn’t just a short-term solution until power lines and infrastructure are expanded into remote and mountainous places. It might be a permanent solution. Expanding and maintaining power lines in remote places can often be a money-losing proposition for electric utilities — so they often don’t do it. This leaves solar, with no connection to the grid, as the only viable alternative.
“Making it into these areas would be cost prohibitive,” Rich Simmons, senior research engineer and director of the Energy Policy and Innovation Center at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said in interview.
The case for these solar projects, then, “can become compelling really quick,” said Simmons.
But while useful for homeowners who want to charge a laptop, eventually smaller solar projects alone be won’t enough to meet greater electrical needs in these societies.
“This is meeting a minimum initial need,” said Simmons.
“I’m not saying it’s not a wonderful step in progress, but eventually solar will have to scale.”
This doesn’t just mean larger solar operations, like solar farms, but also combining solar energy with other renewables, like wind or geothermal, he said. Such projects, however, require money, something that’s in short supply in these communities. As it is, not everyone in rural Guatemala will be able to visit a local store to buy Kingo’s solar energy.
For now, it appears getting lights turned on and cell phones charged will be enough of an ambitious step. Without solar, light and energy options will stay antiquated: diesel generators and candles.
“The alternatives are not that great,” said Kingo’s Rodriguez. “These communities are very marginalized.”