A new, simple device has been designed for people who, for financial or practical reasons, can't have PV panels on their rooftops, but still want to show their support for solar power and help the industry grow. The amount of electricity used to power a gadget connected to the SunPort plug is offset against solar credits, essentially making your electronic device solar-powered. Kind of.
SunPort is a demand device that its designers say is the first of its kind. Basically, it creates an economic signal of the user’s preference for solar power. This way, the user starts consuming solar credits and creating demand for solar energy, which can only be met by PV panels feeding electricity into the grid.
"There is no way to track a distinctly solar energy flow – or from any other particular source – in the grid, so solar credits are the only way to identify who uses solar energy,” SunPort creator, Paul Droege, tells Gizmag. "This is the way all renewable energy in the grid works, whether a utility green energy program or a big company like Google or Apple getting renewable energy from an installation they have built or contracted with. SunPort makes that same system work for consumers, just by plugging in."
Solar credits, or Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (S-REC), are a kind of currency designed to stimulate the solar energy market. For every megawatt-hour of solar power fed into the electric power grid, a new credit is created. Since one S-REC is reported enough for a whole month’s energy use by an average home, SunPort breaks the credits up into a microcredit unit called a SunJoule. When a SunPort measures one kilojoule of grid electricity being used, it retires one SunJoule from the system and credits the SunPort’s owner with that amount of real solar power use.
The device itself, which plugs into a standard three-pronged outlet (NEMA 5-15) and can be used to power anything up to 1,200 watts or 10 A at 120 volts, has onboard power measurement, processing, memory and communications capabilities.
The company’s servers communicate with the SunPort unit through the user's iOS/Android phone app and a Bluetooth wireless link. When needed, the server can also load SunJoule microcredits into the SunPort's memory, so they are available for use without a constant communication link.
The SunPort app lets the user see how much electricity they're using and contributing to the solar economy. The user can add several SunPorts to an account to have a greater impact, as well as being able to chart the combined impact of the SunPort community. The app can also measure the electricity used to charge specific devices.
The folks behind the SunPort plug stress that using the plug will not alter home energy bills, it's a means of helping the solar energy industry to grow.
"You pay your utility for the electricity, which is just generic energy," explains the company. "SunPort adds a very minor solar cost, which is not for energy but for certified information that attributes your energy use to a solar source. If you skip the information, you can still get energy but it won’t be specifically linked to solar. The information allows what we call a solar upgrade. Only with this combination of generic energy and certified information can energy from the grid be identified as renewable energy."
At the moment though, the SunPlug project is crowdfunding on Kickstarter to raise production funds and is only being offered to US backers. The latter is because the solar credits come from panels connected to the US power grid, and because each country has different safety certification requirements and it’s very costly to carry out tests for each region.
As of writing, early bird SunPorts have all gone. The next available pledge level is US$49 or more, which comes with a year's worth of unlimited free solar upgrades. After the first year, SunPort owners will need to pay $20 per plug for another 12 months of unlimited upgrades. If all goes to plan, the first SunPlugs are expected to start shipping in March 2016.