Tiny Pipes

The Philippines, in 2008, enacted into law the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (EPIRA), amid widespread power shortages and forecasted fast economic growth rates.

However, after five years, the regulatory structure necessary to adequately implement and support this law is not yet fully in place, and a better sustainable energy roadmap is needed, reports the Worldwatch Institute. The country’s metropolitan areas are assured of adequate power, although many rural areas are still left unpowered.

Meanwhile, even as the average household consumes a meagre 211 Kilowatthours (kWh) per month, this cost amounts to 12 percent of the average household income in the country.

Compare this to developed economies in the Americas and Europe, where families only consume two to three percent of their household incomes on electricity — and this already includes sophisticated electrical appliances like air-conditioning or heating units, dishwashers, washing machines and the like. For most Filipinos, it’s only simple light bulbs, a refrigerator, electric fans and TV sets.

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This is compounded by the energy shortages experienced by some regions due to inadequate generation or transmission facilities, or sometimes difficulty by electric cooperatives in settling their payments with the national grid.

Not everyone is plugged into the grid, however. In the Philippines, 30 million out of the country’s population of 95 million live off the grid. Households have to be creative in powering their homes. For instance, residents in remote islands would usually rely on automotive batteries to power up their light bulbs and small appliances and recharge their mobile phones.

Alex Hornstein,

Alex Hornstein

Social entrepreneur Alex Hornstein uses the island of Alibijaban as an example — the place is a good eight-minute banca ride from the Luzon mainland. Like many islands scattered across this archipelago of more than 7,100 islands, the island’s 300 households use batteries to power their appliances and gear. Once a week, residents ferry their batteries to the mainland for recharging through establishments like welding shops and garages.

Hornstein, through his startup called Tiny Pipes, is installing 60 Watt solar panels on the roofs of an initial 20 houses in Alibijaban, and these are equipped with cellular connectivity, which enables the system to a wider network. Connecting the solar panels to the cellular network is essentially “embedding smart things into panels,” Hornstein said.

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Through Tiny Pipes, families can then pay for their battery recharging through the solar panels, instead of having to go to the mainland for a top-up. “People can pay us through a phone, and we unlock the panel for 24 hours or they set up a daily or weekly or monthly plan,” said Hornstein, who holds an engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The social entrepreneur says his ambition is to create the biggest grid in the world, and these would essentially be solar panels connected to the virtual “grid” through the mobile network. Currently, Alibijaban residents pay the equivalent of US$2 per week to charge their batteries. Hornstein says there must be a more elegant way to power these households, who require very little energy anyway.

Hornstein is not new to the solar business, nor to the Philippines, as he and co-founder Shawn Frayne developed the Solar Pocket Factory during his brief residency stint in Manila. The machine essentially built a solar panel the size of a coffee table, which could then power a small device like a mobile phone. The Solar Pocket Factory got backing via Kickstarter in the amount of US$77,504, exceeding its goal of US$50,000 in September 2012.

Not content with simply building the solar panels, Hornstein is now exploring the actual application of solar technology in rural areas, where installing billion-dollar solar facilities may not necessarily be a viable option. This project will start its pilot this month, with the blessing of local electric cooperative Quezelco. After launching in 20 households, will Tiny Pipes be able to achieve its dream of powering up the rest of the world with micro-payments through sustainable energy sources?

Featured image credits: Alex Hornstein