Solar is in a desperate race against diesel when it comes to supplying electricity to off-grid communities, and SunSaluter is in it to win. SunSaluter, organized as a nonprofit, is pitching an “ultra low-cost” do-it-yourself solar tracker that uses the ancient tools of water clocks and gravity to produce a 30% gain in efficiency, while also producing approximately four liters of clean drinking water. The last time we saw a diesel generator produce clean water and electricity from the same output was…er…well….
Birth of a Nonprofit Solar Tracker Organization
The last time the SunSaluter solar tracker crossed the CleanTechnica radar was back in 2011, when the solar tracker was barely out of the brainchild phase (though, sister site Solar Love covered it a bit in May, and we reposted that piece). The inventor, Eden Full, was a 19-year-old Princeton University mechanical engineering student in 2011, but the device — which is available for purchase as a DIY kit — was already garnering attention, including a $275,000 prize in the 2011 Postcode Lottery Green Challenge, among others.
The icing on the cake was a a $100,000 fellowship from the Thiel Foundation (as in PayPal cofounder and early Facebook investor Peter Thiel), which provided Full with an opportunity to pursue development of the solar tracker full time while networking with entrepreneurs.
At the time, CleanTechnica noted that Full was developing the product for her company Roseicollis Technologies, but it seems that the allure of doing good was too strong to resist, and now we find the “proudly Canadian” Full helming the SunSaluter nonprofit as founder and CEO.
The SunSaluter Solar Tracker — How It Works
Fast forward to 2015, and Full’s SunSaluter has been deployed in 16 different countries, racking up the aforementioned 30% gain in efficiency while providing clean-sourced electricity (and clean drinking water) for 8,000 people.
Here’s the pitch:
The SunSaluter is an ultra low-cost, passive, single-axis solar panel rotator (called a tracker). The SunSaluter boosts energy output by 30% by keeping a solar panel oriented towards the sun throughout the day. With improved efficiency, fewer solar panels are needed, and the overall cost per watt of solar energy is reduced. Conventional solar trackers use complex electronics which make them more than 30 times as expensive and prone to failure. That’s why solar trackers have never made sense for the developing world – until now.
The SunSaluter is a flexible system that can be retrofitted onto any solar panel without using special tools. You simply mount the solar panel on a rotating frame and suspend a weight at one end.
The secret sauce is the weight, which is a simple outflow water clock. Water clocks were one of the first time pieces, consisting of a container that lets water drip out at a steady, controlled pace.
In the SunSaluter system, as the water drips out, the weight lightens, and the panel rotates on the frame to follow the sun (solar panels need to be kept at or near an optimal angle throughout the day in order to function at peak efficiency). The rate of drip can be easily adjusted to control the rate at which the solar panel moves.
Of course, a wide variety of solar trackers are already on the market, but upfront expenses and maintenance issues make them impractical for off-grid use in underserved communities.
Modern solar trackers also do not generally include a water-purifying component.
Go Ahead, You Know You Want To Do It
As a nonprofit, SunSaluter is in the business of providing affordable, sustainable electricity to off-grid communities. Estimates vary, but according to SunSaluter, that means 1.5 billion people, with an overlapping clean water access issue that affects 750 million people — 100 million in India alone.
In the past, cheap diesel generators led the few options available, or kerosene lamps for lighting. Now, solar is emerging, but SunSaluter makes the point that solar panel technology is still too expensive for many communities.
The SunSaluter helps to chip away at that barrier, by enabling communities to squeeze more electricity out of the same panels, or conversely, to buy fewer or smaller panels.
SunSaluter’s simple water purification system also provides a solution to cost and maintenance issues that bedevil conventional systems:
Existing water purification technology is highly effective at preventing the transmission of waterborne pathogens, but the majority of clean water programs still fail due to improper operation by end users. Standalone water products are only 6% to 27% effective at reducing diarrhea. There is a dire need for products and approaches which improve user behavior and uptake of these clean water technologies.
That’s where you come in.
Image (screenshots and photos) via SunSaluter.