How did you come up with the idea of building a Sun Saluter whilst studying to be a mechanical engineer?
Eden Full: I built my first solar car when I was 10, and have been fascinated with solar energy ever since. When I was 16, I came up with the idea for the SunSaluter and made it my personal project. After years of experimenting with different prototypes, I unveiled it at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair 2008. There, I met a friend from Indonesia who inspired me to take the technology to developing countries. I’m currently in my senior year studying to become a mechanical engineer but am working as hard as ever on SunSaluter as well.
How did you get this project to take off? How hard was it to find support? Also in terms of finance?
Eden Full: SunSaluter was a personal project for several years, and what really helped SunSaluter gain momentum was the Thiel Fellowship, which allowed me to take two years off from college and focus on growing SunSaluter. After that, we won second place at the Dutch Postcode lottery which gave us the funding necessary to keep working while we scaled up operations. As far as finding partners for implementing the SunSaluter, we have been fortunate to work with so many great individuals and organizations, so that has not been too much of a challenge.
Where is the Sun Saluter currently being deployed? What conditions are needed for the Sun Saluter to be used?
Eden: We have deployed over 80 in 13 countries: Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, Tanzania, Malawi, Mexico, Haiti, Indonesia, The Philippines, India, the United States, Canada, and the Netherlands. Right now, most of our effort is focused on expanding operations in India, where we have some great colleagues and a lot of opportunity to grow.
Physically, the SunSaluter can go just about anywhere. All it needs is a flat surface and a solar panel to integrate with. The ideal conditions for the SunSaluter are a sunny climate and a place with a need for electricity, such as remote off-grid villages. However, even if you’re an urban dweller with a rooftop and a solar panel, the SunSaluter can be a great way to increase its efficiency.
What is the impact of this technology on people’s lives?
Eden: Access to energy is something we tend to take for granted in the Western world, but it can have a profound impact for poor individuals and communities. Without electricity, families often burn kerosene gas for light at night which is expensive and dangerous, often causing burns and house fires. With access to electricity comes the ability to power cell phones, fans, and other exciting technologies. The SunSaluter is an inexpensive and locally appropriate way to boost the amount of energy that a solar panel produces, so it essentially amplifies this impact. By lowering the overall cost of solar energy (by increasing efficiency), it makes it more accessible to users.
How involved are you at the grass roots of this technology? Is it still being developed further?
Eden: We always want to ensure that the SunSaluters are being sent to communities with a truly people focused approach. That is to say, we don’t want SunSaluters just to be dumped in a community and never revisited. We want locals to be trained how to operate and maintain the SunSaluter so that it will have a lasting impact. It’s not possible for us to be in 13 countries at once, so we work with partners who engage communities at the grassroots level. Most of our own grassroots work comes in our involvement in organizations such as the Solar Schools Consortium, which works to build awareness of solar energy among school children.
We like to say that there are a million ways to build a SunSaluter, depending on what materials and environmental conditions are present in a given location. Therefore, it is always a work in progress, and we are constantly striving to refine the design.
You say your goal is to build out a manufacturing and distribution operation with partners in India and Malawi this year. How close are you to achieving this goal?
Eden: Most of our focus right now is on India, and it’s going wonderfully! We have two Indian colleagues there who have been instrumental in building out our manufacturing and design processes. We’ll establish SunSaluter India as a self-sustaining social enterprise. We also owe a huge thanks to The Climate Group, which is funding our pilot projects in India.
Our model is to help local entrepreneurs (like our colleagues in India) establish social enterprises around the SunSaluter technology, and we have another great partner in Malawi who we hope can replicate this model.
Do you believe that groups such as the “empowering people. Network” can be beneficial to developmental work? How can you benefit from the Network personally?
Eden: Absolutely. Organizations like ours are working to reach individuals who have been overlooked by the traditional economy, and that poses a number of obstacles in manufacturing, design, distribution, and many more. Because profit is not our main motive, growth and partnership building can sometimes be difficult. The “empowering people. Network” has been so helpful in connecting us with like-minded individuals and organizations that have helped us grow, and raise awareness for this kind of work.