Solar power has a lot of obvious appeal, but unless you're willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars outfitting your roof with solar panels, it isn't terribly accessible. A $49 gadget called SunPort currently making the rounds on Kickstarter wants to help. Plug it in and plug something else in behind it, and SunPort will track its energy usage, then automatically "upgrade" that energy to solar power by way of renewable energy certificates.
These solar certificates, or "S-RECs" have been around for decades. One gets produced for each megawatt-hour of solar energy that goes into the US power grid. Energy users can then purchase those S-RECs through their utility provider, each one certifying that one mWh of their energy consumption came from solar power.
The problem is that each S-REC is a pretty big chunk of power -- more than most homes use in an entire month. That makes them the right size for the companies and institutions that typically end up purchasing them, but too large for the average consumer.
That's where SunPort comes in. As it tracks the energy usage of whatever you've got plugged into it, SunPort's team will work with a nonprofit called ReChoice to purchase those S-RECs and break them down into smaller bits they call "SunJoules," then apply that solar credit to your power consumption. To be clear, that won't lower your energy bill, but SunPort hopes it will help generate new demand for solar energy at the consumer level.
"It's a small, relatively easy step that can start to tip the balance," explains engineer, solar entrepreneur and SunPort creator Paul Droege. "If we can just sort of step on the gas by causing more demand, it hastens the time until we actually have a dominant renewable energy grid, instead of the grid we've got today that's about seven eighths non-renewable."
It's not just demand that SunPort is looking to boost, either. For each dollar ReChoice spends purchasing S-RECs, it commits a matching dollar to the installation of new solar panels through a solar endowment program. That means that using a SunPort in your home will help contribute to the solar supply, too.
There's a small certification cost that comes with each S-REC sale, but SunPort will cover those costs for the first year of use, with no limits. After that, users will need to pay a flat $20-per-year fee to continue claiming those SunJoules. Other than that, there are no additional costs or commitments associated with SunPort.
As SunPort tracks your energy usage, you'll be able to follow along on your Android or iOS device. The app can track multiple SunPorts at once -- down the road, SunPort's team wants to expand the hardware to include whole-home energy tracking, along with an enhanced plug that features automation and USB charging capabilities. Licensing the technology directly into electronic devices and appliances is a possibility, too.
"Five years ago, sitting at a solar conference, a speaker asked how many of us used solar," Droege told me, explaining where the idea for SunPort came from. "A few dozen hands went up in a room full of thousands. That was the 'a-ha' moment. You know, there has to be a more accessible way to do this, if even industry insiders are this challenged."
It remains to be seen whether the idea catches on or not. As of writing this, the SunPort's Kickstarter campaign has raised $44,352. It'll need to hit a goal of $75,000 by August 27 in order to receive funds and start production, with SunPorts projected to ship to backers in March of next year.