Portable diesel generators are used to power everything from open-air music festivals to water systems in remote areas. Unfortunately, they pump out lots of pollution and noise while providing convenient power.
What if there were a cleaner replacement for diesel generators? That’s exactly what German startup SunZilla has created with their lightweight and silent solar generator.
Green Power for Green Projects
We talked to Joscha Winzer of SunZilla during the COP21 climate talks in Paris. He was participating in an exhibition of clean technologies to drum up interest in his company’s plug-and-play solar arrays, which are designed to be highly portable and modular so they can be used efficiently in many different settings, and adapted to a range of different user needs.
SunZilla grew out of an environmental nonprofit that Winzer and his colleagues started a few years ago. The nonprofit ran environmental education projects and projected movies in remote areas, which meant that they were always using diesel generators. They realized the contradiction in using such a polluting technology to promote green practices, so they started looking for a better way.
Winzer and his co-founders — Vivien Barnier, Leonie Gildein, Jochen Ruess, and Laurin Vierrath — all have engineering backgrounds, so they applied themselves to the problem at hand, and SunZilla was born.
Open Source Solar Power Built for Collaboration
From the start, the team wanted their solar generators to be based on open-source designs. In the beginning, this applied only to the modular, plug-and-play concept of the generator, but now it has expanded to cover other aspects, including the battery charger, AC converter, and regulation system.
The SunZilla team took their designs to a new level in late summer of 2015, when they spent five weeks at the POC21 camp in the French countryside alongside 11 other green startups. During the camp, they collaborated with the other groups to uncover many possibilities for improving their system, such as looking at ways to make it easier for a SunZilla generator to power a water purification system.
Winzer says that before the camp the SunZilla team wasn’t really sure if they should continue with the project, which they had come to realize wasn’t flexible enough in its design at the time. But becoming part of the POC21 community improved their product’s modularity and “helped us bring the project so much further in a very short amount of time.”
Step by Step into the Developing World
SunZilla’s plan is to build about 20 production models by summer of 2016, with the intent to sell some of them and rent the rest. The team is working initially with customers in Europe so that they can iron out all of the details of the product closer to home. After that, they’d like to work with partners who can help take SunZilla into areas of the developing world that have weak or nonexistent electrical grid connections.
Winzer and his colleagues believe that SunZilla could have a big impact in those off-grid areas. Because it’s open source (check out the detailed documentation on Instructables), the generator can be used to interconnect both smaller systems and broader “swarm electrification” projects in remote areas.
Designing Both a Product and a Business
At the POC21 camp, a member of the Autodesk Foundation also introduced the team to Fusion 360. First they used it to design the casing for the generator’s modules, but since then they have created a 3D model for the whole system, including connections for the components, as well as export files for laser cutting, CNC, and other aspects of manufacturing. They are also starting to design the regulation system and refine their 3D models based on feedback from their most recent prototype.
At the moment, Winzer and his colleagues are heavily involved in promoting SunZilla and dealing with all the media attention they’ve been getting from outlets such as MAKE. He says that it’s been exciting to have “many interesting people getting to know about [the SunZilla generator] and getting connected to talk about possible use cases.”
Now the SunZilla team is working to finance their 2016 products and secure CE certification so that they can sell the product in Europe. “That’s taking up a lot of time and energy,” Winzer says, then he laughs when he adds, “If you don’t have the money to build it . . .”
Winzer acknowledged that these business aspects are “super-interesting,” but you can also hear the engineer in him who’s impatient to hone the product design.
As he puts it, “Sometimes I think ‘Wow, I just want to sit down and do the engineering part and the technical part, again.’”