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BBOXX technicians fitting solar panels to a roof © BBOXX

New energy pioneers

London-based BBOXX supplies solar-powered battery boxes to customers in developing countries. Their remote monitoring and battery management system was one of the winners of the 2015 Bloomberg New Energy Finance Award.

After installation, BBOXX technicians demonstrate how to operate the solar home systems and the accessories that come with it – Rwanda, November 2014 © BBOXX

Five years ago, three electrical and electronic engineering students from Imperial College London created the start up BBOXX. In many developing countries, kersosene lights, candles and generators have been the traditional means of providing energy in areas that are off the grid. However, the company saw that solar-powered battery boxes could work to power small appliances such as lights, mobile phones, radios and televisions. These systems have proved so popular in East Africa and parts of Asia that today, more than 250,000 people use BBOXX systems.

At first, the battery units were sold directly to customers, but along with other challenges, the upfront cost of the unit slowed down the spread of the product. Then, two years ago, the company started work on remotely monitoring the battery systems. The breakthrough result was a product-performance feedback system that enabled their products to remotely connect to a central server over the GPRS (2G) network. This network has achieved widespread coverage in many African countries, owing to the explosion in popularity of mobile phones.

Over this network, the SMART Solar system is able to relay information about the state of the battery’s health, the trends in energy usage, and any electrical issues with the box itself. This allows local technicians trained by the company to head out and repair a box before a customer is even aware of an issue.

This allows local technicians trained by the company to head out and repair a box before a customer is even aware of an issue

One of the major advantages of this system is that it enables BBOXX to remotely deactivate units, which in turn enables it to distribute the system on a payment plan. Instead of selling a product that requires total payment in advance, the company is able to offer access to electricity that can be paid for over 36 months, ensuring that energy is an accessible, and often the most affordable, option for the poorest people in the most rural parts of the developing world.

The company has established a global supply chain, designing, manufacturing and financing off-grid rural areas in 35 different countries. Over 50,000 battery boxes have been distributed to date, and the company now supports 170 employees on three continents. Now that the company has cracked the technology, it is tripling its growth rate each year. By 2020, it hopes to have electrified over 20 million people around the world.

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This article has been adapted from "New energy pioneers", which originally appeared in the print edition of Ingenia 64 (September 2015).

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