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Spreading Solar Power Around the World with Skype

One and a half billion people on the planet don’t have access to regular electricity or light after sunset. That’s roughly a quarter of the world’s population that burns wood or kerosene for power or, perhaps, has no access to power at all.

New York-based Voltaic Systems, and a handful of other companies, are creating wearable and portable solar panel technology aimed to make solar power a viable reality for everyone, whether they live in Manhattan or Malawi.

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They’ve introduced solar-powered lighting to remote communities in South America and Africa and used their technology to charge people’s mobile phones for essential communication in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.

While Voltaic Systems is a global company with growing international impact, they have less than a dozen total employees – many of whom work remotely. Voltaic Systems founder and CEO, Australian-born Shayne McQuade says, “I frequently work from home in New York and connect via Skype with the warehouses in New Jersey, factories in China and the NGOs that help us implement the technology on the ground in Africa and South America. Our global reach wouldn’t be possible without Skype.”

Chief Operating Officer Jeff Crystal manages international development for the company and conducts the communications with NGOs around the world on Skype. He recounts, “I was just in Peru doing solar lighting installations among some indigenous communities. As soon as I got an internet signal, I used Skype on my iPhone to simultaneously talk with someone at the NGO in Malawi about the installation process there.”

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Voltaic System’s solar-powered backpacks first caught on with outdoor enthusiasts, commuters, photographers and students. McQuade says, “Suddenly people started improvising with the technology and setting up things like a solar-powered GPS on a shipping container or a remote solar-powered video cameras. We saw the potential to deliver light to remote areas that are currently without electricity from one individual or household at a time.”

He continues, “The combination of dramatically cheaper solar panels along with improvements in LED lighting and better battery life means that solar is becoming competitive with old-fashioned power like kerosene. We’re partnered with NGOs to deliver the technology, but as prices continue to come down this kind of solar power will become economically feasible on its own.”

Crystal adds, “Solar lighting give better light at a better price over time and without dangerous fumes, the risk of house fires and other pollutants. Every ten solar lights can save one ton of CO2 emissions.”

McQuade argues, “And this goes way beyond lighting. Already several hundred million people have mobile phones but don’t have regular access to regular electricity. Many of these people will eventually get access to basic tablet computers too. Because of technology like Skype, small companies like us can coordinate big efforts and have an outsized impact. We hope to help the world become much more connected and leapfrog past polluting fuels in the process.”

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