Bright Idea: Planetary Power's Battery Boost

Cell towers in remote locations use diesel generators; a Redmond firm has a greener concept.

Sometimes, bright ideas seem to fall from the sky, like Newton’s apple. More often, as in the case of HyGen, they are the product of careful analysis.

The team at Planetary Power Inc. in Redmond came up with the idea for HyGen because “we were looking for what was the next big, world-changing problem to solve,” says President and CEO Joe Landon. “Energy was what we identified as an area we wanted to innovate in.”

The team first looked at solar power but decided the technology was already being fully developed by others. “We came across this market for smaller-scale distributed power generation using renewables — the idea of providing power to places where there was no power grid,” Landon explains.

After doing a little more research, the team quickly came to see the market as a “massive opportunity,” since about 25 percent of the world’s population doesn’t have a power grid to plug into. What pretty much everyone does have — even in those regions without power grids — is a cellphone. That means there’s a pressing need to provide power to remote cellphone towers.

Remote power for cell towers is usually provided by diesel generators. “That seemed wrong to us,” says Landon. “It’s extremely wasteful, bad for the environment and very costly.”

Planetary Power’s answer is a hybrid generator — HyGen — that employs the latest-generation lithium ion batteries. HyGen has a diesel engine that kicks in only when the battery charge drops below a specified level. Users can opt to include renewable-energy sources to supply power, minimizing even further the need for the diesel engine to recharge the batteries.

“Our system more closely matches power production to power consumption and has gains in efficiency of 50 percent or more,” Landon notes. Those gains, he says, are even greater if alternative energy sources such as solar power are integrated.

The company has been testing HyGen with a cellular company in the Northwest and plans to make its biggest marketing efforts first in Latin America, where the need for remote power is greater. Landon expects HyGen to be available by this fall. 

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