Future Forward Full Interview: Solar Charging Stations Reduce Impact of Damaged Power Grids
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Fred Stampone is the CEO of Sunbolt, which has installed solar-powered off-grid workstations throughout the United States and Mexico.
V1 Media: Please provide a brief background of your education and work experience before Sunbolt.
Stampone: I’m a CPA by training. I made my way to one of my clients, Pep Boys, where I was Chief Administrative Officer with a primary responsibility of building out the chain on a national basis, including in Puerto Rico. After 20-plus years at Pep Boys, I got into real estate development in South Florida and the restaurant industry, just prior to the big economic collapse in the real estate business–it had a pretty dramatic impact on my career. But I ultimately hung in there and maintained in the hospitality industry until recently.
About two years ago, I was recruited to what was then CarrierClass Group; that was the name of the company. The product was called the ConnecTable. A close associate of mine was one of the financial people at the organization and thought I could contribute to the growth of the company, given that it was in its initial startup phase back in 2016, 2017. So I came onboard as Chief Operating Officer, and just recently was elevated to the CEO position, as we’ve had a little bit of transition in the management and ownership group.
V1 Media: So could you tell me a little bit about Sunbolt, its main products and customers?
Stampone: Let me speak briefly to the rebranding, because that was a pretty essential element. The company as a startup was not real vibrant. The website didn’t look sharp, the branding itself looked tired, and I wasn’t really thrilled with the name. So one of the first things we did was undertook a significant effort to rebrand the company.
We had a single product at that point in time: it was called the ConnecTable Café. When we rebranded, we also added two new products. We were in the midst of developing a second product right before we rebranded, and that product is known as the Momentum. And the initial Café product was rebranded to the CampusXL. We thought those names were more symbolic of what we were looking to accomplish in the marketing of the products.
These products are self-ballasted to a very significant designed wind-load factor, which in cases like the island of Puerto Rico are pretty significant. The CampusXL designed wind load meets 130 miles an hour, and the Momentum is 160 miles an hour because of the concrete base and tabletop.
The third product we developed shortly thereafter was a scaled-down version of the Momentum, which we called the Velocity. A significant decrease in the price point from Momentum, but the same approach in terms of cast concrete and structural steel, although we changed the tabletop to a recycled plastic lumber. It, too, carries a 160-mile-an-hour wind-load rating.
Our most-recent product, the Dash, is what I’m calling a “high-top” or a standup model. The first three–the CampusXL, Momentum and Velocity–are all sit-down workstations and have a fairly large footprint in terms of the table: the tabletop’s roughly 48 by 54 inches. But the footprint of the Dash is about a 2-square-foot imprint. And the tabletop is at 41 inches instead of 31 inches, so it’s designed for you to stand up. The name Dash derives from a sense that people would come here and kind of dash and go, maybe get a 20-minute recharge on a USB device, smartphone, tablet or otherwise.
That’s the full complement of our product offering at this point.
V1 Media: How about the typical customers?
Stampone: We first made inroads into the university sector. In fact, the company was launched with an initial sale to the University of California at Riverside with 13 units, and they now have 22 units. The company spent a lot of time prior to my arrival and that of our sales and marketing team that exists today, focusing almost strictly on the university sector. And that gave rise to some sales to some secondary schools in the education arena as well. We quickly thought we could get some traction in the corporate campus market, and we did. And we attracted very high-quality brands right from the get-go.
Our first sale was to IBM down in Research Triangle. We sold to a corporate AT&T store in Mexico City. We sold to some significant pharmaceuticals owned by J&J, a company called Janssen, another company called Regeneron. Then most recently, in the Philadelphia area, we sold some units to SAP of America. So those are two prominent markets to which we sell.
We’re also starting to get a fair amount of traction now with municipalities, primarily for parks. If you think about the nature of a park, many areas of a park are off the grid. The product’s a natural site amenity for people trying to find what types of amenities visitors would benefit from and a way to keep people in a park. People don’t give much thought to parks or public spaces that municipalities want to see their residents enjoy. Oftentimes they’re faced with having to hire a person to man a booth to count the traffic coming into the park. But it’s all about engagement, like anything else.
You’re seeing technology being deployed in units like ours that actually will count the people, but the primary purpose is to give people the ability to stay connected as they’re moving out and about in their daily lives.
V1 Media: You mentioned ballast and wind loading. Are there any other differences in your charging stations compared to those seen in airports or a shopping mall?
Stampone: The primary difference, obviously, is that we are off the grid. When you’re in an airport or an indoor mall, you’re on the grid. So the nature of our products, with the solar array, gives us the ability to place them anywhere and avoid having to bring electricity to that area, which often is expensive–the trenching, the permitting and the cost of labor to bring electricity to the area. That’s the primary difference.
Secondarily, because it’s off the grid, it’s sustainable. On our website, one of the most significant phrases you’ll read is, “We power productivity using the world’s most dependable resource,” and that’s the sun. So a very sustainable energy differentiates us from most of those kinds of players.
And then within the solar charging-station category, we are typically the most powerful and durable in terms of institutional grade; some people will call it an architectural-grade structure.
It’s a design-forward business for many of the site specifiers: landscape architects being the most significant players in that category. But we think that despite what “institutional look” our products may have, they standalone in terms of power, productivity and durability.
V1 Media: How do the charging stations work in terms of input and output?
Stampone: The solar panels harness the sun. They’re basically capturing electrons. They’re not 100% efficient; solar panels today are about 22% efficient on the very south end. They are connected to a charge controller, which is the significant electronic component of what I call the “solar system engine.” That solar charge controller has two purposes. One, it meters how much energy is required to be stored in the battery bank. A simple example: if the battery’s half full, the charge controller’s not going to overload. It’s going to charge that battery until it’s full, then it’s going to stop feeding additional energy to the battery, and it’s going to supply the energy directly to the outlets. If no one’s there, then obviously nothing happens. But if people are engaged in our workstation, and the battery’s full, when they’re plugged in with either a USB port or 120-volt outlet, they’re getting the energy directly from the sun through the solar panels. That’s the input side.
On the output side, there’s also an inverter, and that’s how we convert the solar energy, which is DC energy, into AC, through the inverter. So we not only supply USB charging for smartphones and tablets and the like, but the 120-volt plugs for laptops and other types of significant portable devices.
In terms of the battery, the units we’re talking about in Puerto Rico are equipped with a 225-amp-hour gel-cell battery–that’s a lead-acid battery. The only reason I’m mentioning that it’s lead-acid is because the depth of discharge, the point to which the system will allow those batteries to discharge, is 50% vs. a lithium-ion battery, which you and I have in our cellphones and can discharge completely. We’ve all run out of gas on our phones, and that’s why Sunbolt exists. But with this lead-acid battery: 225 amp-hours and it’s at 12 volts. If you multiply volts times amp-hours you get watt-hours, so we have 2,500 watt-hours available for charging. Your phone that you’re using likely is drawing about 5 watts–a typical charge might be an hour. So you’re using 5 watt-hours of my available 2,500 watt-hours. That gives you a sense for how much power there is available, albeit there is a 50% cap at discharge, so you really only have half of that capacity you’re using for your daily energy usage.
V1 Media: Could you tell me about the University of Puerto Rico contract? What it is and how it came about?
Stampone: It was simply an inquiry that started talking about the horror the state went through back in September 2017. We don’t need to belabor those details, but it was obvious that this product would be perfect for an environment where many people still are without power. I’ve read that the island was completely restored in about a year, but I spoke to a couple of my contacts recently from my Pep Boys days that are on the island, and they said there are still outages in remote parts of the island where the impact of the hurricane was more dramatic than some of the other areas.
The prospect came in, and it was clear that we didn’t have to sell them. They were very interested in learning more about our products and wanted to get in the purchase cycle right away. And then it was really just a function of availability of funds. That’s often the case with the university sector. In this case, I believe the funds were coming from a federal Department of Education grant of some sort, and it moved very quickly through the sales cycle to a purchase order.
V1 Media: Can you tell a little bit about how this works more in the aftermath of Maria, and how that’s a benefit as opposed to just for the university itself?
Stampone: There are 11 campuses in the University of Puerto Rico system and about 60,000 students. Needless to say, they had substantial damage: $130 million of damage across the system. They’re waiting for insurance proceeds, but they had some available funds in reserve they were able to tap to start with some of the immediate rebuilding, because they had to get the students back to school. They were out of commission for 40 days across the system.
The analogy I’m going to draw is to a particular building at the particular location where these tables are going to be placed, which is in the San Juan location. It’s in a region of San Juan they call Rio Piedras. That’s where these tables are being shipped. There’s a center there called the Molecular Sciences Research Center, and it’s significant because it maintained power throughout the storm; more significantly, it maintained water. Without power, water pumps couldn’t work, and that’s really what created a lot of the devastation of that island, because people were accessing what ultimately was contaminated water, because fresh water wasn’t being pumped.
But this Molecular Science Research Center maintained power. They had a large generator, obviously, and plenty of diesel onsite to keep going. They never lost the Internet, so it became a vital resource for people to maintain contact with their family, both on and off the island. And that’s the way I would characterize our tables, in a much smaller fashion than what this building was able to do, because people were literally hanging out in the lobby of this building charging phones and connecting with their families.
You will see people hanging around our workstations. They become a bit of a community, if you will. Some people refer to them as picnic tables, but they’re an outdoor workspace, and there are a lot of benefits of working outdoors. The next storm will do similar damage. So although we don’t produce megawatts of electricity, we can keep hundreds of people on a weekly basis connected to vital communication.
V1 Media: So besides for phones and personal electronics, how might off-grid charging stations be used during widespread power loss? What is another potential application?
Stampone: There are many cases of small communities in outlying areas across the world who depend on these types of resources.
Let’s say you wanted to put a 10-kilowatt system together: That would be roughly 40 265-watt panels and would not consume a lot of area, and that would supply electricity for a substantial number of people and for broader uses.
Many of the uses that require power tools, for example, have a much higher draw in excess of the power we supply for our workstations. But with a more-significant solar grid and a larger battery bank, you can provide portable power just about anywhere, with the only requirement being access to the sun.
V1 Media: Could these charging stations become strong enough to power homes or cars?
Stampone: You certainly have solar applications for power in homes, and what’s more commonplace is powering industrial spaces. You need the square footage to mount the panels, and absent having vacant land on which to mount panels, many people who have warehouses use warehouse rooftops. At my former employer, Pep Boys, they have 250,000-square-foot warehouses. That’s an ample area to mount a very significant system. In those cases, they’re powering a significant portion of the energy requirements of a warehouse or an industrial application.
The residential applications are not as much driven by the technical ability to do it, but by the financial ability. So the states where you’ll see the highest deployment of solar are those states in which the subsidies combined with federal tax abatements and such are significant enough to make the deals economical. There are plenty of places where a larger-scale solar system has applicability well beyond the simple things that our workstations do.
V1 Media: What might be some lessons that you’ve learned from this Puerto Rico project that you may be able to incorporate into future projects?
Stampone: We’re looking at a way to become engaged in the community. One of our founders, Ian Jones, and the guy who does a lot of the assembly work for us are traveling to Puerto Rico to do this install, to get a bit more insight on how we get more engaged with a customer who we can reasonably expect will have a need beyond these six tables.
Anywhere you have a roof, you have a canopy on which you can mount solar panels. And then the system is basically in a black box. The electronic components are basically the inverter and the charge controller, which I talked about, and a breaker panel. They can be put in a box anywhere, and then you’ve got the ability to produce power: DC, AC or both.
So we’re looking to engage with this particular university system to see how we might be able to anticipate where they would also like to have some portable power beyond where they’re going to install the workstations. It’s a simple example, and many people have thought about taking their resources within this sustainable energy market to the islands.
In another example, a contact in South Florida is rebuilding high-end homes along the coast that were severely damaged and giving them the option to incorporate a solar backup system. It’s a battery bank, but you need a way to power the batteries, and solar makes all the sense in the world.
V1 Media: Could you pass along some advice or things you’ve learned that our readers might be able to pick up?
Stampone: I think the best advice I could give is on the heels of having recently attended the American Society of Landscape Architects annual show and expo in Philadelphia, in our home market. This category is still relatively new and unknown. Let’s face it; solar energy’s been around for a while, but it’s not in your face. In fact, if you were to do a Google search for solar charging stations, you’ll come up with a number of competitors, but it’s a site amenity, and the architects of the world are the ones out there specifying site amenities. And they’re really just now starting to pay serious attention to it.
But the producers of the site amenities, the outdoor furniture manufacturers, are all over this category. We had inquiries during the ASLA show to partner with outdoor furniture manufacturers and build some solar functionality into their furniture. Which is a great opportunity for us, because our expertise is in building the solar engine, not in designing furniture that’s going to be appealing to the typical landscape architect.
So speaking to landscape architects, I would suggest as you’re starting to layout and design a site, don’t forget to design this functionality into it. Because there’s a lot of research around how productivity is enhanced, the benefits of working outdoors in nature–I think it’s called biophilic design. People like to stay productive, and they want to stay connected, and stay connected while they keep moving from indoors to outdoors. I think it’s a smart way to design outdoor spaces, with some sustainable elements.