Around the world nearly 2 billion people don’t have reliable access to electricity. We’ve covered some of the inspiring plans and products aiming to compensate for that by making solar power cheap enough for off-grid homes in the developing world. But in Tanzania, where just 14 percent of people have electricity, the startup Egg-Energy has a plan to build a future crop of customers so it becomes economically feasible to expand the grid: they’re trying to become the Netflix of batteries.
"Ultimately we want to be a distribution provider. Our customers all want to be on the grid," Egg-Energy cofounder Jamie Yang tells Co.Exist. The first step in making it worthwhile to wire up the whole country is to to wire up the houses of those future customers. There’s no point for a national utility to expand if the homes don’t have anywhere to screw in a light bulb or plug in a radio. So when you sign on with Egg-Energy, your home gets an upgrade. "We run the wires. We put in lighting fixtures. We put switches on the walls, and we provide them with the devices to power their mobile phones or radio," Yang explains.
It costs about $40 to $80 for the installation—about one month’s income for the average customer. Usually that means one to three lights and a charger. Then the customer is ready for regular power from Egg-Energy’s recyclable batteries, the key to their business model.
Customers sign up with Egg-Energy for three-, six-, or 12-month periods. Each battery powers a home for three to 10 days. "If someone is just using lighting and being conservative, it will last 10 days," Yang says, adding the average family turns over a battery every five days. When they’re out of juice, they bring in the dead battery—which is small enough to carry with one hand—and swap it out for a new one. Egg-Energy partners with local merchants to provide a pick-up and drop-off service too. The home stays dark while the battery swap is happening. There’s also an option for paying as you go—on a per-battery basis—for families that can’t afford the up front subscription price.
The total cost for a family ends up in the range of $50 to $80 a year, compared to about $125 previously spent on a mix of kerosene fuel, disposable batteries, and pay-per-charge services for cell phones, according to company estimates. The price of kerosene recently went up as well, making Egg-Energy an even better deal.
But Yang’s goal isn’t just saving his customers money. His product is far cleaner than kerosene burning, and in the long run, can spur the development that comes with grid access. "We want to concentrate enough demand in an area, such that it makes sense to come in and provide electrical services" as a utility. He figures if his company can wire enough homes, and get them trained up as electricity users, then it will make it feasible to build new power generators and expand the grid.
"We are taking all the energy in these places and aggregating it and making it worthwhile to build a solar farm or wind or other alternative energy source," he says.
Right now the company serves only about 500 homes, with three charging stations. Two of them, on the outskirts of Dar el Salam, are plugged into the existing power grid. The third is a solar powered station in a more rural area. They’re testing out how different kinds of communities receive the battery swapping plan. "The core of what we want to do is figure out how to distribute energy profitably," and in the process, bring light to people who need it.