Sun Powered TV Opens $5 Trillion Frontier for Electronics Makers

  • Low voltage TV runs on 1/8th of power used by light bulb
  • Energy-sipping refrigerators are next target for prize

This year’s biggest television record could already be set before billions of viewers tune into August’s Summer Olympic spectacle in Rio de Janeiro.

Spurred on by the Clean Energy Ministerial, an international forum of 41 governments hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy, companies including Samsung Electronics Co. and Sharp Corp. have been racing to design electronics for consumers isolated from from national power grids. Their prize won’t be medals but access to a $5 trillion market of 4 billion people too poor to access traditional energy supplies.

The Clean Energy Ministerial on Wednesday named a sun-powered TV made in Hong Kong as the top in its class after its manufacturer, Niwa Solar, more than doubled its energy savings over the 2012 competition winner. Clocking in with only 9 watts consumption, Niwa’s 15.6 inch screen needs just 2 percent of the power used by early color televisions and about a quarter of the juice that lights up a modern 20-inch flat panel.

“Efficiency is a must-have in developing countries where if you don’t have a low power-consumption TV, you’re just not going to have a TV at all,” said Rose Mutiso, energy policy fellow at the U.S. Department of Energy, in a phone interview. “The future of efficiency as a sector could come from this space.”

The group’s next target is to produce a refrigerator that runs on a fraction of the power that current models require, a step that would have enormous social and economic benefits, she said.

Off Grid

The International Energy Agency estimates more than 1.2 billion rural citizens -- mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, India and developing Asia -- still don’t have access to a national electric grid. That energy-neglected sector of world population has increasingly been turning to off-grid power as the supply of cheap photovoltaic panels has soared in the last decade. Electronics makers are now moving to meet power demands of those consumers looking to buy TVs and other household goods for the first time.

“We’ve been aware of the growth of the off-grid sector, it’s a very interesting moment,” said Henrik Sundstrom, head of sustainability at Electrolux. “The cost of photovoltaic panels and the efficiency of these products are coming down drastically. Energy efficiency is one of our key priorities.”

Germany’s Mobisol GmbH, the U.K.’s BBOXX Ltd. and San Francisco’s Off Grid Electric are among about 100 companies installing thousands of new rooftop panels around the globe every month. Their solar systems typically power a few light bulbs, a mobile phone charger and small electronics such as radios and fans. 

Energy Revolution

Clean Energy Ministerial, founded in 2009 to help bring “a clean energy revolution” into homes, is encouraging companies to expand their portfolios of solar-ready products.

“To give people more than just the basic services like lighting and charging, you have two options,” Mutiso said. “You can give them more supply by increasing the size of the solar panels, which would come with additional costs. Or you can play with the demand side, make the end-use technologies more efficient so they use less power.”

Source: The Global Lighting and Energy Access Partnership

Niwa boosted the efficiency of its TVs by replacing screen lights with LEDs and reworking circuits, according to founder Ti El Attar, who’s also planning to sell solar-powered computers toward the end of the year. Those machines, which can plug into televisions and connect to the Internet via mobile phones, will run on 2 watts of electricity and cost between $50 and $160, he said.

Off-grid consumers spent about $525 million on appliances such as TVs, fans and fridges in 2015, according to a report by Clean Energy Ministerial and the Global Lighting and Energy Access Partnership. They forecast the market could reach $4.7 billion annually by 2020 with efficiency improvements that would allow consumers to buy more things to be powered by a solar panel.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts that one in three energy-lacking households will run on electricity from a solar panel by 2020. That means by the time the 2020 Summer Olympics opens in Tokyo, another 15 million viewers may be able to watch the games on solar-powered TVs.