I have renewable energy powering my current apartment and, as someone who flies quite a lot and can't quite give up beef burgers, it's a start. But it's a long way from the dream: living in a self-sufficient smart home (OK, flat) that generates its own energy.
This was precisely what Yevgen Erik was chasing when his attempts to make his home autonomous from the grid lead him to the initial idea for smart, solar blinds in summer 2015.
"I tried to put solar panels on the roof but it wasn't the right place to mount them," SolarGaps' co-founder and CEO told us. "I tried a lot of solutions. Wind power, different materials of panels. I figured out that the major problem for many homes, and for myself, is wasted energy through the windows."
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Erik, who was also working on eco-friendly houses and installing blinds for office blocks at the time, wanted to create something for people with no roof to house their dream solar panels. The SolarGaps Kickstarter campaign is now live with a modest target of $50,000 - that's because startup already has three angel investors and an accelerator behind it. There will be some limited shipping in September but otherwise estimated delivery will be set for December. It is, by all accounts, ready to go into production.
Here's how it all works: the aluminium and fiberglass blinds come in a range of sizes from XS through to XXL with custom blinds also available. Kickstarter prices start at $390 (XS) rising to $1910 (XL) which is 50% off the retail price.
They're horizontal, multi-slat blinds that feature SunPower monocrystalline cells - the actual solar panels. Plus they're motorised and designed to follow the sun, a feature apparently inspired by sunflowers. The biggie: SolarGaps works best on the exterior of windows.
As well as saving the planet, the team plans to save people money on their energy bills too, particularly air con bills as the blinds reduce the heat that's generated. Erik says the average electricity + air con bill could be reduced by around $100 a month, depending on the size of your windows, whether they're facing south and how much you spend on air conditioning.
Something like this is pretty well poised to take advantage of two big trends: first that solar power grew 50% last year, largely down to the US and China. And second that more people are living in cities, in apartments than ever - the latest figures for Europe show that the percentage is as much as 40%. As Erik puts it, SolarGaps could appeal to early adopters looking to own a zero emissions home as well as businesses wanting to get renewable energy incentives.
Smart home smarts
As for how SolarGaps smart blinds connect to the rest of your smart home, or smart flat, there's quite a lot in the works. It starts, of course, with a smartphone app for iPhone and Android which connects over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. You can raise or lower the blinds, change the angle, control them when you're away and set up timers for them to open and close.
You can also see how much solar energy is being created, typically up to 100 - 150 Wh if you have a total of 10 square feet installed. That's together with a control module with its own motion, temperature and ambient light sensors.
Erik also has prototype blinds hooked up to Google Home, with voice commands to control blinds in various of rooms already working, and says Alexa compatibility is achievable in the next three months. The most interesting tie-in, though, seems to be with the Nest Thermostat.
"When you have left your home, SolarGaps can switch to maximum generation mode, close and protect your home from overheating and generate electricity," he says. "When you enter the home, you can set scenarios where all blinds will open and you get enough light.
"In the winter, you don't need so much energy so it can make a decision on what is better - to generate electricity or maybe heat up the apartment. The Nest thermostat can send a signal to heat the apartment and the SolarGaps will open and let the sun go through the window."
Now, we know what you're thinking. Genius idea but they might not go with my decor. A rep for SolarGaps told us that the team might explore "narrower, less heavy duty blinds" that can be mounted indoors as a future product after establishing the baseline of how efficient the product can be with this first offering. (Incidentally, some users might be able to use the smart blinds inside the window, depending on the type of glass and how clean you keep it but there could be up to a 50% drop in efficiency).
Erik himself points out that the current design has serious advantages, firstly that opaque solar blinds block more light than traditional, decorative ones. And there's more. "Right now it looks a shield and it works like a shield," he says. "It can protect your windows from hurricanes and strong winds and using weather predictions, we could close the blinds when there's bad weather conditions."
After pitching the setup to early adopters, focusing on the US, the SolarGaps will start to fulfill potential orders from a range of businesses - from suppliers to Las Vegas hotels to buildings in Abu Dhabi. There are also certifications to deal with which vary from country to country and state to state. First, SolarGaps will heading to NASA's Ames Center this summer after being selected by NASA and Google alongside 90 other startups for technology that could help "one billion people in ten years".
The resources on offer will, Erik says, allow the team to accelerate the implementation of this new ecosystem which extends to the software to allow people to buy and sell electricity from each other. If you're not interested in selling back to the grid, you can store electricity in a battery, like Tesla's Powerwall, at home. Right now, full autonomy is more of a long term goal but in the short term, users can reduce their dependence on the grid.
"From my thinking, this is the only way for people who live in an apartment to generate their own electricity," says Erik. "There's about one million energy producers in Germany and the same is happening in Ukraine. If we have a large amount of people generating electricity, we don't need the big companies to provide it for us."
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