Nextek Wants to Convert You to DC Power

[Corrected 3/27/13, 1:46 p.m. See below.Nextek Power Systems is tucked away inside the NextEnergy building on Burroughs Street in Detroit, but don’t let its semi-hidden location fool you: Nextek is working on power supply issues with global implications, particularly to developing nations, and wants to educate the masses on the advantages of DC, or direct current, power and microgrids.

CEO Paul Savage says the idea behind Nextek’s technology comes out of the Brookhaven National Lab in New York. Nextek’s co-founder had been working in the lab on a solar film project when Savage says he had a “big insight into the power equation.” The current trend in office spaces is to generate some of the power at the building itself. In 2007, Savage says, Armstrong World Industries invented game-changing metal ceiling strips that distribute DC power. Savage says DC power is safer and more efficient than transforming AC power into DC power, the method that is traditionally favored today. (For a great video of Savage explaining the advantages of DC power—and a neat little aside about Edison—at his TEDx Detroit talk last year, click here.) [An earlier version of this paragraph mistakenly stated that metal ceiling strips that distribute DC power were invented by Philips. We regret the error.]

Savage also points to the fact that the power load has been increasingly DC. All of our electronics run off DC power, for instance, and over half of the North American light manufacturers have started making DC-ready products.

For use in office buildings, Nextek has created a “direct coupling” method to pull power from solar panels on a building’s roof, supplying renewable power to the building without the need to add new fixtures or lamps. Savage points out that the conventional way things are done is to put up solar panels and run them through a converter and a power box connected to the grid, and then divvy the power up in circuits and deliver it back. “It starts as DC, then it’s converted to AC, then back to DC,” Savage says. “This is absolutely crazy and a big waste of energy because you’re doing multiple conversions.”

Nextek recently implemented its technology in a first-of-its-kind “net zero” PNC Bank building in Ft. Lauderdale, FL—meaning the building has zero net energy consumption and zero net carbon emissions annually. Nextek has also been working on a DC bidirectional charging platform for the military and TARDEC. “I believe we’re the first to do that in North America,” Savage notes.

But it might be Nextek’s work in developing nations like Haiti that is the most inspirational. Nextek has been working with the Institute of Electronics Engineers (IEEE), a professional network of “400,000 geeks spread across the world,” and the nonprofit Sirona Cares to develop a portable solar charging station capable of charging 40 individual suitcase batteries containing a light and a USB port for charging phones that families can take home and bring back to be charged. Savage says there are about 20 trailers that have been deployed to Haiti so far with a long waiting list for more. The group has reached out to USAID for more financial backing for the project, but nothing definite is in the works yet.

Savage says the way they’d like to manufacture the charging stations in the future is to do it in-country, enabling job creation and a measure of self-determination in the parts of the world that need the product. A few months ago, the IEEE commissioned the design and fabrication of an open-source kit so anyone in the world can make one. Nextek says that information will be available on a website sometime in the next six months. “It’s not just a matter of the grid’s not there,” Savage says about the need to help developing nations get access to electricity. “The grid we have is never going there. There are a billion people in the world with no access to power, and 2 billion with very little access.”

Savage envisions a future where instead of thinking of buildings as a collection of DC-powered electronic devices, we’ll think of the building itself as an electronic device. He believes DC power is better for everyone, from the CEO in the corner office to the village in Haiti badly in need of electricity. Nextek’s mission is to promote DC power across the world, and to that end the company is a founding member of the EMerge Alliance. “We think we have the opportunity to promote DC power standards globally,” Savage adds. “DC power systems offer lower cost to people at the top of the pyramid and better accessibility to people at the lower part of the pyramid.”

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