Solar Polar – Low-cost cooling improves health and economic outcomes for off-grid communities in developing nations
Solar Polar uses solar thermal-powered absorption refrigeration to make affordable low-watt cooling units that can be used for air conditioning, vaccine fridges and agricultural storage.
With support from Energy Catalyst, the company tested the technology in India and Florida. It has also facilitated a collaboration with Imperial College London that has enabled Solar Polar to further reduce cooling costs by improving the refrigerant mix, a key step in making cooling affordable for households and businesses in developing nations.
It is also testing the ability of their new solar-powered refrigerator to reduce agricultural waste produced by Kenyan farming businesses.
“The collaboration with Imperial College has enabled us to hone a product that quadruples the initial metric of watt per cooling, so support from Energy Catalyst has been transformational in getting over the technical barriers towards improving performance,”
Michael Reid, Solar Polar Technical Director.
Refrigeration is critical for agriculture and related industries: the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that 40-50% of roots, tubers, fruits, and vegetables, and 25-30% of animal products in sub–Saharan African are lost due to the lack of reliable and adequate refrigeration. The farms are consequently left in a precarious situation as it squanders their scarce land, energy and fertiliser assets, harms their profitability through loss of market opportunities and undermines local food security. It also comes with significant cost to the environment as precious water resources are wasted in the process and greenhouse gases are emitted when the food decomposes: as much as 6% of global emissions come from wasted food, with waste within supply chains accounting for two thirds of that figure (Poore & Nemecek, 2018).
While demand for cooling technology increases, the market for solar refrigerators in developing countries is still nascent as the cost is prohibitive for households and businesses. Solar Polar is working to make their cooling technology affordable for rural smallholder farmers and businesses. Their key objective is to reduce production costs from around £1,000 per module to £100 by manufacturing the units technology locally.
Most refrigerator units are currently manufactured in China, India, Germany and the USA, before being shipped to developing countries like Kenya. Solar Polar wants to break with this trend by using local production facilities. In addition to eliminating shipping and custom costs this will create local jobs and prosperity.
Solar Polar’s technology is solar thermal as opposed to solar photovoltaic. Solar thermal technology harnesses the sun’s heat and uses it to run the fridge directly, rather than converting it to electricity that is then used to cool the fridge as in a photovoltaic system. This solar thermal system emits no greenhouse gases, has no moving parts to wear out and runs entirely without the need for an on-grid electricity source or the equipment required to run off a photovoltaic source. Non-ozone depleting coolants – liquid ammonia solution in a low partial pressure environment – run in a closed loop inside a sealed unit to ensure a long system lifespan that requires little maintenance. The units are modular and can be joined together to match the required cooling or refrigeration load of families and businesses.
“Solar Polar technology uses no electricity at all, so it doesn’t require batteries, wiring, motors, pumps, or valves. The simplicity of this technology thus makes it less costly to manufacture,” says Michael Reid. “When brought to market, our target price is £1 purchase cost for every watt of cooling capacity, the lowest price seen worldwide to date.”
Solar Polar is also exploring cost-efficient options for remote monitoring, to build a more sophisticated understanding of operational unit performance by logging weather, temperature, and other environmental conditions, which will enable them to further optimise the design and maintenance of future systems .
The new opportunity
Solar Polar is targeting the smaller-scale cooling applications that comprise the largest market for their technology. This extends beyond rural farmers with modest cooling needs to potentially include off-grid medical facilities which need to store vaccines and medicines.
According to Michael Reid, such underserved communities present a major potential market: “We see our product having a 5-point multiplier effect just in agriculture. Firstly, on-farm cooling will extend the window to store produce and fetch better prices off-season. Secondly, there is reduced waste during transport which increases the amount of food getting to market. Thirdly, there is a better quality of produce which fetches a better price. Fourthly, given the farmer is selling greater quantity and quality of food to the market, profitability rises. Lastly, that profitability comes without increasing the price to the consumer.”
Energy Catalyst has enabled Solar Polar to demonstrate the technology in a real-life operational environment at their partner site in India which unlocked the investment needed to grow the business by reducing their production cost . “Without Energy Catalyst, we would have been stuck in the ‘valley of death’: in possession of a good technology but unable to show it works due to lack of investment,” says Michael Reid.
Within five years, Solar Polar aims to commence commercial manufacturing. The company also hopes to see their technology adopted in India, Kenya, the USA, Mexico, and Brazil, whilst also seeking partners to distribute or licence the technology for local production in other sub-Saharan countries. Apart from the boosting the incomes of rural farmers, Michael Reid anticipates that uptake of off-grid refrigeration will lead to vastly beneficial environmental and social outcomes once implemented at scale: “Our technology will significantly reduce the carbon impact emissions of food losses whilst also increasing the availability of food in regions with precarious food security. Fewer people will go hungry as a result.”