SolePower puts a charge in your step

SolePower’s shoe insert converts walking energy into electrical power, a potential game-changer in the developing world, where many people now have cell phones but poor access to electricity.

Gary Hershorn/Reuters
People walk past the skyline of New York's Lower Manhattan along the Hudson River in Hoboken, N.J. SolePower aims to capture some of the energy produced when people walk and turn it into electricity. That could be a big help in developing countries, where many lack access to an electric grid.

Cell phones are transforming lives in places like sub-Saharan Africa, where they are crucial for advancing everything from education to medicine to commerce.

The problem? Many developing countries lack access to the electricity needed to charge mobile electronics. Over a billion people lack access to electricity worldwide, about 99 percent of whom live in the developing world.

Enter SolePower. Using a basic shoe insert, SolePower allows users to charge mobile electronics simply by walking. In capturing the kinetic energy of footsteps, SolePower’s shoe insert converts energy into electrical power that is stored in a battery for later use. The battery is then used to charge electronics like cell phones.

The device has the potential to be a game-changer in places like Kenya, where 84 percent of the population owns cell phones but only 14 percent has access to electricity.

The same applies to lights: energy poverty, as its termed.  $10 billion is spent annually on kerosene-fueled lighting in developing nations, which is highly polluting, inefficient, and more costly than electric lighting, particularly when the electricity is generated from a footstep. SolePower wants to address both – the cellphone and the light bulb.

Matthew Stanton, co-founder of SolePower, says the biggest challenge his team faces is making the device as efficient and compact as possible. “There are only 20 watts in a step. So if you’re losing a few percentages in efficiency, you are drastically reducing the power output in the device.”

The cost of the insert will vary depending on location. In developed regions, SolePower expects to charge between $135 and $150 per insert. Targeting hikers and backpackers, it will focus on distributing to high-end outdoor retailers like REI.

In developing nations, the insert will likely sell for $35 to $50, which Stanton says is in line with similar solar solutions that have yielded substantial sales in areas like Kenya and sub-Saharan Africa.

“It’s hard to imagine there are that many people who don’t have electricity when you consider how important things like cell phones and lights are to being able to develop and innovate at all,” Hahna Alexander, co-founder of the Pittsburgh-based startup, reflects.

It may still be beyond the reach of consumers in these $2 a day markets; that will require SolePower to develop its consumer finance model further, perhaps adapting models of micro-payments and microfinance to make it within their reach.

In this video, Alexander and Stanton explain how they came up with the idea for the insert, and how they plan to use it to put a spring in the step, and a charge in the phone, of movers across the world.

• Monica Gray is a DC-based filmmaker and the Senior Video Correspondent at The Diplomatic Courier.

This article (including a video) originally appeared at Dowser.org.

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