Student-powered venture provides electricity to remote areas

Wednesday, Sep 21, 2016

It started as a class project to provide electricity to survivors of the 2010 earthquakes in Haiti. Today, Princeton students Angelo Campus and Aaron Schwartz are taking the concept of “power in a box” to anyone who lives in remote areas poorly served by the electrical grid.

Their product is BoxPower, a hybrid wind and solar-energy system pre-assembled in a standard 20-foot shipping container. The system can be transported anywhere in the world using the global shipping infrastructure and set up in less than a day without specialized tools or expertise. Once operational, BoxPower can provide renewable electricity to supply up to six families at roughly one-third of the cost of operating a diesel-powered generator.

“Because BoxPower requires no fuel purchases or significant maintenance, it is an ideal solution for people who live in places where it is difficult to get regular supplies,” said Campus, Class of 2016. “BoxPower is much better for the environment than a diesel generator, and much less expensive.”

Packed in each shipping container are solar panels, a wind turbine, a battery bank and a small backup generator in case of emergencies. When set up, the solar panels sit atop the box and the wind turbine extends about 30 feet into the air using the shipping container for support.

The team estimates that they can produce a BoxPower unit for less than $40,000. They plan to conduct a pilot program in collaboration with the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority to provide power to households living without access to electricity. With an estimated 2 billion people worldwide living without reliable electrical power, the need for this system is considerable, said Schwartz, Class of 2017.

“Our vision doesn’t stop at the local level,” Schwartz said. “We imagine regional hubs of manufacturing and maintaining BoxPower using the regional labor force.”

The BoxPower concept originated as a project called Power-in-a-BoxTM led by faculty members at Princeton, including Catherine Peters, professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Elie Bou-Zeid, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, with support from the National Science Foundation. Princeton students further developed the concept in the course “Engineering Projects in Community Service” (EPICS) and, through a 2012 national competition called “P3: People, Prosperity and the Planet Student Design Competition for Sustainability,” won a $90,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

BoxPower has since been the recipient of several startup competition awards, including the 2016 U-Pitch New Jersey Collegiate Business Model Competition; the 2016 New Jersey Entrepreneurial Network Posters, Pitches and Prizes competition; and the Princeton Social Innovation Competition.

Throughout the development of BoxPower, Schwartz and Campus have received advice and support from Princeton’s Keller Center for Education Innovation & Entrepreneurship. This spring, the students participated in the Keller Center’s eLab Incubator program, which provides access to advisers, workshops and working space at Princeton’s Entrepreneurial Hub. “The eLab Incubator program gave us the opportunity to work with leading venture professionals in a collaborative environment and it is one of the really special opportunities that we have as students at Princeton,” Campus said.