This Wall Adaptor Lets You Use 100% Solar Energy

Meet the man who's offering the gateway drug to get everyone on board with Elon Musk's solar-fueled future.

The Unlikely Entrepreneur blog seeks out the human stories behind surprising businesses and the people who run them, many of whom never expected to find themselves running a business. We interview the founder(s) and try to tease out the comedy and the drama in their personal journey from, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea!” to, “Hey, I’ve got 80 million unanswered emails!!!”

Paul Droege wants to get everyone hot for solar. Where Elon Musk's SolarCity business focuses on providing solar panels to the burbs, Droege is focusing his efforts on a smaller scale. By handing people the power to choose solar — the apartment dwellers, the people who can't afford to take on a SolarCity loan, and young people — he believes he can change a market from wanting solar to demanding solar.

The SunPort is his version of a gateway drug to solar panels. Hook them while their young. Only, this is the good kind of hook.

His SunPort plug is an elegant idea that takes advantage of something that already exists, but consumers have failed to ask for. However, in order to demand something, people need to know that it exists. There are tons of unused bits of solar energy, accessible to anyone through the grid in the form of Solar Renewable Energy Certificates or RECs — you just have to ask for it, and that's exactly what the SunPort does.

The EPA has even made a helpful video about RECs:

The SunPort allows consumers to plug in their laptop, smartphone — any device, really — and vote with their dollar, demanding that your utility company fork over that solar energy to charge your electronics.

“The use of a SunPort is not the same from an impact standpoint as having 30 panels on your roof,” Droege explained. “What is intriguing about it is that using a SunPort just sort of for little, everyday tasks, powering your laptop computer, or something like that, you could still use like 10 times as much solar as the average user on the grid, just by doing that. If you think of that as an amplifier of demand, it's a pretty big deal. If people start using that, that's kind of cool just by very modest tasks. If it's done broadly, it really amplifies demand substantially.”

I sat down to talk to Droege about his Kickstarter campaign to start a solar movement and why the world needs the SunPort.

How has your personal and professional journey led you to develop the SunPort?

I'm a power engineer by training and been involved in the electrical industry all my career, and so, that sort of got me started. Some personal things: I've been an owner of solar since the late '90s, have solar on my house, and also my office building. So, I've dealt with the challenges and whatnot of actually putting solar on a building.

My electrical business [was] expanding into the renewable market several years ago and started attending a lot of renewable energy conferences, and at a solar conference had a speaker that said, "How many people here have solar?" and this room is an auditorium with thousands of people, and a few dozen hands went up.

I realize these people that were the insiders, the true believers of solar, that they were having trouble doing it. I realized that if it's ever going to be mainstream, there's gotta be something different done — there's gotta be change in order to make it accessible to anyone and everyone. So, that was what started me on this journey.

Then we just started looking at lots of different ideas, trying to figure out what is actually scalable across all circumstances. Basically, most Americans love solar or at least like solar, but almost no Americans have actually done anything, statistically speaking.

SolarCity has gotten the ball rolling, I see when I walk through my neighborhood all those SolarCity signs, but it still seems to be a bit of a struggle.

Bear in mind, OK, SolarCity is great if you live in the suburbs and you got a good FICO score. But if you live in a high-rise, if you are not in the upper-middle class, it's not necessarily accessible to you. Leasing is definitely part of the answer, no doubt. It's part of the solution, but it's not actually scalable broadly, because they still have to deal with the local conditions and regulations, and it's a piece for sure.

What I wanted to do was come up with something that could get lots of people involved on a more emotional level where they weren't really being asked to make a big commitment. But they could at least dip their toe in the water — at least do something.

So it seems like you're creating this demand through a "vote with your dollar" approach.

No doubt, no doubt, yeah. It is sort of a question of vote with your pocketbook; that's one of the problems is that we've had a "Washington ought to do something about it" attitude, and I'm not saying we shouldn't go for regulator answers as well, but what I'm really advocating is let's add market demand to the picture, as well. Because if you have people spending money to create demand for solar, business will get behind that and build solutions that will create more of it.

How would my energy bill look if I used the SunPort?

Unchanged. This is completely outside of the utility part of the picture. It's not that it doesn't relate to it; it's just that one of the barriers to pushing solar forward is dealing with the regulated side of the power grid.

There are lots of developers and independent power producers that build or want to build solar and connect to the grid. When they do that, the people that operate the grid will pay them for the electricity — the energy — and then they have this other product that they create which is the solar REC, and they've gotta do something with that or they try to do something with that, and the grid is not really interested in paying for generic electricity any more than they normally pay and so the REC is where the delta is between the value of solar and the value of just generic power.

The whole point is to enable more of those types of independent systems to connect to the grid and supply electricity. There are lots of reasons that utilities are doing that, but when it comes down to actually making the economics work for a system to connect, basically you have two things you can buy from it: One is power and the other is RECs. The RECs are the piece of it that really needs to be boosted and market demand for those RECs is something that we really don't have in any meaningful way today.

I think a large part of it is that I didn't know about RECs until I saw the SunPort.


So, I guess, is it a failure of these companies not pushing this out?

I wouldn't say it was a failure of theirs. I think the original insight about RECs was to just create this commodity that could put value on the environmental attributes of renewable resources, which is a great idea that was originally adopted for regulatory solutions with utilities where they'd create a renewable portfolio standard, and this was sort of the counting mechanism for that where they say, "You know we want you to have X percent of renewable electricity." So, then they would acquire the RECs so that they had the claims for those. OK?

Then business got on board, too, where you've got companies that are using renewable energy to power their plants or their data centers, or whatever they do, and RECs are the counting mechanism for that. So, they were really originally intended as these bulk units that [were] used by business and that was really our insight is that as long as that stayed in the business market, it was going to be very limited by regulatory demand and a few enlightened businesses that were willing to spend extra money to do it.

But if it moved into the consumer market and people started demanding it there, then we could have millions of people that just have little, tiny incremental demands for renewable energy. But just by virtue of getting the crowd involved, it creates a lot of demand, and the other thing is that part of the job of SunPort is we purposefully made it visible and tangible, so that it would be a bit of a badge of honor and a way to start a conversation and a way to say, "This is who I am; this is what I care about," and to educate people — to get the word out.

Because, people have felt disenfranchised as far as solar goes. When you talk to people that don't have the means or, like college students, where they love the idea, but they see solar power as something for their parents, and we wanted to create something that anybody could feel empowered to take action on. Whether that little piece is the actual demand that [they] create or whether it's driving a stake in the ground and saying, "This is what I care about; this is what I believe in; this is who I am." Both of those things are very helpful and in that sense it's even the entry point for a lot of people to get into renewable energy. Where today the college student uses a SunPort to power the fridge in the dorm and in 10 years he or she is putting it on the rooftop of the house that they just bought in the suburbs, because they've identified with that movement.

So, it's kind of a nice little gateway to solar.

Absolutely. It's not a replacement or any kind of substitute for larger systems. First of all [the SunPort] relies on larger systems and secondly it's a gateway to get people involved where, yeah, maybe they will put it on their rooftop.

This can cause a lot more solar to be used and it can get a lot more people to identify themselves as involved in solar and taking part in it, and at the right time in their journey.

If you're interested in funding the project or maybe want more information about the SunPort, check out Paul Droege's Kickstarter page. This interview has been edited.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.