Start-up

How A Canadian Startup Used Clean Tech To Help Rebuild The Carolinas After The Hurricanes


Portable Electric provides an alternative to traditional generators; powered by solar panels, VOLTstack work well in emergency situations without a reliable power source.Portable Electric

Portable Electric is a small Canadian company assisting with the rebuilding of homes in the Carolinas in the wake of storms Florence and Michael. It begs the question, why are more companies not using renewable sourcing of energy in storms instead of hefty generators?

“They’ve never had an alternate solution to the incumbent 100-year-old technology. It just has not existed before,” Mark Rabin, the founder and CEO says.

Founded in 2015, Portable Electric sells what its name suggests: portable, clean power stations. From working on film sets, the company is branching out to new real-life applications, helping this year with crisis relief.

The Carolinas are suffering from some of the worst flooding in recent years. In the aftermath of Hurricane Florence and recent tropical storm Michael, huge swathes of the Carolinas coastline were underwater and without power. Vancouver-based Canadian company Portable Electric stepped in. Reports estimated that 286,600 North Carolinians were without power. The company is working with relief organizations including the Red Cross to see how they can help as the repair phase continues.

Rae Riley, a resident in Burgaw, North Carolina, is one of the residents affected by the flooding, and looking for cleaner options. “We were using a gas generator to power the work in our home, but within a day I was already feeling sick from the emissions,” she says.

Portable Electric came in and provided their VOLTstack to families in the area. “With their help, a 6-week recovery was over in 2 weeks, allowing families to save their homes and begin rebuilding,” he says. “They were a godsend in a time when the media and aid organizations had moved on.”

Fraser Larock, a business analyst at Portable Electric, helped in the field after the hurricanes hit. “We had originally thought our VOLTstack power stations would be used to power emergency communications, fridges, freezers. But it became immediately apparent that the most important thing was to saving what was left of peoples’ homes.”

He worked with volunteers and donated tools, powered by VOLTstack, to gut homes down to their foundations. “With no grid power, each house had to rely on the combined power of VOLTstacks and solar panels. Not an issue,” he says.

Guy Morecraft, a volunteer with the Cajun Army, had a VOLTstack on his trailer with three solar panels and his tools as he drove around helping rebuild. “This was great because we had to assume there was no power in widespread areas. Getting fuel in disaster areas is extremely difficult so it was fantastic to use the solar panels and unit to power tools inside, with no noise or fumes. If we didn’t have the VOLTstack, we’d be using hand tools, which would make demolition work extremely time-consuming and difficult, or use a gas generator, which needs gas, oil, maintenance,” he says.

This is not the first time Portable Electric received calls for help; after the Puerto Rico hurricane, Rabin says they received requests as well, since residents were left without power for weeks, if not months. Traditional generators cannot be used indoors (due to risk of carbon monoxide poisoning), and the fuel itself is not readily available.

In fact, Rabin found the gap in the market when he himself struggled to get his hands on an industrial grade renewable power system–not just for crisis situations, but as a whole. He knew that he couldn’t be the only one wanting a power system to replace the traditional and primitive fossil fuel generator.

Assembling a team of electricians, engineers, and salespeople, Rabin set up Portable Electric, self-financing the venture. This enabled him to spend time experimenting with possible solutions. The company set about building prototypes of the VOLTstack power stations that are now the brand’s trademark product, which run on renewable power.

The idea, Rabin says, is to provide reliable, instant power whenever and wherever you need it. They’re also built to last, he argues. The units are said to have a 10 to 15-year lifespan, with a capacity of over 5000 cycles (that’s a good thing since they cost twice as much as traditional generators). After 5000 cycles, Rabin explains, the battery capacity will start to decrease. This does not necessarily mean the machine is done, he assures. This is only the timeframe at which they will retain their original capacity.

Second life applications range from using them in the developing world for electricity, construction sites, off-grid power needs, and device charging stations. Nonetheless, the brand has considered what will happen when it doesn’t have enough juice left.

“At the true end of life, the power stations will be disassembled with all components being completely recycled into their appropriate material flows,” Rabin says.

During the product’s development, Portable Electric operated as a rental business. Customers could come and rent renewable power systems. Every penny earned from this rental hustle, Rubio says, was funneled back into R&D for the VOLTstacks.

“Over the first two years of business, the team focused exclusively on renting equipment while refining the products. [We] listened to customers and observed how they used their existing fossil fuel generators,” he says.

The product design process started in late 2015 with a focus on ease of use, plug in and play functionality, and elegant aesthetic. It took the team three years to reach a product design and user interface for VOLTstack that met all that criteria.

“Once a customer internalizes the features and benefits, such as the fact that the systems can be used both indoors and outdoors, they quickly find new and exciting applications for the VOLTstack,” Rabin says.

The main issue the brand faces, he says, is actually letting people know the product exists. It’s a case of getting potential clients to trust a small, emerging Canadian company, in an industry that’s been dominated by behemoths.

What the brand needs to do is to pry customers away from the old and familiar diesel technology, he argues. Most customers, he adds, are keen to support a more eco-friendly product that’s portable, comparable on performance, and charges quickly.

Initially Portable Electric focused on the film and entertainment industries. In these fields, Rabin says, he sees a strong demand for power that is not just clean, but silent. Plus, there’s a growing interest in cleaner options — enough to help Portable Electric expand its manufacturing capacity to a larger facility.

While Portable Electric is definitely meeting a gap in the market, can its high price point make it suitable for more non-emergency settings? The ultimate question as with many greener technologies is if customers are willing to pay a premium — despite its long lifespan and lack of fuel fees. Rabin says, yes.

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