Spaceship-Like Tesla Powerwall Setup Produces 50K Liters of Clean Water a Day

An ex-Solar City exec turns his attention to clean water applications.

Hayes Barnard, one of the key figures behind making solar energy affordable, now wants to use the technology to drive an even bigger change: safe, clean water for everyone.

The former chief revenue officer at SolarCity, which merged with Tesla in November 2016, Barnard now serves as founder and president of GivePower. The non-profit organization, launched by SolarCity in 2013, recently built what it calls the “BLUdrop,” or “basic life unit,” a desalination system that uses solar panels to produce reliable, drinkable water.

“It looks like a spaceship that’s landed in a village!” Barnard tells Inverse.

While it may look like an elaborate sci-fi prop, there’s nothing fictional about the water it produces. The unit uses an array of solar panels to produce 50 kilowatts of energy, six Tesla Powerwall batteries to reach 90 kilowatts of storage, and a desalination system that can take seawater or brackish water and turn it into clean, drinkable water. The end result is a 4,000-square-foot behemoth capable of producing 75,000 liters of water per day.

“I want to provide water for a billion people in the developing world countries,” Barnard says. “Every 90 seconds, a child dies from water disease. It’s really a huge issue.”

The Kiunga installation in action.
The Kiunga installation in action.

It perhaps seems like a big shift for Barnard, who has spent a decade working in solar. He helped to reduce the costs of solar panels in his time at SolarCity, as industry-wide residential install prices dropped from $6.65 per watt in 2010 to $2.85 by 2018. This led to a 12-fold increase in installs, a shift that could help reduce carbon emissions and fight climate change. Loanpal, Barnard’s new venture, aims to simplify residential install financing to continue this work. Twelve months after launch, it was financing 21 percent of all residential solar installs.

But speaking to Barnard over the course of two interviews, it’s clear he sees GivePower as a natural progression. Cheaper solar installation costs will inevitably enable new inventions. A desalination plant is nothing new, but pairing solar with Powerwall batteries allows it to run constantly, 24-hours a day, using entirely clean energy.

GivePower: How to Bring Clean Water to the World

Barnard spent a year and a half working in San Francisco, building a machine that could bring clean water to the two billion people that live in water-scarce regions. He outlined how the team’s first installation in Kiunga, near Kenya’s border with Somalia, has already made a big difference to people living in the area.

“This woman decided to open her own … clothes washing business in her community,” Barnard says. “It’s really amazing. The children, the lesions on their bodies are gone.”

The system provides clean water.
The system provides clean water.

The Kiunga project, which went live last year, can produce affordable water for 25,000 people per day. The machine costs $500,000 total, or $20 per person. Access is offered through the M-Pesa payments app, priced at “half of a half of a cent.” Barnard notes that this is far less than the price of bottled water, which can run up to $1 per liter for premium brands.

Setup and maintenance is relatively straightforward. Two filters need replacing once a month, and two need replacing once per quarter. Barnard compares the maintenance levels to that of a backyard pool in the United States.

It’s been a learning experience for the team. While the first model landed in one shipping container with batteries attached outside, the team realized that for future models it makes more sense to pack the batteries into a second shipping container for easier transport and better protection. The machine also needs to be somewhere centrally located in the town — the team had to add a quarter-mile conduit to the Kiunga project to bring the water to the town.

The Kiunga project is now producing 50,000 liters of water per day, after a gradual ramp-up process.

GivePower: Where the Team Goes from Here

The next project will be in Haiti, shipping at the end of this month. The team chose the country as it has the highest infant mortality rate in the western hemisphere, and 80 percent of residents are not connected to any water.

The project will charge two cents per liter for access. Before it goes live, GivePower has been working with locals for almost a year to lay the groundwork for deployment.

From there, the team plans to expand rapidly. Barnard believes a system can bring in $80,000 to $100,000 in income. That means every five years, they’ll have brought in enough to build a whole new project.

The system from above.
The system from above.

Over the next few years, Barnard aims to give a million people fresh water daily. It’s also planning a cheaper, $100,000 system to demonstrate the need in untested areas. With 40,000 systems deployed worldwide, the company could provide clean water for one billion people.

The long-term goal is to also finance the projects through another of his ventures, the financing firm Loanpal, transforming the other business into a bank that fuels these large-scale solutions.

“If I can now turn Loanpal into a global bank that finances energy assets that really solve massive problems around the world, that’s the dream,” Barnard says. “That’s what I’m inspired to try to do.”

Since Tesla’s acquisition of SolarCity, the company has used the panels to provide clean energy to help get Puerto Rico back online, power electric vehicles on the road, and produce a new roof solution that could encourage homeowners to switch. But with these advancements in battery and solar technology, GivePower shows how they could be applied to new scenarios to change the world.

Media via GivePower