South Dakota entrepreneur Brian Gramm was tailgating outside a college football game one sunny day when he wondered why he couldn't use that energy to plug in a radio.
The first-world inconvenience led him to develop the Forty2, an all-in-one "utility in a box" that Gramm now thinks could change millions of third-world lives.
The device, which looks like a quadruple-sized laptop computer, could generate and store enough solar power in a remote African village to run a dorm refrigerator filled with medicine, a couple of fans and a dozen LED lights, said Gramm, founder and chief executive of Peppermint Energy.
"We changed it from how could we run a TV and a satellite dish and a stereo, to being able to run that fridge around the clock 365 days a year, being able to charge cell phones because that's their only link to communication, being able to get them indoor cooking," said Gramm, of Sioux Falls.
Darin Fey, who volunteers at orphanages in South Africa's Pretoria, said he sees a great need for that kind of power.
"Any time there is any wind, our power goes out almost 100 percent of the time," Fey said in an interview from his South Africa home. "We always have to have a bunch of bottles of ice in our freezer in case the power's out for a day or a day and a half, then we can stick them in our fridge to keep the stuff cold."
Peppermint Energy is set to produce some 250 first-run Forty2s, which will ship to 18 different countries, after raising more than three times its goal on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter.
Inventors, artists and entrepreneurs post their projects on a Kickstarter page, usually with a video presentation, setting a fixed duration for their fundraising and a dollar goal for contributions. If the goal isn't reached by the deadline, no money changes hands and the project is cancelled.
But Peppermint reached its $25,000 goal in just 5 days, eventually raising more than $83,000 from 284 backers over the month. Anyone who donated more than $500 is getting one of the first-run units, which are expected to ship before Christmas.
The product's name is a reference from "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy," in which "42" is the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything.
The Forty2 might not be the answer to everything, but Fey sees a great need for easy-to-use portable power sources in remote areas. Fey, who also distributes water filtration systems and is now looking to become a Forty2 distributor, said he saw a link to the Forty2 on Facebook.
"Even if there were a few of these devices spread throughout the communities, it would be a huge help," he said.
The Forty2 will initially retail for $799, with a $100 discount for preorders. Nearly all of the parts and the assembly is being done in the upper Midwest
The fold-up unit features 200 watts worth of solar panels, a 500-watt-hour lithium Ion rechargeable battery and three built-in AC outlets. Devices can run both directly off the solar panels and off the battery, depending on how much power is needed. The panels recharge the battery when the draw is low.
"There's really not going to be any dials or switches or anything," Fey said. "It's just you open it toward the sun, plug your device in and it works."
The Solar Energy Industries Association reported more than 20 utility-scale photovoltaic projects were completed during the second quarter, marking the largest quarter ever for solar panel installations.
Smaller, off-grid solar ventures are harder to track, said Monique Hanis, an SEIA spokeswoman.
Hanis said a recent industry conference in Orlando included a panel that discussed growing military demand for portable solar to charge radios and other equipment in the theater.
While much of the solar industry is focused on large utility-scale and in-building projects, Gramm said that personal, portable solar offers freedom because the devices can be placed where they're needed — such as a hurricane-ravaged community or a Native American reservation.
"We should make it smaller and lighter," he said. "Then you can take it around to wherever you need to be to use it."