We are a plugged-in society without enough plugs. We have reached the point where the most prized real estate inside any public building is the area near an electrical outlet, so we can power our phones, tablets and laptops. And once we venture outside, this voltaic lifeline is severed, and our ability to stay connected lasts only as long as our battery life.
David Hornsby, president of Alabama-based Hornsby Steel, was driving in his car one day two years ago thinking about all this when suddenly he saw the light. As in, the biggest power outlet of them all — the sun. Why not take the natural energy produced by sunlight, connect it to a bench and create a solar-powered plug that will work in nearly any outdoor space?
“This all came about because our workload (at Hornsby Steel) has been like a yo-yo. We’ll be extremely busy one month and then not have enough to do the next, ” Hornsby says. “So in an effort to keep the guys busy I was trying to come up with different ideas, and these solar-powered park benches suddenly dawned on me. I could hardly wait to start working on it.”
The result, after nearly a year of planning and a $1 million initial investment, is a startup company called Sun Charge Systems, which officially launched last April 22 on Earth Day. The solar-powered charging benches are built in a shop owned by Hornsby Steel in Oneonta, not far from the company’s headquarters in Cleveland.
The patent-pending product currently sells for between $2, 000 and $3, 000 each, depending upon size and style. Each one contains a 60-watt solar panel connected to a battery, with four USB outlets, one 12-volt outlet and the option to add an Internet hot spot.
“There’s not a single wire going to it, ” Hornsby says. “If I were to set a bench in front of our office and get an electrician to run a plug to it, not only is it potentially dangerous but it would have a bill attached to it every month. With these solar-powered benches, all you have to do is replace a battery every 3 to 5 years, which is less than $200. Other than that, each bench should last a long time. It wouldn’t surprise me if you could get 20 to 30 years out of one of them.”
Hornsby says the stations are ideal for areas where access to electrical outlets does not meet the demands, including city parks, campgrounds, beaches, outdoor restaurants, college campuses and sports stadiums.
“If you’re a parent and you go to some sort of Little League tournament or high school event, a lot of times you’re there all day long, ” Hornsby says. “And if you’re taking pictures, you’re really eating your battery up. You have to recharge.
“But you can put one of these benches almost anywhere. You can set one in a pasture in the middle of nowhere, without a power line for 100 miles around, and charge your cell phone. I think it’s a product whose time has come.”
Production has started slowly, with fewer than 40 benches produced last year, though Hornsby says the goal is to increase that number eventually to 1, 000 annually. He already has hired three additional employees, and if the product takes off, he expects to need another dozen or so new hires.
“This is still an infant company, ” Hornsby says. “We’re running articles in magazines, we’ve been to some trade shows. We’re starting to set up sales reps all over the country. We’re even using Facebook. I never thought I’d be on Facebook, but it’s a good way to reach these 20-somethings and get them to tell somebody that they need this. We’re working hard to try and develop a bigger market.”
The first Sun Charge System bench was donated to Palisades Park in Oneonta. Since then, Hornsby says the product has been sold to a handful of municipalities and universities, including three in the city of Oneonta, one outside the Huntsville Museum of Art and two on the campus of Calhoun Community College in Decatur.
There also are two currently being leased by Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, with the possibility of the college purchasing several more in the coming year. The product was introduced to Appalachian State by Josh Brooks, an ASU graduate student who serves as the development coordinator for the school’s Renewable Energy Initiative, which manages a fund generated from annual student fees. Brooks learned about the benches last October in Minneapolis while attending a conference for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE).
“I really liked the product for a couple of reasons, ” Brooks says. “Our group is tasked with lowering the environmental impact of our university through the implementation of renewable energy products. But a lot of that renewable energy is not in the hands of students. It’s a wind turbine on a hill or a solar panel on top of a building. Students don’t interact with it, so they don’t have a tangible understanding of what’s going on. But with this system, they use it directly.
“And then it also helps get people back outside more. Education in the 21st century is all about being online. People are dependent on their cell phone and laptop every day. We all have to be connected, so we end up being inside more and living virtually. These benches let us get back outside and allow us to experience things. A lot of people come to App State because they enjoy the mountains and want to be outdoors. This helps them do that.”
Brooks says his group is currently collecting data on how much the benches are being used and how the students respond to them. He says the reaction “has been positive” so far, and that “the goal is to purchase more of them.”
Hornsby says he is hopeful that more colleges and cities will feel the same way about the Sun Charge System benches once they learn about the product.
“We are really optimistic about where we are going with this. We’re getting excellent feedback, and it’s starting to gain momentum, ” Hornsby says. “We want to establish this as an Alabama product — as a technology designed, developed and manufactured right here in Blount County, Alabama.”
Cary Estes and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.
Text by cary estes • Photos by cary norton