Amid the clacking of keys and the slurping of Red Bull energy drinks, about 30 computer hackers recently gathered in Oakland. Their goal: to make solar energy easier, cheaper and more fun to use.
The hackers –- mostly web developers, engineers and solar energy entrepreneurs –- descended last weekend on the sprawling 12,000-square-foot headquarters of SfunCube LLC in Jack London Square. The solar energy incubator and accelerator nurtures enterprising young solar ventures and shelters startups in the industry. Its mission on Saturday and Sunday was fueling a marathon of innovation known as a Hackathon.
This Hackathon featured nine teams of programmers and software developers competing to design programs to help people adopt and use solar energy. For those outside the culture of coders, the term “hacker” is no longer confined to describing cyber criminals who steal data. Hackathons now draw public-spirited innovators who work together creating and sharing tools to make technical databases more accessible.
“We’re going to burn the midnight oil,” said Jane Oyugi, whose Hackathon group was designing a tracking program that could help distribute solar lanterns to remote villages in developing countries. Others worked on a range of tools from energy use calculators to drones – all dedicated to harvesting energy from the sun.
SfunCube is helping drive the city’s piece of a growing green energy boom. Solar panel capacity grew an estimated 42 percent worldwide in 2012, according to a report by the International Energy Agency. A survey by the National Solar Foundation, a non-profit focused on solar research and education, found that as of September 2012 there were approximately 119,016 people employed in the solar industry in the United States. With plenty of open office space plus lower rents than San Francisco, Oakland offers fertile ground for start-ups and jobs in this sector.
After coding, the Oakland innovators pitched their designs to a panel of judges that included Jennifer Granholm, the former governor of Michigan, Brandon Hurlbut, former chief of staff of the Department of Energy, and Chris Martin, the vice president of engineering for Pandora Media Inc.
A $2,000 prize for best overall app went to Eco Spaces, a clean-energy version of Craigslist that connects prospective tenants with eco-friendly housing. A $1,000 prize for best technical accomplishment went to WattSun, a web application to make it easier for those who are interested in going solar to learn more. Another $1,000 prize went to Appliansun, an application to help people use their most energy-intensive appliances during the height of the day.
“For me it’s all about job creation in the United States,” said Granholm, who is now a distinguished practitioner of law and public policy at the University of California Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy. One of her primary research areas is renewable energy, and she gave a TED talk on clean energy last February.
Insomnia is part of Hackathon culture. WattSun hacker Ken Rettberg said he coded for 36 hours and slept for two hours at the last Hackathon he attended.
“If they don’t keep it open, we can just go to someone’s house and code. I can stay up all night,” Rettberg said. To keep the programmers fueled and focused, the event featured quantities of high-carb snacks – bread, cheese and cold cuts -– washed down with caffeinated beverages.
Sebastian Brannstrom, another hacker, was helping create a tool called the Ice-Cream-Ohmmeter, designed to help people track how much money they would save by going solar and how they could put that money toward enjoyable things like ice-cream cones or a date night.
A more long-range industrial application under development at the Hackathon was a drone that could replace the need for solar panel site visits by human inspectors.
Bryan McMurray, design and engineering manager for Sungevity Inc., an Oakland-based seller and lessor of residential solar panels, designed the drone to be the size of a small dog. Powered by four separate helicopter blades, he called it a “quadripcopter.”
“I think the one thing people need to understand is that drones can be used for good, too,” McMurray said.
When not hosting hackathons, SfunCube acts as an incubator, renting space and providing community support to 10 solar start-ups that can pay rent. Under its accelerator program, the company currently provides free rent and a stipend for nine months to three groups that applied for support.
“It seemed like the best place to start was working with these entrepreneurs,” said SfunCube Co-Founder Emily Kirsch. “If they can get their products and technologies into the market as soon as possible, that’s what’s going to lead to more installations, which leads to more people in hard hats installing solar panels.”
“There are so many challenges this city is facing. . . What can a bunch of people around laptops do to solve the crime problem?” Kirsch said. “But a bunch of engineers working on laptops could then create 10,000 jobs, and that does reduce violence.”
“There’s a huge amount happening in Oakland,” added Berkeley’s Granholm. “This is sort of the jewel in the crown: having incubators where we can have ideas emerge, be taken to scale, and then have increased solar penetration. This is a great model for other cities and states to use.”