The hospital where John Paul Morgan worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo had "water mamas." They were local women, and each day they arrived carrying jerry cans filled with water to provide the hospital with its crucial supply.
Thinking this system wasn't ideal, Mr. Morgan, a physicist who worked in logistics at the time for Doctors Without Borders, installed a set of solar panels. These produced enough power to pump water to the hospital and give the water mamas a break.
"The water mamas were a wake-up call to me about the right of everyone to have access to electricity so they can pursue more valuable work," says Mr. Morgan. "I wanted to liberate these women from the constant grind of effort, doing work that could be done with pennies' worth of electricity."
Still, solar panels are expensive. So, using seed money from his father, Mr. Morgan developed a new type of solar panel. Its design, material and manufacturing process make it more affordable for developing countries than conventional technology. In 2007, Mr. Morgan and his brother, Nicolas Morgan, founded Morgan Solar Inc., in Toronto.
Today, Mr. Morgan's invention, the Sun Simba, is being field tested in Ontario and California and will likely enter large-scale production later this year. The brothers have raised more than $13-million in private and public funding, including an investment from Spain's Iberdrola SA, one of the world's largest renewable energy utilities.
Last year, Morgan Solar scored another coup when Asif Ansari - a leader in the green energy field who has founded several successful clean energy enterprises - joined the company as CEO.
What is it about Morgan Solar that's drawing interest from the clean energy industry's major players?
Mr. Morgan points to the unique technology. Most solar panels require glass lenses, prisms and mirrors to concentrate sunlight. This works, but it's expensive. The Sun Simba doesn't use this approach. It is largely made with a common polymer called poly (methyl methacrylate) - the same plastic material used to make durable windows and rink-enclosing barriers in hockey arenas.
The Sun Simba's slimmer profile and mostly plastic construction translate into low material costs, says Mr. Morgan. And it doesn't use tellurium, an incredibly rare and expensive metal used in many solar panels.
Just as important, he adds, is the relatively conventional but highly automated manufacturing process that makes it easier - and cheaper - to set up factories in local communities.
"To process the plastic, we use primarily injection moulding, a technique widely used in other manufacturing processes today," says Mr. Morgan. "This means our solar panels can essentially be built in the same factories that had previously built televisions or automotive products, whereas conventional solar panels are produced using a totally precise semi-conductor fabrication process."
Mr. Morgan estimates it would cost about $25-million to build a Sun Simba factory, compared to about $200-million for a factory producing conventional solar panels. This initial investment can be easily recouped with revenue from one year's worth of production, with profit to spare, he says.
"I believe firmly that the only way you can introduce broad change is if you can find a way to make the exercise profitable, so you can get investors behind it," says Mr. Morgan, declining to disclose the profit margin on Sun Simba. "Otherwise it won't be self-sustaining, and to enable [developing]parts of the world to blossom, you really need to rely on modes of change that are self-sustaining."
Another advantage with the Sun Simba is its relatively higher efficiency, says Mr. Morgan. Conventional solar panels can convert about 17 per cent of direct sunlight into electricity, whereas the Sun Simba's conversion rate is 25 per cent, he says. "Just four of our panels would offset the consumption of a typical American home in a year."
The Sun Simba works best when the sky is blue and the sun shines directly on the panels, says Mr. Morgan.
"It's really intended for parts of the world that have a lot of sunny days - like India, Africa, South America," he says. "In a place like Ontario, it's actually okay, but it's not as good in Alberta or in a country like Germany."
Developing countries, with their lack of centralized power grids, are an ideal market for Sun Simba, says Mr. Morgan. By offering an inexpensive and sustainable way of generating energy, Morgan Solar will make it easier for these countries to build local generation plants that would serve small, often remote communities, says Mr. Morgan.
"The bigger goal behind bringing electricity into these places is to enable people to pursue more valuable work," he says. "I believe lower-cost electricity is going to make the world a better place, and it's the only thing worth devoting my life to."