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BlackCurrent: Bringing UPS to the domestic market

Fri, 11/16/2012 - 17:36 -- Ruth Williams

3-38aMark Rigby is a true innovator. Following an unsuccessful shopping trip for a home-based UPS system he did not idly sit by and hope his desired product would hit the shelves; he decided to make it himself. This was the beginning of BlackCurrent, an offline (passive standby) UPS system for homes and small businesses.

During a particularly cold UK winter many rural parts of the country were left covered in snow and without power. One area close to where Rigby lives in northern England reported 12 blackouts in 16 weeks. A friend of Rigby’s had an elderly mother-in-law who, during power cuts, sat in the dark and waited for the lights to come back on for fear of having an accident. 

A spate of cold, snowy winters in the UK has caused increased power cuts. Coupled with the decommissioning of aged natural gas-fired and coal-fired power plants, this means people may be facing more time in the dark. This problems does not apply only to the UK, of course, greater demand for energy globally means many grid systems cannot fulfil the demand at peak times.

So Rigby set out to find a basic system she could have in her home to ensure her basic comforts of heating and lighting stayed on during the next blackout. This proved more complicated than he had hoped: “I couldn’t find anything to do what I wanted,” he says. “There was nothing on the market. So I started to develop it myself.”

Rigby is no novice with battery back-up systems. He has 30 years of experience in the battery industry, which he got into by accident in the early 1980s. He began work in the heart of the British battery industry, Manchester, making connectors for companies in the area. Previously this had been done in-house or by a local firm, but Rigby saw an opportunity to start a family business.

The accidental battery connector maker is now the managing director of UK Powertech, where the export of battery connectors is a major factor, alongside supplying components for forklift truck batteries. The company has grown 100% in the past 2.5 years, employing 15 staff and enjoying an annual turnover of over US$2 million. 

Applications for BlackCurrent

3-39aBlackCurrent is to be primarily marketed as a domestic solution. Although developed to supply the home there is potential for use by small businesses. Rigby exhibited a prototype of BlackCurrent in 2010. 

At the time, he says, there was a tremendous response to the concept and there were plenty of suggestions for different applications for its use. “One man, connected with a medical centre, asked if BlackCurrent could power a refrigerator.” With a load of 40W, the unit could easily ensure that pharmaceuticals requiring storage at a constant temperature, would be safe during a power cut. “It could save his centre thousands of pounds worth of drugs each time they have a power cut.”

The potential applications for BlackCurrent are wide-ranging. As well as keeping refrigerators functioning, it could keep computers running, maintain lighting and gas central heating in care homes, allow shops to remain open, provide peace of mind for anyone living in rural areas or those prone to power outages. It seems surprising a small unit like this has not been brought to the market before...

There are two versions of the BlackCurrent ready for the market. The 300W and the 700W models retail at US$1 330 and US$2 345 respectively, exclusive of tax. Does Rigby think people would be happy to pay these amounts just for the sake of keeping their lights on during the odd power cut? 

“Some people live on the breadline and some have money to spare, but there are people for whom this isn’t a lot of money – some might pay more for a TV. The value of the cost depends on where you live and what you need. Areas which have cuts each month would consider it a worthwhile investment but living in a place where power cuts are rare, it doesn’t seem worthwhile.” 

After the initial cost of purchasing BlackCurrent there is virtually no running cost, just keeping the unit topped up with energy when the power comes back on. Unlike more expensive online (double conversion) UPS system BlackCurrent does not run all the time, but operates on standby, and is able to run for a minimum of two hours at maximum output.

Limitations of BlackCurrent

The limitation of BlackCurrent is the amount of power stored is only designed to keep a home or business in basic comforts. This means it cannot power, for example, an electric oven or even an electric kettle, so it would not provide a long-term solution to blackouts. The amount of power it provides over time would depend upon the frugality of the user – lighting and heating could last for up to ten hours, says Rigby. Add other home appliances and the running time decreases, but it all depends what the user considers critical.

Rigby says UK Powertech is developing 1, 2 and 3 kW units based on the same characteristics, which would broaden the use in both domestic and business use. The 3kW unit would be able to run a small office with five PCs, plus a printer, telephone, broadband modem and refrigerator for several hours. 

“We expect to have these available by the end of the year,” he says. “Small retailers could see a benefit from installing a BlackCurrent unit which would enable them to power their cash registers and card readers to remain connected in the event of a power cut.”

BlackCurrent can either be used as a ‘plug and play’ device, by being plugged into any electrical socket, for appliances to be plugged in; or wired to a circuit board to maintain lights, heating and other essentials as soon as a power disruption is detected to keep everything running seamlessly.

While take up has been slow so far, the BlackCurrent is only just on the market following rebranding. Rigby says the response has been heartening. “The security it gives to people is if they have a power cut they can still carry on with the basic fundamentals of life. Unfortunately nobody has had a cut yet...”

Rigby has one fitted in his own home: “The neighbours know what I’ve been developing and they all say when there’s a power cut, they’ll be coming round to mine.”

Rigby is now thinking about critical power products for the future. Not a more distant world of smart grids, but the near future. He has solar PV panels on his roof and believes more should be done to develop energy storage. “The next five to ten years will see a revolution in the way we use, generate and store energy. In the UK power utilities will soon start to decommission coal, gas and nuclear power stations, so how are we going to get our energy? And that’s even before electric vehicles hit the roads.” 

If less energy is being produced because of power stations gradually closing down, how will the National Grid support the increased demand put upon it by people charging their cars? Rigby believes the way to solve this would be to store more energy in the home, regardless of how it is produced. This could take pressure off the grid and regulate the amount used, he speculates. 

Domestic energy storage: The next step?

Rigby’s own solar panels provides his home with 4kWh more than he uses each day, excess power which is returned to the grid in return for a subsidy. However, if this energy could be stored for later use in the home, potentially all homes with a solar PV system could be self-sufficient for much of the year. Developing ways to store this power is, in Rigby’s view, critical.

For a more instantaneous solution, areas hampered by power cuts could try something similar to a scheme being trialed in Japan. Following the aftermath of the natural disasters suffered in 2011, lithium-ion battery packs have been given to homes for use in case of blackout. Giving homes a method of storing energy allows power consumption to be balanced throughout the day. “Once people have batteries in their home they have the start of a DC circuit, so they can run DC products such as low energy lighting without converting electricity from AC to DC or DC to AC,” he says.

Rigby believes there is insufficient consideration given to the global problem of power shortages. “People are looking 20 years down the line to a low-carbon world rather than what we can do now. We may sit in the dark until then.”

Mark Rigby’s enthusiasm is palpable and given his passion for innovating domestic solutions it surely will not too long before he develops new products in addition to BlackCurrent.