Google's Little Box Challenge: A New Way to Power Our Lives

By Steve Anderson July 23, 2014

Electricity probably has to be one of the greatest inventions mankind has ever realized. Opening the door to a host of devices that we use literally daily, electricity is the perfect “kilowatt slave,” as some like to refer to it. It asks little of us, and provides a great deal in return, from heating, to cooling, cooking, entertainment, and so much more. But electricity depends on a vast infrastructure to keep it operating to its fullest, and it's an infrastructure that's proving increasingly fragile. Google, in that way Google does, wants to change all that by getting more people generating power, and has launched the Little Box Challenge in a bid to fix that.

The Little Box Challenge, which opened on Tuesday, is offering up a $1 million prize to any organization that can make a better power inverter, one of the critical components to an alternative power system. Whether it's solar, wind, hydro, or anything of that nature, an inverter is required to convert it to the alternating current that's used every day, and most inverters are reportedly around the size of a standard ice cooler. Google's Little Box Challenge hopes to shrink that down roughly 10-fold, and is offering a hefty sum to the group who pulls it off best.

Applications close September 30, and those who reach that deadline have until July 22, 2015, to get the device ready for show complete with technical specs and a testing method ready to submit. The final winner, meanwhile, will be picked in January 2016. The contest page offers a bit of commentary on this point, telling entrants: “We believe that inverters will become increasingly important to our economy and environment as solar PV, batteries, and similar power sources continue their rapid growth. More broadly, similar forms of power electronics are everywhere: in laptops, phones, motors drives, electric vehicles, wind turbines, to give just a few examples. We expect that the innovations inspired by this prize will have wide applicability across these areas, increasing efficiency, driving down costs, and opening up new uses cases that we can’t imagine today. It also doesn’t hurt that many of these improvements could make our data centers run more safely and efficiently.”

Looking at this, it's not a bad idea, but Google may be trying to solve the wrong problem. The problem doesn't seem to be so much a matter of power inverters so much as it is the generation points for alternate power supplies. Inverters can be had comparatively inexpensively, though such inverters may not be sufficient for whole-house operations. Where Google might be better served in terms of alternate power generation is in the form of better quality batteries that hold more power and last longer, or in less expensive solar panels, wind turbines, or anything else. Why Google is looking so specifically at the inverter is unclear, but perhaps the progress being seen elsewhere was sufficient for Google.

However, it's important to note that any advancement on the front of alternate power is advancement worth discussing. The more houses that can generate even some of the power needed, the less of a load will need to be shouldered by an aging power grid system. That's less cost for homeowners, too, and less worry that one errant thunderstorm or one crashed car will leave said homeowner in the dark for an indeterminate period.

Edited by Adam Brandt

Contributing TechZone360 Writer

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