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461 Burroughs Street
Detroit, Michigan 48202

Paul Savage

By Amy Kuras
January 31, 2014

Most of us only think about the power supply to our homes, offices and cities when it fails. But to Paul Savage and his team at Nextek Power Systems, thinking about electrical power – the ways we use it, how we waste it, and how it can best be provided in our heavily electrified modern world – dominates their days.
"People don’t really shop for their electrical service – power system professionals kind of tell them how it’s going to be," says Savage, CEO of Nextek. "People tend not to be interested, but we think once people get inside the story that is always going on around them they can get interested."
Nextek makes and sells DC microgrid systems. They work like this: the power that flows from generating stations through wires to your house is AC, or alternating current. It’s been that way for a century, since the power grid first went live. And when most of what we powered in our homes was mechanical, like fans or lights or refrigerators, that was fine. But now most of us use technology as a matter of survival: computers, phones, e-readers, and smart TVs are in almost every room of our homes, with the accompanying little bricks that plug into or snake from wires. And most of that stuff is powered by direct, or DC, current. Those bricks convert the AC current that flows into your home into DC current for your devices – and they are really, really inefficient at doing so.

Nextek’s systems allow customers to make a microgrid using DC current at their business or home. While it’s designed to work with the AC current that flows into your home, it can work as well with a solar array or wind turbine. "We’re providing innovation to power systems," says Savage. "We think how we’re approaching it can bring tangible benefits to electricity consumers at much lower costs."
That lends itself to a lot of interesting applications. In Detroit, keeping the streetlights on is a constant problem; Savage says he’d like to get Nextek involved in finding a reliable, cost-efficient solution. He’s worked with the Power House Project in Hamtramck on their off-the-grid artists' houses. Nextek wired the Next Energy building in Midtown with a DC microgrid that runs off solar power, which has reduced energy costs by an astounding 87 percent. They’ve also wired up a demonstration modular house at TechTown.
On a humanitarian note, Nextek, along with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, helped develop a STAR portable solar power generator. It’s a solar generator that fits on a trailer about the size you’d see carrying lawnmower equipment here. The generator charges portable batteries with its solar panels, which people then bring to their homes and plug in. Each battery provides about three days worth of sufficient electricity to run lights or charge a cell phone. Once it’s depleted, they bring the battery back and exchange it for a fully charged one. It was first used in Haiti after the country’s devastating earthquake in 2010; they’ve also provided one to a family still unable to return to their home a year after Hurricane Sandy. Leaders in African countries are expressing interest in bringing STAR units there.
"It’s such an exciting prospect," says Savage. "There is a real possibility that this idea could be a solution to energy access."
Of course, if we start powering our homes and offices differently, in a way more in keeping with what we actually do in them in the 21st century, that means the way electrical devices are charged will have to change too. Savage is also a founder of EMerge, an industry association working to develop standards or DC-powered devices, so that companies can begin incorporating DC technology into their products.
Savage wasn’t always in the energy sector – he spent most of his career in finance and then took over the reopening of Caterpillar heavy equipment sales in Vietnam. To his surprise, it wasn’t the heavy equipment that customers most wanted; it was their distributed power systems. After he returned home, he studied up on the energy sector and joined Nextek. The team moved the company to Detroit in 2010, intending to draw upon the vast well of engineering knowledge that exists here and on the proximity to auto industry customers.  "We’re excited at our opportunity," Savage says. "We’ve been early for a long time, and we’re finally less early. What we want to have happen is for us to be a success here in Detroit."

All photos by Doug Coombe. 

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