A social energy network turns to solar chargers & shopping

Tech companies so far have stumbled when it comes to getting people to be mindful of their energy use and conserve. But a new German startup, Changers, thinks it’s come up with the right incentives to attract the do-gooder crowd: sell mobile solar chargers and build a social network around earning energy credits and online shopping.

Changers, founded in 2010, hopes to build a community and marketplace of eco-conscious users and retailers through shopping and competition. Here’s the proposition: you buy a solar charging kit that, when connected to your computer, will allow you to upload data about the energy generated by the charger and stored in a battery. That data goes to your profile page on Changers’ website, where the energy, measured in watt-hours, will be converted into credits that you can use to buy actual stuff from online shops.

The solar kit charges at a rate of 4 watts per hour and can hold 16 watts in its battery, which can supply power for two iPhones. So you can charge up the battery during the day and then transfer those electrons to your cell phones, tablets or other gadgets at night.

Solar social network

Through your page on Changers, you can track you solar energy generation, the carbon offset created by the solar electricity (2 watt hours of solar electricity equal to 1 gram of carbon emission), and see how you stack up against friends, neighbors or those in other countries. The energy-to-money conversion rate could be different, depending on the retailers, said Hans Raffauf, head of communications at Changers.

The site’s first retailer is Holstee, which sells clothes, bags, coffee makers, sunglasses, ear buds, and other products made from recycled materials. To shop on Holstee, you will have to accumulate a minimum of 100 watts, which gives you a $10 voucher.

While the solar charging kit will cost you $149, joining the Changers community is free. Changers, which has raised an undisclosed seed investment of “a couple of million dollars” from German solar company Centrotherm Photovoltaics, wants to charge retailers in the future, Raffauf said. That won’t happen until Changers builds up a user base large enough to attract more retailers.

And, yes, sharing what your energy production and rewards via Facebook and Twitter is highly encouraged.

Web 2.0 launch

Changers hails from Berlin, Germany, but is launching its site in the U.S. primarily because it wants to start at a place with early technology adopters in order to get feedback and tweak its site. Raffauf said Germany could actually be a larger market – Germans are ahead of Americans when it comes to supporting solar electricity and emission-reduction plans.

Building an active online community isn’t easy. You have to create fun ways for people to interact and offer rewards that people want. And it can’t cost too much money, for while early adopters are happy to shell out big bucks for an iPhone and iPad, they often won’t pay anything for online social circles and web games. The $149 charging kit can therefore be a serious barrier for Changers to attract a big crowd. Raffauf said the company hopes to be able to subsidize the purchases, but it doesn’t have the means to do so now.

Finding the right retailers and enough of them also will be crucial not just for Changers to attract initial users but also to sustain user interest over time. The challenge of sustaining consumer interest has been a big hurdle for many energy management hardware and app developers, some of whom mistakenly thought that consumers would continue to be engaged with their energy management tools. Google (s GOOG) and Microsoft (s MSFT), for example, launched energy measuring tools only to pull them earlier this year.

Energy software startup Opower, in partnership with Facebook and the Natural Resources Defense Council, thinks it has come up with something better. Opower plans to launch a Facebook app next year that will let users compare their energy use with their friends and get energy efficiency tips. The goal is to build “the world’s largest social energy community,” and the means involve using games, competitions and Facebook’s already large online user base.

Raffauf believes consumers need more incentives than energy data, games and competitions. “We are able to reward you for your behavior in a monetary way,” he said. “It’s a motivation that will get people to use it.”

Images courtesy of Changers