When you think about the Upper Peninsula and places that may be growing advanced technology and progressive businesses, you probably aren't going to think about Cooks, a small town in Schoolcraft County just a few miles away from the Lake Michigan shores.
But it's there, down a small county road, that the future is being assembled by Dustin and Jill Denkins--the owners of Suburb Solar
, which was founded in 2009 during Dustin's graduate work at Michigan Technological University
. It wasn't until early 2011 that Suburb Solar was formally incorporated.
The Denkins, as their company slogan indicates, are making solar easy--and that's not just a flashy statement. Their company builds portable solar generators, making it simple for anyone to harness the power of the sun and use it in everyday applications.
"Basically, when I decided to make this, I wanted to make something so easy that my grandmother could use it," says Dustin Denkins of the EasySun Solar Generator
And Grandma Denkins is no doubt proud of just how simple the generator actually is. Grab an appliance, a power tool or anything that requires 1,500 watts of power or less and plug it in. Then, press a little red switch.
"It's that easy," says Denkins. "Really."
The generator--built right here in the Upper Peninsula and with many components constructed here as well--is portable, sporting two heavy-duty wheels that allows the 125-pound device to be transported wherever it needs to go.
Getting the EasySun generator ready for use is as easy as it gets, too. Since it boasts a built-in solar panel that automatically charges the built-in battery, all that has to be done to power it up is to wheel it outside. The sun, quite literally, does the rest of the work for you.
The sun, at times in the Upper Peninsula, can be a rare sight behind the grey clouds that tend to dominate the winter skies. Denkins says it's not a problem. In fact, the Upper Peninsula, he says, is one of the most ideal places to use solar power.
"It's a combination of things, really," he says. "First, you have the reflection of the sun off the snow, which doubles the light source. Second, solar panels actually work at higher efficiency in cold weather than hot. So, using solar power in the winter in the Upper Peninsula is more productive than using solar power in Florida."
And since the generator has battery backup capabilities, there's no worry about using it during the night, either. The unit simply recharges itself the next day.
EasySun isn't the first product that was developed by Denkins. In fact, the first was so easy, it was hard to convince people it actually worked.
"Basically, it was a solar panel unit that you mounted outside of your house and then you plugged it into a wall outlet in your house," says Denkins, noting that the power from the solar unit would be introduced into the home's power grid, supplying power via the outlet. "I had trouble convincing people how it worked. It was too simple."
The EasySun generator is still simple, but much easier for those unfamiliar with how solar technology (and in-home power grids) work. The result? Suburb Solar outpaced its yearly projections for 2011, and the orders keep rolling in.
It helps that the generator, unlike its gas-guzzling cousins, makes absolute no noise, as no emissions like carbon monoxide and it's extremely durable and portable. The generator can be brought inside and operated right in your home without worry.
"We'll be at a trade show and someone will walk up and take a look at the generator and then ask us to turn it on," says Dustin. "When we tell them it's already on and that it works completely silently, it usually piques their interest."
The company, Denkins expects, will continue to grow as orders continue to flow in. He and Jill and co-founder Matt Miotke, are looking to showcase just how outstanding Michigan-made technology can be.
"Our only real competition is a unit from China, and it is fragile, bulky and not very easy to move around," Dekins says. "Our product is made right here in the Upper Peninsula."
Many of the components are made in the Upper Pe ninsula, too, such as the body of the unit and its frame. The solar panel and the wheels, however, weren't available from local companies. The unit is assembled in the company warehouse in Cooks, just outside of Manistique
Suburb Solar completely believes in the product they sell, too. The units come with a one-year warranty on the entire generator and the solar panels come with a 20-year warranty.
They aren't just the owners of a solar power company, either--they use the very products they sell. The Denkins' house, which is also in Cooks, runs completely on solar power. When the fury of Lake Michigan picks up and power lines are knocked out, they are the beacon of light in a very dark corner of the world.
"I almost feel bad sometimes," says Jill. "Nobody else has power and all of our lights are on."
This past Christmas, Dustin showcased more than just a solar-powered house. He pulled one of the generators into a nearby field to light a Christmas tree.
"It was quite the sight to see," says Jill.
As is a solar generator company operating out of Cooks--it's quite the sight, indeed, and a welcome one at that.
Sam Eggleston is the managing editor of U.P. Second Wave and a freelance writer. He was born and raised in the Upper Peninsula and knows that the sun is a mass of incandescent gas. He can be reached via email.
Photos by Shawn Malone.