Solar chargers no longer ugly ducklings

Latest options for charging small electronics with solar panels are designed for home use, rather than just camping. Another improvement: manufacturers offer take-back programs for spent batteries.

LAS VEGAS--Over the last few years, I've spent a lot of time piecing together a mini solar station to charge my gadgets. Having just returned from CES, it's clear that the latest options for small-scale solar are likely appeal to more than just eco-geeks like me.

My home solar-charging gear is decidedly clunky. I bought a 10-watt solar panel that charges a 12-volt back-up battery which has a regular AC outlet on it. It's versatile since I can use the wall plugs that come with various devices but my toys weren't cheap--close to $300 all told. My gear is also just plain ugly. Who wants something that looks like a car battery sitting around your living space?

Well, more people are designing solar charging systems with an eye toward practicality and attractive design.

Most impressive from CES was Regen's ReNu charging system, which is set to come out in June. There's a tablet that integrates a 6-watt solar panel and a battery. It comes with a small suction cup for hanging it in the window and a support stick to tilt the device toward the sun on a table.

At night, you can connect the panel into an optional docking station to find out how much it's charged and how much you've produced over the week. It has a USB output, so people can charge various devices.

The company will also offer another docking station that holds both the solar panel and an iPod, so you can have solar-powered music--or, in another configuration, a solar-powered desk lamp. The ReNu panel itself will cost $199; the docking station costs another $85.

Also on display last week at the Consumer Electronics Show here was Solar Power International's Freeloader Pro , which also has an integrated battery and USB port. A very handy accessory is the CamCaddy which lets people charge different sized block batteries for digital cameras, camcorders, and digital SLRs. It is going on sale in the U.S. this week for about $100.

Another charger that been on the market for some time is the Solio from Better Energy Systems, which is now available through the Apple Store. The charger, which has three leaves with solar cells that fold out, comes with an iPod adapter and can be charged in 8 to 12 hours in sunlight, or through the wall socket.

Battery cycle times
With an integrated battery and USB ports, these chargers are a big step up in convenience, giving you portable back-up power for small electronics even when the sun isn't shining. What I do is juice up the big battery during the day and then charge up our phones, rechargeable AA batteries, and the like at night.

But from an environmental point of view, there is a downside to these integrated batteries. Even lithium-based batteries will eventually lose their ability to hold a full charge. The Solio and ReNu, for example, are projected to degrade in performance after 350 to 500 charges. (Solio's maker recommends keeping the battery as close to full charge as possible to extend the life.)

But just tossing a charger is certainly not green: silicon solar cells are a hazardous substance and lithium is a valuable resource that's projected to have a spike in demand from electric cars in coming years.

Solar Power International has thought ahead on this point. After two years, Freeloader Pro will take back the unit that holds the battery and replace it for about $13, according to CEO Adrian Walker. The company, which has to offer these take-back services to comply with EU regulations, projects that it will be able to recycle materials from the battery, he said.

Better Energy Systems also offers a take-back system in which people return batteries and can purchase a new one, according to a representative. ReGen says that it's ReNu charger is designed to have its battery replaced but does yet not offer a take-back service.

These slicker systems may allure more people to juice up gadgets from the sun. But if you're thinking about buying one to be green, it's best to find out about your recycling options down the road.

 

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