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Small-scale solar power comes to electronics

Can you sip solar energy to juice your electronics? Yes, for smaller gadgets and batteries, but laptops are trickier.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
5 min read

After Christmas gifts were exchanged this season, I set out to get what I really wanted from Santa: a solar panel kit that could power up my household electronics.

Options for buying these things are growing fast (see photo gallery below). Solar chargers can be had from several suppliers that juice up cameras, digital music players, phones, or game machines. And at the Consumer Electronics Show, a few companies showed off solar chargers, in tune with the "green theme" of the conference.

I originally set out for a single charger for gadgets and batteries. As I surfed from one alternative energy site to the other, my imagination wandered: would it be possible to use a solar charger for my laptop? Would a solar charger noticeably cut down on my electricity costs, or would it just be a cool science experiment?

Photos: Solar power for the masses of gadgets

Well, my Christmas gift quest has ended, short of a solar-powered laptop. Instead, I found a suitable toy for my phone, batteries, and maybe a few other devices.

Charging up a laptop with a small solar panel is trickier than just picking a product from a catalog, it turns out. And you'll have to pay quite a bit more than you would for an iPod charger.

But there's change afoot. At the Consumer Electronics Show this week, a company called NRG Dock showed off a solar charger for electronics, including laptops.

The company plans to make a product available, which will benefit from federal and state renewable energy rebates, in the second or third quarter this year, according to Chief Operating Officer Allan Wattenmaker.

You may be able to save money if you use a solar charger for many devices and batteries over the long term. But the primary reasons people make and buy solar chargers are portability or back-up power (unless you live off-grid).

Of course, solar power has the virtue of being green. So, short of buying expensive solar panels for the roof of your house, here are some options for "greening" up your electronic life.

Solar-charged gadgets: You can keep using your phone, iPod, or many other small electronics but ditch your existing power supply. Instead, you lay out your portable solar charger on the window sill or porch and plug it into your device.

Solio has one of the best-looking phone and device chargers out there, which costs $99.95. Three oval-shaped leaves with solar panels pull out to take in the sun. The company also has the Solio Hybrid 100, a general-purpose charger that also has storage integrated into it for when the sun isn't shining but you still need a charge.

Solar Style, Soldius, and others also have a range of solar chargers, some of which have an integrated battery to provide charge when there's no sun. You'll want to ensure that you have the right connectors for your devices.

Green tech is coming to gaming, too. I found a solar battery charger for PSP 1000/2000 machines that costs $28.76.

These chargers are small enough to slip into your backpack if you want to take your music player, phone, or GPS device on a hike--or just recharge during a long day away from a power outlet.

There are backpacks with solar cells integrated in them as well. Voltaic Systems at CES introduced a 14-watt laptop bag with integrated battery, much more powerful than its current 4-watt version. It will cost $599 and be available in the spring.

Because I haven't received my charger yet, I can't say for sure how quickly they charge devices. But small gadgets like a music player take a few hours in the sun to charge, according to people who have used them.

Battery chargers: Anybody who has been in a toy store lately knows AA and AAA batteries are a regular feature in toys these days.

If you're sick of buying those alkaline batteries and tossing them every couple months, you can get rechargeables and juice them up in a green way.

The low-end solar chargers do the job but take several hours in the sun to charge up a few batteries. That's OK, if you have plenty of spare batteries and time.

But I was eager to get something a little more powerful, so I could get rechargeables filled up within a few hours. And, I figured that a larger panel could also power up my phone, and maybe portable DVD player.

I wasn't able to find a whole lot of products that fit this requirement. But if you're willing to pay somewhere between $100 and $300, you have options. You can either buy a single charger for batteries and gadgets, or you could buy a small panel with the right cables to do the job.

Choices among the panels themselves are growing as well. Most panels are made from silicon and often have that cobalt blue look.

But the emergence of flexible thin-film solar cells are a great option for portable applications, although you'll pay more per watt for the convenience.

There are rollable or foldable panels sold under the PowerFilm or Sunlinq brand names that let you pack up a panel into a small package. They range from 5 watts, which would be good for batteries and gadgets, up to 25 watts, which could even be used to power a laptop.

Laptops: Wondering whether I could find a simple way to power my laptop took a sizable chunk of my holiday vacation time and, in the end, I didn't get what I wanted.

The problem with laptops is that, unlike music players, newer models consume more and more energy, according to Ed Bender, the president of Sundance Solar, which sells solar goods for portable applications or educational purposes.

"Laptops are tricky," he said. "In general, electronics power usage is going down. That's not true of laptops. People are getting bigger monitors, like with the new Macs, especially if they use them to play DVDs."

Sundance used to recommend that people buy a 10- or 20-watt panel and a cord (in the style of a car adapter) to plug into their laptop. But for many applications, that approach simply doesn't produce enough electricity, Bender said.

Instead, you need a panel and a back-up battery that your laptop plugs into.

Global Solar, which makes the Sunlinq foldable solar panels for military and mobile applications, lays out different options (click here for PDF), which includes an $89 Xantrex small back-up battery or a smaller lithium polymer battery from Tekkeon.

I priced out a setup with a relatively small 12-watt foldable panel, the Tekkeon MyPower All battery. Add a necessary cable, and it was about $350. A larger 25-watt foldable panel adds about $200 more to the setup.

If you were serious about having a solar-powered laptop, a larger panel makes sense, says Sundance Solar's Bender who said his company equipped a team of people who went to Antarctica using a 40-watt rigid panel, which costs about $300, to power their computers.

And now I'm eagerly awaiting NRG Dock's laptop charger. Wattenmaker said it can charge in an hour and provide several hours of laptop time. The price will be about $800 before rebates, he says.

So, in short, solar-powered laptops are doable but you're going to pay for the portability (or the fun of your science experiment).

For gadgets and batteries, though, affordable pocket-size solar power is already here.