The Solar Power Landscape Is Changing. Here's What That Means for You

Manufacturers learned that accessibility, flexibility and modularity drive sales. Now, alternative energy solutions are more accessible than ever before.

Solar panel camping

Solar power is now more accessible than ever. 

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I started testing portable power stations for CNET in 2018, and there weren't a ton of readily available retail options back then. The ones that did exist were big and bulky and lacking in lifestyle features -- just an AC outlet or two and maybe a couple of USB-A ports. Pricing was at a premium, too, with top-of-the-line units boasting capacities of 1 kW costing well over $2,000. 

Fast-forward to today and you have much more to choose from. The ceiling for these retail power stations has finally surpassed 3 kW, with features aplenty. Wireless charging, a multitude of power output options, modular builds and solar panel inputs are now commonplace. These changes come at a time when mobility, portability and flexibility are paramount. 

Development of solar panels and battery storage

Modern-day use of solar energy to power our everyday lives began some 150 years ago when William Grylls Adams and Richard Evans Day discovered, in 1876, that a solid material, selenium, produced electricity solely from exposure to light. The creation of the first silicon solar cell capable of producing enough electricity to power modern devices came 75 years later. It took another 75 years for solar power to become available in massive power center efforts as well as pocket-size personal devices. 

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As portions of the world have focused on electrical independence on an individual level, there has also been a huge surge in the availability of solar power use and storage as part of more permanent energy plans for residential households. Tesla's Powerwall, arguably the most well-known, paved the way for manufacturers to focus on a new retail vertical in whole-home energy solutions, including solar panels and a centralized energy storage component (aka, a battery). In 2021, along with Tesla, Enphase Energy and LG Chem accounted for some 85% of the sales of larger format battery storage solutions. 

Watch this: How See-Through Solar Panels Could Bring Renewable Energy to Your Windows

Still, the dream of sticking it to big power and living an off-grid existence comes with some sizable caveats. To begin: cost. A whole-home system could run you anywhere from $10,000 to a staggering six-figure sum depending on your specifications. Here in the US, we also have a wide variety of solar efficiency based on geographical location, and that affects the cost of the project and the ability (or inability) to pull the amount of solar energy you need from above. Maintenance can be an issue as well, not only from ongoing upkeep but end-of-life cycles, especially for storage batteries, which can have you dropping large chunks of change for replacements. 

There has, however, been a change to the solar energy and battery-powered landscape that is giving us more immediate options -- and it will ultimately lead to better product choices for the whole-home angle to the personal and mobile fronts. I'll walk you through several newer products that showcase exactly how manufacturers are addressing these needs differently and what this means for us as consumers moving forward. Some changes are drastic, but some are as simple as fuel source replacement. 

Lycan 5000

The Lycan 5000 is basically new tech in an old form factor. You can replace that fossil fuel-burning generator with this electric battery storage version. 

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Renogy Lycan 5000

Most of us are familiar with gas-powered generators used as home backups or to get power to remote areas. The Renogy Lycan 5000 is basically a battery-powered version of that old standby -- or you could think of it as a really big portable power station (it does have wheels, after all) with some distinct advantages. 

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To begin, the Lycan offers a default capacity rating of 4.8 kWh with a continuous 3,500-watt power output and peak output up to 7,000 W. These specs are great for short-term power outages or even a tiny-home off-grid project. You do have expandability options if you're thinking about longer-term backups or larger off-grid projects. You can expand to a capacity of 19.2 kWh by stacking Renogy's 48V 50Ah Smart Lithium Iron Phosphate batteries. 

Lycan 5000 batteries
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Lycan 5000 batteries

A peek at the internal battery storage provided by Renogy's Lycan 5000. 

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If you're going to have this installed in typical backup generator fashion (by a licensed electrician hopefully), you'll be using a transfer switch to go between the Lycan and your home's load center. That transfer switch will give you access to a total of 30A over six single-pole circuits. If you're not familiar with the significance of that spec, that means you wouldn't be able to use the Lycan to power any of your devices or appliances that require 240V, and that may be the biggest --possibly only -- negative here.

The same is true if you want to use the Lycan as a stand-alone generator, where you have access to two different AC output receptacles. One is a standard 120V residential outlet rated at 20A, and you can grab a power strip to hook up your different devices. You'll also find a 30A round "RV plug" (or TT-30R) type, which will interface with your transfer switch, straight to an RV or one of many other adapter cable applications you can find. 

Last but not least, solar panels are an obvious part of any battery system, especially in off-grid applications. The Lycan's solar capabilities are definitely more on par with a system designed for heavier or more consistent use than your average portable power station. The Lycan will allow up to 4,400 W of solar charging power. Maxed out, you're likely looking at under 2 hours to charge from 0 to 80%, which really isn't too bad. That is, of course, at the default capacity of 4.8 kWh (roughly multiply by four for maxed-out capacity). Also, maxing out solar input using Renogy's product line will have you using anywhere from 10 to 48 panels at a cost of $3,600 to $4,800.

Overall, it's a good first step to introduce newer technology in a form that's recognizable and will physically and mechanically interface with current modes of use in existing technology. 

Bluetti AC500/B300S

Bluetti's home backup stack -- the AC500 unit with a single B300S expansion battery at just over 3 kWh. 

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Bluetti AC500 and B300S 

If we take the same basic idea as the Lycan 5000 but push it a bit further toward newer tech form factors, we might end up with something like Bluetti's AC500 and B300S combo. 

At first glance, this appears to be just a beefy portable power station setup. But its modularity and flexibility make it a great option if you're looking for a whole-home system capable of more. Here are the basic specs: The AC500 itself has no usable capacity and is not a battery, mainly serving as the brain and I/O center. The B300S has a capacity of 3,072 Wh with a constant 5,000 W of power output, peaking at 10,000 W. We can already see some benefits of this system over something like the Lycan if you're looking for a higher power output overall. 

You also have the option to expand the total capacity of this combo. You can add up to five additional B300S units for a total of 18,432 Wh. This unit also allows for up to 3,000 W of solar charging, both specs slightly less than the Lycan. You get three 120V residential outlets, one 120V/30A TT-30R, one 120V/30A L-14-30R (locking generator plug) and one 120V/50A NEMA 14-50R (four-prong plug commonly used with electric ovens or car chargers -- and no, the 120V is not a typo). 

Likely the biggest differentiator here is Bluetti's split phase feature. Split phase is available in some other units as well, enabling the user to access a 240V supply and not be limited to only 120V options. To do this, you'll need a second AC500/B300S combo. Use a fusion box to connect the two systems together, and configure your system for both 120V and 240V. An additional benefit is that with two separate AC500 stacks, you'll double your overall capacity, from 18.4 kWh to a whopping 36.8 kWh. 

Zendure SuperBase V

Zendure's (somewhat airstream-looking) SuperBase V and 6.5kWh expansion battery. 

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Zendure SuperBase V

Similarly, we have the Zendure SuperBase V. You have two model options in this family, the 4600 or the 6400. While the physical forms are the same, the main difference is in battery chemistry and subsequent effects. The 4600 is a LiFePO4 battery, while the 6400 is a semi-solid state battery. The notable difference is in total capacity. The semi-solid state model boasts 6,438 Wh versus the smaller 4,608 Wh from the LiFePO4 version. The 6400 is 9 pounds heavier, but can functionally charge at much colder temps than the 4600. 

While we're on weight, it's a good idea to mention that if you're hauling the setup you see above, the SuperBase V and one of the expansion batteries, you're looking at a payload of nearly 250 pounds. We have yet to "science" our way into massive storage capacities at backpack-friendly weights, so this is one factor to consider if you think you'll need to move these things around occasionally. One advantage to the Zendure system to offset the potentially deal-breaking (if not back-breaking) weight is the addition of motorized wheels. If you can manage to get the wheels moving consistently for 3 seconds, you can enjoy a tolerable 3-kmh (1.86-mph) assisted effort. 

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Zendure's mobile EV charger accessory. 

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You can attach up to four of the same-capacity external battery units (B6400/4600) for total capacities of 32.1 kWh for the semi-solid state model and 23 kWh for the LiFePO4 version. Additionally, you can throw in Zendure's Home Panel transfer switch to double either of those capacities by adding a second maxed-out stack (64.2 kWh and 46 kWh respectively) -- massive amounts of power. Zendure also seems to have doubled down on the electric lifestyle by including in its Home Panel two EV charge ports as well as the ability to connect your SuperBase V unit directly to your EV to charge. It even includes an adapter so that you can charge your SuperBase V at a commercial EV charge station.

Many systems, including both the Lycan and the Bluetti or Zendure stacks, offer one component that will likely be key to the future of home energy storage, and that is modularity. The earliest home energy storage units were large single-form pieces, which can be problematic in a couple of ways, primarily cost and maintenance. The cost issue has to do with upfront costs: Installing a single battery unit with a capacity of 10 to 20 kWh can be expensive and out of reach for many people. Modular, plug-and-play battery arrays can offer a much smaller entry price tag. You can start by buying the storage that you can afford, then add more over time.

As for maintenance, the issue is similar. If your single battery unit fails, you could be responsible for the cost of replacing your entire storage capacity all at once. With multiple battery units working together, you're far less likely to experience multiple simultaneous failures, so the resulting cost of replacing a smaller portion of your storage capacity will be much more palatable.

Nature's Generator Powerhouse

Nature's Generator Powerhouse stack - bottom to top - Powerhouse base, Power Pod Expansion, Generator

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Nature's Generator Powerhouse

This Powerhouse system is infinitely better than the other options listed here. Hold that thought -- I'm specifically referring to the manufacturer's claims that this system's capacity is infinitely expandable. I obviously won't be reporting on the validity of that claim. I have neither the resources or interest in putting in the work to prove the theoretical concept of infinity. 

At its core, this generator offers largely the same options as most of the other units on the list. It does go a tad further, though, and not just with the infinite expandability. It's possibly the most eco-friendly option here, presenting you with the option to import not only solar, but also wind energy. Each time you jump up in capacity from the base 4,800Wh, 2,000W limit of solar input and 1,000W limit of wind input, you'll be adding an additional 4,800Wh of capacity, 2,000W limit of solar input and 1,000W limit of wind input. If you're seriously into using up free-only energy and avoid giving your pennies away to energy service providers, wind is usually an important part of that conversation. We can't rely on the sun to show up and show out all day, every day. 

Unlike most of the other units, you do not need to buy a second "stack" to enjoy the benefits of a split phase system. Meaning, having access to both 120VAC and 240VAC outlets by default. You will still be limited to 7,200W output overall, but having that option out of the gate is a big plus for me. Another unique feature is The Powerhouse system's ability to mix both new and old battery types. The company still offers and you can mix, both lead acid battery units as well as newer lithium battery types, in the same setup. 

A lot of the other details are similar to what we've seen from other vendors. Transfer switches for home backup are available. You can pick up high-efficiency solar panels as well as wind turbines on the website. There are possibly fewer output ports physically located on this unit, but honestly, it doesn't feel like the target use case for a setup like this is directly plugging in your phone for a charge. So I'm a little less bothered with the lack of outputs on this unit than I might normally be (or for the lack of wireless charging). Nature's Generator also offers an eight-channel security camera system to specifically pair with this system that works around the clock, even when your Powerhouse system is powered down.

EcoFlow Independence Power Kit

EcoFlow's Independence Power Kit includes the Power Hub, 2kW battery, Smart Distribution Panel and Power Kit Console. 

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EcoFlow Power Kit

EcoFlow's Power Kit line takes a different approach to power management. These various system configurations are aimed more specifically at tiny homes and RVs. You can still use the basic Get Set Kit the same way you would use the Bluetti or Zendure stack: Connect the power hub to the stand-alone battery, and you have both a standard residential AC receptacle output as well as a DC output terminal. 

If you're looking for a more static setup, you can upgrade to the Prepared Kit, which adds an AC/DC smart distribution panel. This panel is essentially your load center (circuit/electrical box) that you would find in almost any home, and you'll have access to two 30A 120VAC circuits, four 20A 120VAC circuits and 12 20A 10-30VDC circuits. We don't see any 240VAC circuits in this product line, but the target use cases of vehicles and tiny homes commonly stick to 120VAC or 48VDC setups.

EcoFlow Power Kit
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EcoFlow Power Kit

A closer look at EcoFlow's Power Hub and Smart Distribution Panel

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Did I hear you say, "That's just not enough. I'd like to have a fancy power system and for people to know it!"? Then you may want to consider the Independence Kit. This kit adds in the power kit console, a fancy touch screen you can mount for everyone can see. You'll probably feel like you're in one of those nifty sci-fi movies where the entire building or spaceship can be controlled by a single screen. You'll have readouts of your energy consumption and charge levels, and also have control over most of your electrical system, with the ability to turn your ceiling-mounted disco ball on or off on a whim. 

The Power Kit line is streamlined for minimizing installation space, again, aimed largely at tiny-home or van-life enthusiasts. As far as battery and charging capacity goes, EcoFlow offers either a 2-kW or a 5-kW LFP battery compatible with this line, and you have three battery input ports available so you can design your own setup, ranging from 2 kW to 15 kW. You also have three solar charging ports available at a total of 1,600 W. AC charging is also available for the system, as well as alternator charging if you're going with a mobile use case. It's also worth noting that EcoFlow presents this line as "user installable," which is likely to appeal to many in the mobile or tiny-home crowd. 

The takeaway

So here we are, at a time and place where solar energy systems are not just for the wealthy or large industrial applications. Manufacturers are learning that accessibility, flexibility and modularity are driving sales and we're all better off for it. Pricing will streamline even further over time, but alternative energy solutions have never been as accessible to us as they are now. 

These companies are not the only ones, so keep an eye on some of our related best lists to stay in the know about solar and battery product offerings. Start with our list of best portable power stations, then head over to best solar generators and best portable solar panels. If you're in the market for an alternative energy solution that isn't one of the existing whole-home fixed setups, I've given you at least four places to start looking.

Article updated on May 9, 2023 at 9:00 PM PDT

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Steve Conaway
CNET staff -- not advertisers, partners or business interests -- determine how we review the products and services we cover. If you buy through our links, we may get paid. Reviews ethics statement
Steve Conaway Labs Manager / Senior Technical Project Manager
I am the Labs Manager for CNET's Home Division based in Louisville, KY. My interest in technology began in the early '90s, and soon after I began my double major in computer science and computer engineering. I've worked in many areas, including computer hardware, software, technology, networking, graphic design, instruction, construction, music and even ballroom dancing! 65% Ron Swanson, 25% Ben Wyatt, 10% Andy Dwyer.
Expertise I've been an outdoor enthusiast my entire life. I also renovate, flip and build houses in my 'spare' time. Paired with our test lab facilities, I write about lots of outdoor related things - portable power stations, tools, etc.
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