One of the most common things seen today in calling a gadget green is to slap solar panels on it. All manner of cheap designs have some sort of panel installed to harness solar power, not always efficiently, as a means to power some attached device like a cell phone through cleaner energy. There are a handful of companies out there, however, doing it right, and we believe solar bags maker Voltaic Systems happens to be one of them.

Voltaic designs and sells bags with solar panels installed in them, such as the Converter Solar Backpack we reviewed a few months ago. These bags harvest the sun’s energy through the panels and channel it into a power storage unit you later can connect to a compatible device in need of electricity. Voltaic is one of the pioneers in the space of this type of solar bag technology. To learn more about them, we interviewed its head tech expert Jeff Crystal to see exactly how good solar gadget technology works.

Voltaic Offgrid
image via Voltaic

EarthTechling (ET): How did Voltaic come into existence?

Jeff Crystal: Our founder and lead designer, Shayne McQuade, was traveling in Spain with a small standalone solar charger and was frustrated on two levels. First, it had so few solar cells (about 1 Watt) that it barely worked and second, he found that he often would forget to take it out of his bag and set it up to catch available sun. The first solar backpack was the opposite of that solar charger. There was lots of area for solar panels (4 Watts) and you didn’t have to worry about setting it up, because it was set up. A few blogs including Treehugger picked up the bag and the company took off from there.

ET: Why do you think solar bags such as yours have become so popular?

Crystal: There are both functional and emotional reasons. On the functional side, we have all become so dependent on electronics, most notably our smartphones which have fairly big batteries and short battery life. Our bags and chargers keep these devices running. The included battery storage is crucial for this function.

On the emotional side, I think our bags combine the fun of gadgetry with an environmental component. If you wear one of our bags, you will get stopped on the subway, in the airport, at a concert and asked “what does it do?” or “how well does it work?” The solar panels are this great conversation starter for discussions on solar and alternative energy in general. For most of our customers, this is really fun.

Voltaic Converter
image via Voltaic

ET: How does the solar panel technology in Voltaic bags compare to that found in smaller devices like solar mobile phone chargers?

Crystal: The technology in the panels and the battery are pretty similar. Most of the compact chargers are using monocristalline cells like us. The main difference is charge times. Charge time is almost directly proportional to the amount of solar cells (visualized by surface area) you have in your charger. If you have a Solio or a High Tech solar charger which have 1 Watt or less of cells, you’ll probably spend 16 hours trying to charge an iPhone to full, assuming the phone and the internal battery are empty. With 4 watts, we’re charging an iPhone in 4.5 hours. A comparison is here.

A few other things that are interesting (at least to solar geeks like us):

– We recently upgraded the battery cells to high-temperature Li-Polymer versions. These cost a bit more, but it means that the battery will maintain charge capacity longer than before.

– In addition, we use a really high quality coating on the panels that lasts a long time and is super tough. We try and destroy them in this video and it doesn’t work.

ET: What is the craziest thing you’ve ever heard someone try to charge a Voltaic bag with? How did that go?

Crystal: A fellow in Alberta is using the packs to power a gas detection unit to detect leaks. It seems to work very well. The solar powered  DJs the Sycons in Los Angeles also use our gear to run their MacBooks at gigs. I think the crazier thing is where people take the bags. We love to get pictures and stories back from successful trips to the Arctic Circle, the top of Kilimanjaro and multi-year Peace Corp missions.

Voltaic New Bags
image via Voltaic

ET: What future product plans does Voltaic have that you can share?

Crystal: We have half a dozen products in development that we’ll be launching in the next six months or so. Our goal on the solar charging front is to span from high-quality, inexpensive chargers for phones on one end to bags and standalone chargers for the new wave of tablets and portable laptops. The next year will be a lot of fun.