Modern life, increasingly, involves portable technology. Whether it’s laptops, cell-phones, MP3 players, handheld games or all of the above, all that tech requires juice to keep it running, creating an ever-increasing carbon footprint.
One way to nip this vicious cycle in the bud is to use an off-grid charger–i.e., one that does not need to get plugged in to produce juice for your portables. As the market for such “advanced charging technologies” has grown over the years (it’s estimated this year to total $1.5, and to reach a whopping $34 billion by 2015), solar chargers have proven some of the most popular.
Solar chargers make use of a photovoltaic solar panel–often thin-film–to harness the sun’s energy and turn it into electricity, acting as a portable primary or back-up charger for a variety of portable devices, via a large number of adaptor “tips,” typically included in the price of purchase. As an added bonus, these chargers (like most off-grid chargers) are nearly universal, knocking out the e-waste associated with a number of different, product-specific wall adaptors.
Solar chargers come in all different forms and formats–from those that fit in a purse for ease of transport to those that roll out into mats for maximum surface area. Some are waterproof; some are not (a factor to consider when using a solar charger for camping, back-packing, or river trips). They also vary in charge time versus electrical output and performance in indirect sun (important for using solar chargers in less-than-sunny climates). There are also a whole class of solar chargers built directly into bags, whether laptop bags, backpacks, or bike panniers.
According to Kriss Bergethon, president of Solar Sphere, an online solar store that carries solar panels, solar chargers and solar kits for a variety of applications, there are now literally hundreds of different solar chargers available, up from a few models just a couple of years ago. He attributes the boom to increased efficiences, which means that today’s solar chargers are lighter and more compact–leading more manufacturers to create solar chargers, and more consumers to adopt the technology.
Some of the most popular makes, according to Bergethon, are the rollable thin-film chargers, foldable heavy duty versions, and the Solio foldable pocket solar charger, which Google recently donated to international health workers operating in rural areas through the International Medical Corps. (These chargers also have the convenient ability to soak up sun directly through a window, via suction cup.) The Sunlinq and Powerfilm foldable chargers have also proven popular in military applications.
What to look for in choosing a solar charger? “The thing to remember in solar,” Bergethon told us, “is that more square footage equals more wattage. So the bigger the charger the more juice. You have to adapt the size and style of your charger to your situation.” So if you plan to charge your laptop on the go, you may want to choose a solar laptop bag, rather than a pocket-charger, which would be more appropriate to keeping your cell-phone topped off–and if you’re depending on your solar charger to keep multiple gadgets operational in the back-country, consider a heavy-duty, rollable charger with maximum surface area.