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Guide to solar chargers

Today’s solar chargers have gone way beyond a gimmick and have become an easy way to charge all your devices while on the go.

By Kirsten Dirksen

According to NASA we only capture 1/10,000th of the sun’s output every day. While it’s not cheap to install photovoltaic panels on your roof, there is a simply and inexpensive way to start capturing solar energy to help power your daily life.

Taking 1.2 million cars off the road with solar chargers

They may be small, but solar chargers can make a difference in our CO2 emissions. According to MacDirectory magazine, in the past 5 years more than 3 billion chargers were sold in North America which is the equivalent of putting 1.2 million more cars on the road.

The magazine also claims that the number of chargers sold in Europe in just 2005 emit the equivalent in CO2 emissions (calculating both the embodied energy to create them and that of their use for their 2 year average life span) of one year of Germany’s biggest brown-coal burning power plant. The number of chargers sold in Europe is expected to double by 2010.

Solar chargers do battle with phantom power

Solar chargers not only deliver renewable energy, but they also help avoid the problem of phantom power. Conventional chargers are plagued by the problem of phantom energy use: they continue charging when left plugged in, even if the device is already charged.

Since 10% of total home energy use is due to appliances and electronics, solar chargers avoid significant wasted energy from leaving things like cellphone chargers plugged in. (For more, see Cool gadgets to help save energy).

Those at Better Energy Systems- the creator of the Solio solar charger- claim their device is 70 times better for the environment than a wall charger.

One charger for all your devices

The other benefit of the newer generation of solar chargers is their convenience. These devices are no longer simply toys for the techie types, but are very convenient alternatives to traveling with several chargers for our multiple devices. Now, there are all-in-one solar chargers that can charge mobile phones, PDAs, MP3 players, cameras and even camcorders and laptops.

As Lorenzo Falzarano, director of environmental strategy for Better Energy Systems, explained to faircompanies, solar chargers are not just a way to reduce your carbon footprint, but a growing necessity as consumers begin to demand portable power. “The world has gone mobile, but power hasn’t gone mobile… what we’ve done is fill the gap with a renewable source of portable energy.”

The all-in-one solar charger

The market for handheld solar chargers has become increasingly crowded with cheap, easy-to-use devices ready for the mainstream consumer. Options range from sleeker pocket-sized devices like the Freeloader, Solio or SC003 with built-in batteries for storing charge for later use to the faster charging Soldius1 without a battery, but capable of charging a mobile phone with just 2-3 hours of sun.

Top picks for all-in-one solar chargers

Devotec Solar Charger (One of the smallest, most lightweight, chargers. Charges with 12 hours of sun or 4 hours via AC/USB. Comes with tips to fit most handsets):

  • Manufacturer: Devotec Industries.
  • Weight: 2.8 ounces (80 grams).
  • Price: £19.99 ($40).

Freeloader: affordable charger that comes in pink. Can charge li-ion battery via laptop or desktop power (via USB) or with the sun (via crystalline solar cells). Can charge a mobile phone for 44 hours. Holds charge up to 3 months. Comes with 11 adaptors for phone, camera, PDA, GPS, gaming handheld or DAP.

  • Manufacturer: Solar Technology.
  • Maximum output: .66 watts (can be upped to 1.5 watts with addition of the Supercharger).
  • Weight: 6.5 ounces (184 grams).
  • Price: £29.99 ($59) for Freeloader; £50 ($99) for Globe Trotter (both Freeloader and Supercharger).

G10: Uses flexible dye sensitized thin film (DST) solar cells which keeps costs and weight to a minimum. Capable of charging under low light conditions and even indoors. Can charge a phone battery in 2-3 hours. One hour of charge = 30 minutes talk.

  • Manufacturer: G24 Innovations.
  • Maximum output: .5 watts & 1 watt versions.
  • Price: TBA.
  • faircompanies video.

SC003: Lightweight charger in the size and shape of a mobile phone. Charges by the sun in 6-8 hours. By the car/AC in 4-5 hours.

  • Manufacturer: Solar Style.
  • Weight: 2.5 ounces (71 grams).
  • Price: $29.99.

Solar i9005: works with anything using a voltage between 4.5V and 9V. Switch on side allows user to vary voltage between devices. Charging time from sun: 10-12 hours. From DC: 4-5 hours.

  • Manufacturer: IceTech.
  • Maximum output: 4 watts.
  • Weight: 8.5 ounces (240 grams).
  • Price: $70.

Soldius1: Can charge a phone in just 2 to 3 hours by using Maximum Solar Power Tracking (MSPT). Pocket-sized. No battery for storing a charge.

  • Manufacturer: Soldius.
  • Maximum output: 1.1 watts.
  • Weight: 4 ounces (115 grams).
  • Price: $89.99.

Solio: one of the best-looking chargers. Rechargeable from the wall or sun. Stores power for up to one year. One hour of sunshine = 15 minutes talk time. Classic Hybrid charger is capable of charging the average phone up to two times; Hybrid 1000 can charge a phone once on per charge. Adaptor tips available to connect Solio to range of devices. Designed to be dismantled and recycled at end of use.

  • Manufacturer: Better Energy Systems.
  • Maximum output: 6 watts.
  • Weight: 5.6 ounces (156 grams).
  • Price: $99.95 for Classic Hybrid charger; $79.95 for the Hybrid 1000.
  • faircompanies video on the Solio.

Universal Solar Charger: charges with sunlight or AC power. Can charge most mobile phones and USB interfacing digital products.

  • Manufacturer: Brando.
  • Maximum power: 1.54 Watts.
  • Weight: 8.5 ounces (240 grams).
  • Price: $69.00.

Solar powered laptop chargers

It’s now possible to charge your laptop with solar power, but given the cost of the chargers and the fact that our computers energy needs are rising- due to larger monitors and more functions, like DVD players-, this is something for early adopters. Here are a few options with the power to charge a computer battery:

The Generator: The first solar bag capable of charging a laptop with one day of direct sunlight. Can also charge mobile phones and most other handheld devices.

  • Manufacturer: Voltaic Systems.
  • Maximum output: 14 watts.
  • Cost: $499.

Solaris 26: A foldable CIGS (Copper Indium Gallium diSelenide) panel capable of charging a laptop directly. It is recommended to charge a battery and then plug the laptop into that battery.

  • Manufacturer: Brunton.
  • Maximum output: 26 watts.
  • Price: $620.20.

NRG dock Home charger: A solar panel that charges in one hour for several hours of laptop time.

  • Manufacturer: NRG Dock.
  • Maximum output: 15 watts.
  • Price: $800.

myPower All: An all-in-one charger powerful enough to charge a laptop with an additional 12- or 15-watt foldable panel.

  • Manufacturer: Tekkeon.
  • Price: $160; $350 with 12-watt panel & cable; about $550 with 15-watt panel and cable.

A handheld wind turbine

Hymini: this micro wind power generator collects energy from the wind while attached to a car, bicycle or jogger. Using a micro turbine generator, this charger operates at wind speeds between 9 and 40mph. Twenty minutes in 19mph winds = 4 minutes of talk time (mobile phone) and 40 minutes of music time. Can charge mobile phones, MP3 player, PDA, digital camera. The MiniSOLAR accessory allows for solar charging at a maximum output of .7 watts.

  • Manufacturer: miniWIZ.
  • Capacity: 65 mA.
  • Price: £25 ($50). MiniSOLAR not included.