Don’t rely on tiny portable solar panels this summer


When the sun is out and everyone loves to get outdoors, you might think that a portable solar panel can keep your electronics charged during your next outing. Just put it next to a cooler at the beach and all phones can take selfies all day, right? All while using sustainable energy? It is very useful.

The sad reality is that it’s rare to bring portable solar panels with you. It ends up being more like spending hours tending to the corners of the panel to get as much sunlight as possible, constantly checking the forecast to make sure there’s no cloud cover in the way, all to get half a charge in one times the phone. Meanwhile, everyone else is making the most of summer. Give up on solar power – there’s a better way.

Portable means packable

It’s common enough in the marketing literature for “portable” solar panels to see happy families hanging around a van with five solar panels lined up on the front step. Sure, they’re portable since you can pick them up and carry them around, but few people are going to dedicate that much space in their trunk to anything less than a multi-week excursion away from civilization. To me, portable means you can fit it in your backpack. Solar panels in this size category typically cost $100 or less and generate less than 50 watts.

Counting the numbers

Let’s say you have one of those 50W folding panels strapped to your backpack on your next hike. At 5V, this gives you the ability to charge 10,000mAh in an hour, which is about enough to charge your phone to 100% twice. It looks great on paper, but assumes perfect efficiency. Solar panels are evaluated under relatively static laboratory conditions that do not account for many variables such as angle to the sun, cloud cover, dust on the panel, and heat. There is no way to mitigate all of this while driving. Larger solar panels face the same problems, but make up for them with the bulk of the panels. The only real savings in this area is that your battery won’t fully discharge while you’re charging it, and you won’t need to fully charge it to still use it.

Where does solar work well?

Having a panel and battery that you can carry with you is convenient and all, but it’s not much more than an emergency measure if you’re in the middle of nowhere. The fact that you can buy a portable that generates energy is probably a novelty, but nothing more. Solar energy works best on a large scale. This means the large panels are angled for optimized coverage throughout the day. Add them to your home, trailer or cottage. Once you start going below that size, the usefulness of the solar panel drops. Many accessory manufacturers will integrate solar panels directly into their products, which makes sense for low-rate, low-demand, off-grid use cases, such as garden lights. A less than 1W panel built into your battery will take forever to charge it, not to mention the damage you do by leaving the battery to bake in the sun.

What should I bring on the hike instead?

Batteries! If you’re going to be unplugged for two or three days, a portable power bank should charge your phone just fine. Our list best portable chargers includes a model that costs just $21 and offers 20,000mAh of charge — enough to charge the iPhone 13 from 0% to 100% more than six times. You won’t have to worry about good weather to get a charge, and you’ll end up saving weight and clutter in your bag. If you’re really hardcore and will be going off the grid for longer periods of time, one of these smaller portable solar panels is at best an emergency precaution to take with you.

Why do you hate solar so much Simon?

I’m not! Solar power is the way forward for electric grids, and the fact that panels are cheap enough that we can use them almost anywhere is great. By all means, take these portable solar panels to charge your gadgets on your next hike, just don’t put yourself in a situation where you need they work to live. Instead invest in a bigger battery you can pre-charge at home and maybe bring a panel or two just for fun. Better yet, leave the panels behind so you can spend less time getting the best angles and more time catching the rays yourself.

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Don’t rely on tiny portable solar panels this summer

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