Don’t rely on tiny portable solar panels this summer
With the sun out and everyone enjoying the outdoors, you might be thinking that a portable solar panel can keep your various electronics charged on your next outing. Just lean it against the beach cooler and everyone’s phone can take selfies all day, right? While using sustainable energy? It’s downright healthy as heck.
The sad reality is that bringing in portable solar panels rarely happens this way. It’s more like spending a few hours watching the angles of signs to get the most sunlight, constantly checking the forecast to make sure there’s no cloud cover in the way, all in order to get half a charge on a single phone call. Meanwhile, everyone is making the most of their summer. Avoid solar power – there is a better solution.
Portable means packable
Quite often in the marketing literature for “portable” solar panels, you’ll see happy families hanging outside an RV with five flared solar panel cases on the front step. Sure, they’re portable in that you can pick them up and move them around, but few people are going to dedicate so much room in their trunk for anything less than a weeks-long excursion away from civilization. To me, portable means you can put it in your backpack. Solar panels in this size category typically cost $100 or less and generate less than 50W.
Say you have one of those 50W foldable panels strapped to your backpack on your next hike. At 5V, that’s equivalent to being able to charge 10,000mAh in an hour, which is about enough to charge a phone to 100% twice. On paper, it looks great, but it assumes perfect efficiency. Solar panels are rated 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’s no way to tone it all down on the go. Larger solar panels face the same issues, but outweigh them in panel volume. The only real saving grace in the field is that your battery won’t completely die while you’re charging it, and you won’t need to fully charge it to continue using it.
Where does solar power work well?
Having a panel and a battery you can carry around is handy and all, but it shouldn’t be treated as an emergency measure when you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere. The fact that you can get a portable one that generates power is a novelty for sure, but a bit more than that. Solar energy works best on a large scale. That means large angled panels for optimized coverage, all day long. Add them to your home, caravan or cabin. Once you start dropping below this size, the usefulness of a solar panel decreases. Many accessory manufacturers will integrate solar panels directly onto their products, which makes sense for low-stakes, low-demand, off-grid use cases like garden lights. This sub-1W panel built into your battery will take eons to charge, not to mention the damage you do by letting your battery bake in the sun.
What should I bring on my camping trip instead?
Battery! If you need to be away from an outlet for two or three days, a portable power bank should charge your phone well. Our list of the best portable chargers includes a model that costs just $21 and offers 20,000mAh of charge – that’s enough to fill an 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 ultimately save weight and bulk in your bag. If you’re super hardcore and will be off the grid for longer than that, one of these little portable solar panels is, at best, an on-the-go emergency precaution.
Why do you hate solar energy so much, Simon?
I do not know! Solar is the way to go for power grids, and the fact that the panels are cheap enough that we can install them just about anywhere is great. By all means, take these portable solar panels to charge your gadgets on your next camping trip, but don’t put yourself in a situation where you need they work to get by. Instead, invest in a bigger battery that you can charge at home ahead of time, and maybe bring a panel or two just for fun. Better yet, leave the panels behind completely so you can spend less time worrying about the best angles and more time catching some rays yourself.