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Portable solar chargers are fun, but we're also interested in how the niche market for mobile energy is growing as a form of micro distributed generation.

CleanTechnica

How A Portable Solar Charger Saved My Life

Portable solar chargers are fun, but we’re also interested in how the niche market for mobile energy is growing as a form of micro distributed generation.

In case you’re wondering why we’ve been reviewing some portable solar chargers, lately, it’s not just for fun. Okay so it’s fun, but we’re also interested in how the niche market for mobile energy is growing. Since we don’t have prime sun at hand, we’re also interested in how useful portable solar chargers can be when your solar access is less than ideal.

Also, one of our favorite themes was front and center at yesterday’s UN Climate Summit in New York, that being the race between clean energy and fossil fuels for Africa and other emerging energy markets. “Helping more nations skip past the dirty phase of development,” is the way President Obama put it. A similar scenario is being played out in the niche market for mobile energy.

portable solar charger

Portable solar charger (photo by Tina Casey).

The Revive Portable Solar Charger

The folks over at Accessory Genie sent us over a sample of the ReVIVE Solar ReStore series RA 4 portable solar charger to test and it arrived right before the People’s Climate March, so we brought it along to check out almost cold turkey (the manufacturer is Accessory Power btw).

Unlike the last couple of portable solar chargers we’ve tested, the RA 4 has no battery. It’s intended for on-the-go use and according to the package, it will start charging your USB device (phone or tablet) in about 30 seconds after you put it in the sun. Okay, so you can’t use it at night but we discovered something to work around that, which we’ll get to in a minute.

Before heading out for the march, we checked out the claimed charging time in less than ideal conditions, indoors on a bay window with no direct sunlight on a cloudy morning. We didn’t get the green light within 30 seconds (surprise!) but it still took under a minute. That made us feel pretty confident about stuffing it in the backpack along with the laptop and everything else for a day on our feet.

As for solar conditions at the Climate March, that was no walk in the sun either. We ended up spending about three hours talking to marchers mustering at Central Park West between West 67th Street and 71st street, mostly on the park side of the street where the trees were plentiful and the sun was not so much.

Our fully charged iPhone went down to 50% after just 45 minutes of taking photos and videos, so given the shade our first recourse was to hook it up to a small portable solar charger with a built-in battery. That got the iPhone up to 75% in short order, but since we hadn’t bothered to fully charge the solar battery beforehand (we brought it along as a second thought), that was it.

So, it was time to bring out the big gun. Like our small charger, the RA 4 comes with a handle for hanging up. You could clip it onto your backpack if you’re tall enough, but I used a makeshift sling to hang it off my shoulder (okay so I’m short).

Here’s where it gets interesting. I still had my phone hooked into the little device, which provided an opportunity to see if the RA 4 could charge my phone and at least maintain the small charge left in the solar battery, so instead of hooking my phone into the RA 4 I hooked the RA 4 into the little charger.

Yep, it worked. Hanging from my shoulder and getting a bit of direct sun (though not at an ideal angle), but mostly shaded by trees, buildings, and people, the RA 4 still delivered enough charge to rev up the battery in the small charger. My iPhone quickly got back up to 100% and stayed there for the next couple of hours while I took as many photos and videos as I wanted.

 

Given the conditions, it wasn’t surprising that the RA 4 didn’t have enough juice to restore the charge in the battery, but it did save my life at the Climate March. Okay so it saved my phone, but same deal.

I did check it out later in still less than ideal but fairly good solar conditions, outdoors in my driveway. I forget how long it took (probably less than a couple of hours), but under better conditions and without the added burden of the iPhone, the RA 4 did get the battery solar charger back to two bars from one.

One Portable Solar Charger, Good. Two, Better.

As we mentioned in our review, there are many different variations on the solar theme, and each portable solar charger has its own capabilities, advantages, and disadvantages.

We’ve checked out a couple of small portable solar chargers and they are really handy for a one-shot recharge (could have kicked ourselves for not bringing one to the UN Climate Summit!), but their small field makes them inconvenient for recharging on the go, which is where the much larger RA 4 comes in.

As for the mobile charger market, what you’re basically talking about is microscale distributed energy generation, which is going to be a huge target for change as the solar industry competes with fossil fuels for emerging markets in Africa and elsewhere.

Next up: a review of a portable fuel cell charger.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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