Friday, January 13, 2012

Solar Progress at CES 2012 Las Vegas

Been looking at the US Consumer Electronics Show currently taking place in Las Vegas from the viewpoint of the traveller working in areas with poor mains power.  Frankly, I am not so much interested in the OLED displays, even though they look spectacular. We don't know the price of these beasts and  (TV’s are getting thinner to a point where they are too thin to connect quality cables!). But I am really fascinated about at how solar power chargers have matured. 

This Week in Tech carried and excellent interview with Joe Atkin from They are making very efficient 7 watt/hr solar panels about the size of an iPad which cost 99 dollars and will charge 4 AA batteries in 3-4 hours. That’s significantly better than the chargers I have played with recently at IBC in Amsterdam.  The company is now 50 people and was originally set up to build relevant technology for a solar lighting start up in Kinshasa.

These solar kits are interesting for the individual traveller. But I was also impressed by larger chargers that GoalZero are making, especially as they could be used by reporters working at radio/TV stations affected by natural disasters. Frankly, many of the solar battery chargers I picked up on a duty trip to Tanzania turned out to be pretty useless. They were too small and took the best part of the day in the blazing sun in Dar Es Salaam to charge some penlights - and then I wasn't confident that they'd done the job. However, I'm a bit more confident with the new Sherpa 50 portable re-charger, which weighs in at 408 grams and will easily fit into a back-pack. Whereas the 7 watt units mentioned above will recharge a phone, they are not large enough to power a laptop. That's where the 50 watt charger comes in handy. 

The Sherpa features a “Power Port” so you can charge laptops directly from the re-charger, rather than using a rather inefficient AC inverter which outputs at 110/220 V and then using the original laptop charger. The Sherpa includes various connector cables that fit laptops and in addition to the “Power Port,” the Sherpa 50 offers DC and AC (with inverter) outputs if you do need mains electricity. They have upgraded USB power ports so they now produce 1A of power – enough to provide two extra hours of entertainment on an iPad or tablet device. 

The manufacturer says the Sherpa 50 charges fully via a solar panel in 5-10 hours (depending on the location) or within 2-3 hours via a AC wall outlet and can, in turn, power a smart phone for 10 hours; deliver 25 hours of usage on an iPod; and gives users a valuable, extra hour of life on a dying laptop when a traditional wall outlet is nowhere in sight. I'm thinking of using such a unit in East Africa, so I'm not worried about the lack of sun even if a monsoon hits. It is going to cost US$250 (without the solar panels) and will available as from June 2012.

The final product in the range is considerably more expensive, but then it's designed to power a small production office for long enough to bridge most power cuts. At 47 kg it's not something you want to lug around in a suitcase. But it's a useful replacement for a small diesel generator and it's better because it is silent and it doesn't produce any more power than is needed (diesel generators waste power if they are not fully loaded). It's going to take around 22 hrs of sunlight to fully charge this beast, or just under a day if there is mains electricity. The Yeti is coming out in May 2012, either as a single unit for US$1500 dollars or with a set of solar panels and a carrying cart for US$ 2000.

I helped review and enhance an excellent publication on energy sources for radio stations which came out last year. Written by Michael Bycroft, it is still available (the PDF version is free) in English and French from the CAMECO website, although I think it's rather tucked away unless you know what you're looking for. Tells you all you need to know about alternative energy sources that are relevant for African radio stations (and small businesses).

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