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Six Renewable Energy Gift Ideas for the Holidays

It's that time of year, time to wrestle with the wallet, brave the shopping malls, or surf online for deals. If you're in a renewable energy state of mind this season, we've got you covered -- here are a handful of gift ideas for you and those special someones on your list.

And by all means, share your other renewables gift-giving ideas in the comments below -- or ask Santa for your own treat! (We can't promise anything, though...we're not WestJet.)


Solar Power Device Chargers

Those who live in the interconnected digital world have one thing in common: we need to power our devices, often multiple ones, at any given time or location. The problem: try finding a power outlet at any given point in time, from the airport to a vehicle to the great outdoors. This has given birth to a new industry: solar-powered device chargers, from covers and cases to standalone flexible mini modules and power packs. There are innumerable options out there. Suntactics sells portable solar chargers that will juice up a variety of USB devices, claiming they're more efficient, lightweight, durable, and water resistant. Plus you can get a 10-percent discount if you order now (use coupon code"XMAS10"). Other solar chargers are available from Goal Zero (e-mail them for a shot at daily giveaways), PowerTraveller, Instapark, Bushnell, and Solio.

Credit: Suntactics

Some chargers come directly built into the device case itself. SolarFocus offers a range of solar power device-charging options, from Kindle covers to standalone minipanels to a larger pack of panels that fold up like a briefcase. Boost Solar's solar-powered battery pack charges most smartphones and tablets. KudoCase sells a solar-charging iPad case using organic PV ink material for around $90, but it's currently out of stock. Hammacher Schlemmer sells what appears to be that same product for $200, also currently unavailable.

For something a little more robust, EnerFusion's Solar Power Dok is essentially a picnic table with a solar-panel canopy, made from recycled materials. They've sold a number of them to college campuses; here's one of their newer installations in Boise State's vibrant blue-orange colors. Similarly, there's CarrierClass's ConnecTable solar charging station, for everything from campuses to resorts and parks.

(P.S.: While you're browsing Hammacher Schlemmer, be sure to check out their other top-shelf things that you never knew you wanted: an indoor marshmallow roaster, a speaker made from a Formula 1 racing car exhaust manifold, one of the last remaining World War II patrol torpedo boats, or a hungry clam sauna.)


Biomass Camp Stove

Many of us here are are active outdoors enthusiasts, so when we first heard about the BioLite CampStove this summer it really captured our attention. You drop in some biomass (twigs, pine cones, wood pellets) to get a fire going; in addition to generating heat for warmth or cooking (the model we received includes a grill-top option), it generates electricity via a thermoelectric generator, which powers a fan that creates airflow to improve combustion. That electricity also goes to a USB port on the side of the stove from which you can charge your device; the company claims a 20-minute CampStove charge of an iPhone 4S generates roughly 60 minutes of talk time. The company's selling a discounted holiday bundle kit with several extras, including the new KettlePot (which of course we now desperately want). BioLite's also giving back to its community this holiday season, powering the Christmas tree and phone charging stations in its Brooklyn neighborhood, the DUMBO district. We're planning on using our BioLite unit for a camping trip next summer to a nearby rural wind farm.

There are other types of biomass camp stoves out there, too: The Power Pot, Solo Stove and Kelly Kettles, to name three. There are also foldable versions, including Firebox (free shipping in the U.S. for the holidays), EmberLit, Vargo, and the Honey Stove. For bigger options, SilverFire has a range of biomass stoves in various designs, all running on biomass; its chimney-based model is a better option for indoors or inclement weather, the company says.

For those with bigger needs, BioLite also has a HomeStove that can be used for cooking as well as charging mobile phones and LED lighting. Similarly, World Stove has several options for biomass stoves, from the Beaner to its larger cousin the LuciaBBQ Grill -- and for every four of the latter that's sold, the company donates one to a developing nation.

Credit: Biolite


A hybrid solar pickup truck

Utah-based Via Motors has made its name by converting General Motors trucks and vans to hybrid and fully electric vehicles. This fall they unveiled new full-size extended-range electric models coming in mid-2014, including the VIA VTrux four-wheel-drive half-ton pickup based on the Chevy Silverado crew cab, and a 3/4-ton cargo van. An after-market version of that Silverado-based truck, the SolTrux, swaps out the protective top cover that sits atop the pickup bed (called a "tonneau") with one that integrates solar panels. They can help charge the truck's main batteries, adding up to 25 percent electric range (5-10 miles) on long sunny days, or charge work tools on a job site.

The solar tonneau reportedly has passed durability tests from rubber-mallet-smashing to being driven on, and are repairable. The Silverado-based Vtrux is tentatively priced at $79,000, with the SolTrux tonneau coming in two configurations: a 600-W version might be priced around $2,000 and an 800-W version closer to $3,000, paying off in a couple of years with fuel and energy savings.

Credit: Via Motors


Super-Mini Hydro Power

If you're lucky enough to live next to a decent water resource, maybe you're a candidate for micro hydro power. PowerSpout says one of its devices, placed at an appropriate site, could generate enough electricity for a typical house for a year. Energy Systems Design sells a similar product.

But how about something on a far smaller scale? Enter the Hydrobee, a soda can-sized gadget designed to be tossed into a stream, dragged behind a boat, or even hooked to a running faucet, utilizing as little as 1 gallon per minute of water flow to recharge its built-in "AA" NiMH batteries (2-3 hours for a full charge), with a USB port to connect it to your devices and charge them up.

The Seattle company emerged from a startup incubator program this fall and launched a Kickstarter campaign, aiming to complete prototyping and start shipping product next spring. That campaign came up short last week not quite halfway to its $48,000 goals, but having received a lot of support and high-profile buzz they say they're moving ahead anyway, upgrading the product design and doing more field-testing. New features include a folding stream body, a folding propeller, and lightweight wire frame.

Credit: Kickstarter for Hydrobee


Take a CSP Power Plant Tour -- in a Lamborghini

In my youth I spent many sleepless nights unlocking the secrets of Gran Turismo, the groundbreaking driving simulation game on a PlayStation. The newest version, Gran Turismo 6 for the Playstation 3, was released earlier this month offering hundreds of cars from 50's era sports cars to the most modern impossible-to-find niche road rockets. (I had to look up what a KTM X-Bow is, I'm not even a big car enthusiast but now I want one.) As is the norm these days for any video game, the graphics are stunning. GPS was used to accurately recreate 100 different layouts and driving tracks. Even the star positions when driving at night are legit.

But for all the fun of a deep immersive video game, there's another reason to check out GT6 on your PS3: the Gemasolar concentrated solar power (CSP) plant is featured as one of the in-game locations. Sadly the game won't let you slalom around the heliostats or central tower, but you can select it as the futuristic backdrop scenery for taking a picture of your vehicle and sharing it with others. (Here's a video showing some of the other in-game backdrops.)

This isn't Gemasolar's first time in front of the camera: back in September the photogenic location also was featured as a backdrop, this time in a TV commercial for a new Mercedes-Benz van. (Here's the behind-the-scenes story of that.)

Credit: Torresol Energy


Share Solar Energy With Fellow Humans

The Waka Waka solar-powered charger and light has garnered considerable buzz; we've seen one in person, it's a nifty rugged device providing up to 80 hours of LED light. But the company's real goal is far more charitable aim: ending energy poverty. Buy one now and one is donated to needy residents in the Philippines recovering from Typhoon Haiyan, courtesy of the International Rescue Committee. A similar buy one/give one program is now underway to help Syrian refugees, with help from the IRC and Stichting Vluchteling (Dutch Refugee Organization).

Also in a giving mood is SunFarmer is a nonprofit social enterprise that provides solar energy for health clinics, schools and other institutions that lack reliable electricity in developing nations. So far they've raised almost $9 million total, 18 percent toward a goal of $50 million. For this holiday season, the SunEdison Rural Energy Fund will match donations to SunFarmer up to $50,000. But it takes far less than that to make a huge difference, the group points out: a $25 donation matched becomes $50, which is enough to power a vaccine fridge for two years.

Got a special solar-someone in your life? Solar Energy International (SEI) is offering a holiday scholarship program through January 1: for every purchase of its new "Solar Electric Handbook" the group will donate $20 to its scholarship program for veterans, women, Native Americans, and students from the developing world.

If there's a solar investor on your shopping list, why not give them what they really want -- more money? Mosaic, one of the early renewables crowdfunding success stories, is offering a $25 account bonus for new investors; that's also the minimum threshold to invest in one of their projects, so basically you're investing with their money. The company has amassed investments for projects totaling $5.6 million in value, pitched 25 offerings in over 19 projects, with 2,500 investors spanning nearly every U.S. state, and annual yields over the term of investments from 4.5 percent up to 7.0 percent.

Credit: Waka Waka

Lead image: Open hands with Christmas tree, via Shutterstock

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