Consumer Markets Will Lead the Way to a Solar-Powered Future

Before the dawn of the PC era, electronics companies were dependent on do-it-yourself enthusiasts and high-end consumers looking for kicks.


That’s the way markets work. The bottom of the “s” curve is littered with false starts, with ideas that look crazy in retrospect, but which turn-on a few and lead to better things.

Today, that means solar chargers. Prices keep coming down, and capabilities keep going up.  The best news is that while solar chargers today only support low levels of power, increasing numbers of electronic components only need small amounts of power. So the utility of such devices is increasing exponentially.

Most American consumers just plug in when our iPhones need a charge. Most solar charger buyers right now are people who are vacationing off the grid but who want to bring their gadgets with them.

Given these limits, the preferred output is USB. Smart phones often support USB for charging. They’re trickle-chargers, as this press release from one such maker, SunTactics, makes clear. Many older units include an internal battery that charges from the solar panel. For 2010 two watts was the norm for output. Newer units are now being introduced at 5 watts.

Beyond campers who want to keep their iPhones and GPS devices charged when out in the woods, there is also a market in the developing world, where the grid does not exist. Things like the Solar Ear – a specialized device for recharging hearing aids – are starting to gain traction.

What comes next? As was true 40 years ago, military necessity is leading the way. The U.S. Army is evaluating things like the PowerShade, a collection of thin-film cells sewn into a command tent. The most powerful of these solutions, dubbed the TEMPER-Fly, is rated at 750 watts of output. The company which makes it, the Tactical Solar unit of Energy Technologies Inc., Mansfield, Ohio, is a great place to bookmark for future developments. Their most powerful unit weighs 450 pounds and currently tops out at 2 kilowatts.

There will be more, which will weigh less, cost less, and deliver more power, by this time next year.

Of course, 2 kilowatts is not a ton of power. It’s a laptop, a low-powered radio, maybe a few of them at the high end. But remember, this is 1970 in renewable energy time, and since we have the Internet all around us, things could move even faster this time than they did then.

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Dana Blankenhorn has covered business and technology since 1978. He covered the Houston oil boom of the 1970s, began making his living online in 1985, and launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of e-commerce, in 1994. He has written for a host of off-line and online publications including The Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age, and ZDNet. He has covered PCs, networks, telecommunications, cable technology, Internet commerce, the Internet of Things, Open Source and Health IT, He began covering alternative energy at his personal blog, Danablankenhorn.com, in 2007.

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