How Small Scale Solar Can Power the World
When we talk about the future of solar energy we are usually thinking on a large scale. For the most part, this makes perfect sense. We need very large projects to address big and complex energy demands. And this is exactly what communities around the world are doing.
These projects entail of utility scale projects built on large unshaded spaces. Utility scale solar refers to solar energy projects that generate more than 50 Mwh, or enough to power 50,000 homes. In 2016 utility scale solar accounted for 63% of our total solar energy generation, according to data from the EIA. This is up from 60% in 2015, and 57% in 2014.
Everyday new and innovative solutions are put forward addressing societies large-scale energy needs. Ambitions projects are being planned across the Middle East and Asia. In China, for example, they are now building solar projects over large bodies of water. These examples only add to the list of active solar projects in North America, Europe, and around the world.
But, how many initiatives help address our mobile energy needs? There appears to be a lack of emphasis on small-scale solar energy. Our energy needs on a small scale are often neglected. When I mention small scale, I don’t mean residential or commercial solar projects. Shout out to residential installers like Tesla - for the progressive work they are doing in these markets. I’m talking an even smaller scale. At this scale, we are looking at the mobile energy needs of people.
How do we power our smartphones, tablets, and wearable electronics, day in and day out? The energy required to power these devices is no laughing matter. There are now billions of electronic devices around the world - that we carry around in our pockets and bags. As our lifestyles and societies become increasingly connected to the digital world - powering these devices will only become an issue of greater importance. What solutions are being put forward to address our much smaller energy needs? Let's take a look at the numbers to see the size of the market and corresponding energy demand. Click around in the graph below to explore the data on yearly mobile device shipments.
Yearly Mobile Device Shipments
In 2016 over 1.75 billion mobile devices were shipped around the world. This is up 28% from 2013. For the last 4 years we have seen gradual growth in the number of mobile devices available on the global market. Although the data shows that growth is beginning to slow down. The lion's share of these figures is comprised of smartphone shipments. Last year, nearly 1.5 billion smartphone were shipped. This is only compounded by the growth in tablet and wearable electronics.
Mobile device use is ubiquitous in 2017. Can you name anybody that does not have a smartphone, tablet, or some sort of wearable device? Each year more and more devices are being introduced that are vital to our productivity and lifestyles.
But while devices are becoming more popular than ever, we are beginning to exceed the limits of electronic batteries.
Most devices claim to have a battery life some where in the ballpark of 10 to 12 hours of continued use. One of the most popular mobile devices, the iPhone runs on 7-watt hours daily. There are millions of other smartphones and mobile devices, but lets use the iPhone for reference. Assuming everyone completely depletes their phone battery life daily, which is a very realistic scenario for most people. Collectively we are using roughly 12 gigawatts hours every day to power our mobile devices! (7 Wh x 1.75 Billion Devices). These figures are absent of the energy required to power the mobile electronic infrastructure. The millions of servers and data centers our Internet infrastructure runs on.
The average person reading this may not realize how much 12 gigawatts hours of energy is. So to provide some perspective lets compare these figures to comparable energy sources/production facilities.
The Hover Dam produces on average about 12 gigawatts hours of electricity every single day to power over 8 million homes in Arizona, Nevada, and Southern California. The Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant in Niagara Falls produces 2.4 gigawatts hours of electricity daily, enough power to light up 1.92 million homes.
All that is to say this, we consumer a lot of energy to power our mobile devices. When you extrapolate these figures over the course of months or years - these figure become needle moving.
Can mobile solar solutions change our world?
The push towards a sustainable energy infrastructure is moving along, despite views held by the current administration in America. Significant progress is being made to address our complex energy needs. In many ways by solving the energy needs of our cities and communities we indirectly address the energy needs of our mobile lifestyles. But can we tackle this problem from different much smaller fronts as well?
As mentioned earlier, one of the biggest pain points people will have about mobile devices is the lack of battery life they come with. Solar charging technology may offer convenient solutions that help address this problem. By tapping into the power of the sun, we can have energy anywhere the sun shines. This could certainly help improve the battery life of our mobile products and collectively make a huge dent in our daily energy consumption.
There are already dozens of companies offering solar that address is very issue. So what is stopping us from all buying solar chargers? You ask most people, and they will question these solar products reliability. Most solar charging products on the market operate with about 20% efficiency. Or in other terms, they can convert up to 20% of the sunlight that hits the solar panel into usable energy. At this level of efficiency, one cloudy or rainy day, and you will struggle to charge your phone. This is one of the main deterrents that have prevented solar chargers from gaining main stream adoption. We are still ways away from being able to rely 100% on solar chargers to power our devices.
While there is room to improve the efficiency of these products, there are a few products currently on the market that do a decent job of addressing our battery problems. We conducted some research on several solar chargers currently available. We measured each solar charger by size, cost, and power output. Click around below and see how the products stack up against each other.
Solar Chargers by Size, Cost, & power Output
A couple of stand out solar chargers in this list include; the Little Sun solar charger, Solar Paper by Yolk, and the Anker PowerPort Solar. We outlined how these 3 brands stand out in the market place.
Best Design: Little Sun Solar Charger
Little Sun Charge is a high-performance solar charger with a heart. Featuring a powerful 4400 mAh battery and inbuilt lamp that’s bright enough to light a whole kitchen. Little Sun Charge is a useful item for camping , festivals, or for hardworking professionals on the road.
When you buy Little Sun products, you make solar energy available to communities without electricity at a locally affordable price. For every Little Sun sold, one goes to distribution networks in rural Africa, where solar energy is brought to those who need it most.
Most Portable: solar paper by yolk
Solar Paper is the world’s smallest solar charger for the amount of potential wattage it can generate. Solar Paper claims it can charge your smartphone in about 2.5 hours on a sunny day. That’s about the same as a wall charger. But what makes the Solar Paper stand out is it's small size. Solar Paper measures just 9 x 19 x 1.1 cm when folded.
Highest Power output: Anker PowerPort Solar
The Anker PowerPort Solar is a sheer monster when it comes to wattage output. This charger has the capacity to put out 15 watts of power everyday! That enough to keep phones, tablets, and even laptops powered in the sun.