It’s Not Easy Being Green: the Solar iPhone Experiment

solio-classic-in-windowEarlier this month I took up another one of my wacky challenges. I took one for the team and decided to try and keep my iPhone off the grid. I wanted to see if I could run it strictly off solar power for 30 days and not use the AC adapter. Sure, it’s a very small token movement to use renewable energy and it’s not going to save me any money. I have no misconceptions there, especially after spending $99 on a solar charger with an integrated battery.

Since I was in the Valley of the Sun this past weekend, now is a good time for an update on the experience. Oh boy, has it been an experience.

So I’ve learned quite a bit in the past few weeks. Actually, some of this I already knew, but the experiment strongly reinforced a bunch:

  • Never start a solar experiment in the Northern Hemisphere at the start of the winter season.
  • Small solar panels = small amount of charge.
  • Small solar panels without a sunny day = no amount of charge.
  • The term “direct sunlight” actually means direct sunlight.
  • Three consecutive cloudy days is a killer. Four and you might as well run around outside screaming “the end is near!”
  • The Earth apparently rotates. As in around the Sun. (You can look it up, if you don’t believe me.)

OK, so I’m being a little facetious here, but that’s because the experiment has been an exercise in futility for the most part. Actually, the challenge hasn’t failed because the of the Sun; it’s a viable energy source that provides around 1.3 kilowatts per square meter. Yup, I learned that too along my sometimes illuminating journey. No, the challenge has essentially failed because of the approach that I took.

Let me start my explanation with a comment about the Solio Classic hybrid charger that I purchased. Unless you live in an equatorial area of the planet, this device isn’t meant to perform the hefty duties I asked of it. The Solio does work by capturing and storing solar energy in its 1650 mAh battery. But it can also store energy it pulls via the AC adapter, which gives it the hybrid name. Solio says it “provides an emergency power source when away from power outlets” so it’s better suited for just such a purpose and not the one I tried to use it for. Put another way: the product didn’t fail per se; I set it up to fail.

Before bed each night, I set up the Solio in my office window by using the included suction cup. I figured that it would be grabbing power from sunrise until lunch, since the Sun is positioned there during those hours. Not exactly. I noticed that the Solio’s red charging light wouldn’t come on for the first hour after dawn. There just didn’t seem to be enough light or light with enough intensity during that hour.

I also realized that having the Solio on the window wasn’t optimal after mid-morning. No problem because the Solio has a hole right in the middle of it: simply stick a pencil in there to prop it up and direct it at the Sun. That certainly worked well enough, but I found the charging light to be on for 20 to 30 minutes at a time. Apparently, Jean Bernard Léon Foucault was correct in that the Earth rotates around the Sun, a fact that was omitted in the Solio manual. OK, I’m joking about the manual bit, but I’m not joking about how often I had to reposition the Solio to ensure it was charging. By lunchtime, it was back to the suction cup on a window, only this time, the window was on the western side of my house. As a sidenote to cat-owners: be sure you wet that suction cup really good. The Solio can fall in a delayed action later in the day, thereby causing your cats to use up one of their nine lives.

Long story short: the device works but you may need to work harder to make sure it works. Follow?

Now about this thing we call “winter”. It greatly reduces the sunlight a solar system can use. I think it’s just a cruel trick of nature but some scientist types believe it has to do with the Earth’s axis. Regardless of the reason, it’s not conducive to efficient solar power of the photo-voltaic kind. The Solio needs a good 8 to 10 hours of solid sunlight for a full charge and winter likely doubles that, depending on your latitude and independent of your attitude. I know this because I kept offering positive reinforcement to the Solio. It didn’t help the Solio or me.

All this talk of the Sun reminds of things that get in the way: clouds. I found that with the small solar panels, even the faintest wisp of cloud vapor could extinguish the red charging light. I’m sure there was some charge generated, but it was likely so minuscule that it didn’t register on the LED.

So the experiment was generally a failure, but in hindsight it was likely doomed by my expectations and poor planning. Does this mean that I’ve given up? Not at all, but I’ll need to reassess my approach. I actually still haven’t plugged my iPhone into its AC adapter. On days I was out and about, I placed my iPhone in a Kensington car charger I use in my 2005 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. That’s certainly not the answer I’m looking for, but it helps decrease my electric grid consumption. Yes, the Hybrid puts pollution in the air (although it’s rated a SULEV) and requires gasoline to run; I’m not forgetting that by any means and I’m not suggesting that it’s a “better” solution. It isn’t.

What might be a better solution is a good hard look at my solar energy collection method. I already have a portable 20 Amp hour battery that I purchased to store energy. One of our jkOTR readers, Bob, wrote me several times during the challenge to help me learn more about solar. He pointed out that my portable battery solution can be charged by a solar panel of up to 30W. A little searching on the web shows that a panel like that can be had for around $175 new, less on eBay. I have looked at solar panels that unroll but they’re far more costly on a per Watt basis.

The benefit of a larger solar panel would be that far more solar energy can be captured and stored by my Xantrex battery solution. I could charge a much bigger battery in less time and I could use it to power far more devices for longer thanks to the integrated dual three-prong AC outlets. Unfortunately, the battery doesn’t offer enough juice to run my MacBook on a full-time basis. Unless I did the numbers wrong using the Xantrex online calculation tool, I’ll only be able to run my notebook for about 1.5 hours on stored solar power with this battery.

So what’s to become of my Solio Classic charger? I’ll still be using it, but not relying on it for the sole power of my iPhone. I can leave it in a window for several days without a thought and grab it for portable power on the go. When fully charged, it does fill up the tank on my iPhone and it still has a little juice to spare.

As I mentioned before, these experiments are about the journey and not the destination. I’m still looking to arrive at the same destination, but I’m glad the journey continues. It offers me the opportunity to learn even more.