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How Apple could revolutionize solar

If Apple launched one of its gadgets with embedded solar cells, it could revolutionize the market for solar. Apple has been exploring how to use solar power to charge gadgets for some time, including looking into ways to embed solar cells in devices. But if Apple made the leap to an actual commercial launch, it could be a solar game changer.

Apple’s solar patents

First let’s look at Apple’s solar patent applications. The latest was granted last month (via Patently Apple), and it is for a voltage converter and controller for charging a device with solar power. A good deal of this patent focuses on algorithms and devices that can monitor and control the way in which a portable device could most effectively be charged via solar, using both embedded solar cells and an attachable solar power source.

According to Patently Apple — which as the name denotes follows Apple’s patent applications like a hawk — Apple now has two solar-related patents granted and five solar applications filed in total. The other solar patent granted was awarded in January 2011 and covers similar territory, including a way to monitor and control a charge from a solar source for a mobile device.

What Apple sees in solar

In all of these patents, Apple looks at solar as a way to enable its gadgets to be charged in locations where there is no grid available and also as a way to generally extend the battery life of a device. Apple has long been willing to invest in ways to boost the battery life of its gadgets, including selling extra battery chargers that will still be able to hold 80 percent of its charge after a year.

Back in 2009, Apple launched a 17-inch MacBook Pro with a built-in battery. Lots of critics didn’t like the built-in aspect of the battery, but the lithium-polymer battery that Apple used could run for up to eight hours on a single charge and retain at least 80 percent of that capacity for up to 1,000 recharge cycles. Compare that with only about 300 recharges for Apple’s 13- and 15-inch models’ removable lithium-ion batteries. The longer life of the 17-inch model was also due to an adaptive charging mechanism — an embedded chip that monitors charge level and temperature and helps manage the charging current.

But the reality is that batteries on an individual level aren’t making all that much progress in terms of capacity and cost. Boosting batteries in the short term will come from things like software for battery and energy management, and perhaps — if it proves to be economic — tapping micro sources of clean power like embedded solar cells. In an increasingly mobile life, the plug is one of the last true barriers to mobility.

Extending the time between plugging in is also another way to target new markets in areas where there’s less reliable grid power. Yes, Apple generally focuses on developed markets and high-end goods, but Apple is no stranger to the need for finding new markets and developing new strategies. I could envision its one day looking to sell its devices in developing markets with less reliable grid power.

Solar gadgets

Adding solar cells to gadgets has been a sort of novelty and in a nascent stage for a while. The big barriers have been the price of solar cells as well as the tiny amount of solar power these tiny cells can usually generate. If you look at the variety of solar chargers for iPhones out there, the bulk of these chargers consists of an extra lithium-ion battery that is supplemented with a small amount of solar power from the embedded mini solar panel. In some of these cases the solar cell is more novelty than practical charging tool.

A startup called Konarka has been developing a next-gen solar plastic that could be a good fit for solar gadgets, and it is meant to be embedded in materials (umbrellas and bags), devices and buildings. However, Konarka has long been in a sort of research and development phase, and the solar plastic also has a very low efficiency.

But as more gadget makers target developing markets and devices themselves become more energy-efficient, these solar-powered products are getting better. Recently Samsung launched a solar-powered netbook that can run for 15 hours, almost double the 8-hour standard laptop, meant for the Kenyan market. The solar netbook is also supposed to go on sale in Russia, the U.S., South Korea and Europe.

And one of the barriers to solar gadgets has been slowly getting solved: the price of solar cells. As you can see if you’ve been following the recent spate of bankruptcies in the solar industry (Solyndra, SpectraWatt, Evergreen Solar), the price of solar panels and cells has dropped dramatically in recent months and years, which is bad for some of the solar tech companies but good for the overall solar market and solar consumers. The price of solar is pretty much the lowest it’s been in history.

Apple’s effect on solar

If Apple decided to launch a gadget with embedded solar, it could help bring down the prices of solar for gadgets even more. As Nat Bullard, an analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance, told me recently, Apple is “a fierce negotiator for components,” and if it’s interested in solar it could lock up low-cost supply deals for solar parts as it has with iPod and iPad components such as glass and memory.

Foxconn, Apple’s key supplier, has been looking into solar production and has been rumored to be investing in solar manufacturing in various ways. And why not? Solar is finally becoming a commodity, with low enough prices to justify the entrance of this type of low-cost supplier.

Apple has also been a leader in embracing new technology, when Steve Jobs deemed that the time was right. Then when Apple launches new tech into its cutting-edge simple designs, the rest of the industry tends to follow. As Bullard said to me:

If any company could reliably integrate PV into consumer portable electronics, it is Apple. Given its other devices, it would likely make the simplest, most elegant integration. It may sacrifice some nominal performance (and greater freedom of choice) for the sake of simplicity and robustness — as it has done time and again in the past decade.

Apple could be on track to sell 30 million iPhones globally in the fourth quarter of this year. Those kind of volumes could have a major effect on the solar industry, not only in the form of contracts but also as a way to educate consumers about the existence and usefulness of solar as a power source.

Images courtesy of Flickr user mikecogh, Samsung, and Patently Apple

30 Responses to “How Apple could revolutionize solar”

  1. Elaine Masters

    Small calculators have been recharged by solar for years. what’s taking so long to apply it to computers? Working much of the time in Bangladesh where electric power supply is a some time thing, I would have loved to have my MacBook solar powered.

  2. Don Clark

    RiCk Bullotta is right, why not human powered? But while we are on the energy issue, why doesnt Apple take it even further and use/create a mini/nano size Zero Point Magnetic Power Generator?

  3. Michael W. Perry

    Solar is not very practical, particularly given Apple’s interest in making devices thin and light. Solar and most digital gadgetry go together like frozen lakes and swimming. You can’t use an iPhone or a MacBook Air in bright sunlight, so why try to power it there?

    And yes, you could charge it in the sunlight and use it in the shade, but I’m not going to leave a MBA I might own in the bright sun while I rest in the shade. That baking sun isn’t going to be good for the electronics, particularly the lithium battery, and it might get swiped.

    Charging batteries might prove OK for those far from an electric grid. But that’s not the situation most of us find ourselves in. For us, the added weight of solar cells simply isn’t worth the hassle. Outlets aren’t that hard to find and they don’t depend on the weather.

    Get real. Last year the Obama administration spent half-a-billion in loan guarantees for a solar firm just announced bankruptcy. That’s money that could have been spent in other and wiser ways. Solar is a fad and like most fads, it’ll pass. A few uses may prove worthwhile. Most won’t.

  4. steve crandall

    The price of solar cells isn’t the issue – we’re down to about $1 watt in ideal cases. The problem is the low amount of light, relative to current power demands, indoors and with indirect sunlight. In really bright cloudless areas with perfect aiming you’re talking about 200 watts/m^2 maximum and most solar cells are below 15% efficiency … so figure 30 watts/m^2. You might be able to top off batteries, or perhaps do a bit more if the power requirements of devices was lower.

  5. greenabode


    Interesting article, I have no doubt that Apple are working on something big in solar and let’s hope it’s a game changer that drives forward the whole renewable energy agenda.

    Advances in ‘flexible’ solar technology and ‘solar nantennas’ means we are only a few years away from super efficient solar nanotechnology.

    Both Samsung and Apple are investing in micro ‘organic’ solar panels – photovoltaic cells Today, it’s not as efficient as traditional solar’s only a matter of time.

    It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing situation, in that solar has to power 100% of the charge. For example, even if the solar element topped up the mobile device’s would be an improvement on charging fully from the mains.

    If a hybrid was in place it would make a contribution to reducing greenhouse emissions and save people money.

    With regard to the ‘solar power converter’ Apple patent, I struggle to see how that’s a patent. It’s simply a flow diagram based on technology that has existed for decades.

    Anyhow, we’ll be keeping an eye on Apple’s developments in this space with keen interest.

  6. Solar power for charging batteries does NOT require sunlight. Ordinary light in the workplace is sufficient for charging batteries in many mobile devices. TI, Casio and others have been using the technology for years in their calculators. Tom Hanks would have wanted those solar-powered phones and computers in his FedEx packages.

    • That would make sense if those calculators you mentioned actually used the same amount of power as a cell phone. But they don’t. They use far less power, and those power cells are not capable of keeping a cell phone powered for even a second.

  7. Rick Bullotta

    Gawd we’ve become lazy. The technology to provide a decent amount of power for our gadgets via *actual physical effort* (turning a crank, motion, etc.) has been around for a while, doesn’t cost much, and might actually make us healthier. Kind like a “pay to play” approach to droning out in front of our electronic toys. The idea of solar seems absurd to me, given the inefficiencies and the size of the solar collectors that would be required given the current state of technology.

  8. Can someone explain to me how their ‘solar’ solution works when you iDelight gadget is in your pocket, bage etc?

    Is there nothing this company can not do?

    And in other news Apple cures most of the worlds’ incurable diseases, bring flooding to the Atacama desert and colonizes Mars.

  9. Rewriting the laws of thermodynamics is not necessary to vastly increase the output of solar cells. Plants are able to handle incoming photons before they convert to heat through the quantum walk process inherent to photosynthesis. Hopefully we can mimic nature and harness the sun at the levels of efficiency that plants have achieved.

  10. Honda sells a solar cells
    made of copper, indium, gallium and selenium (CIGS), Honda’s non-silicon solar cells have a generating layer that is 1/80 the thickness of a conventional silicon solar cell’s generating layer.
    the new module will offer conversion efficiency of 13 percent or higher—the highest level of any CIGS thin-film solar cell currently on the market.

    The above should prove that solar is not economical in any fashion
    when 77% of energy is lost as heat. Apple cannot revolutionize anything.
    Apple can’t rewrite laws of thermodynamics.