Life with Solar:

The First Month

"We have this handy fusion reactor in the sky called the sun. You don't have to do anything, it just works."

Elon Musk

July 3, 2017

by S. Alex Martin

Part 1: The Technical Stuff

May 31, 2017, was the last time I plugged my phone into a wall outlet. That night, my first portable solar panel arrived, and my phone has been disconnected from the grid ever since.

As of my writing this on July 1, I’ve grown my solar production and storage to four panels and two power banks, and I haven’t felt worried about charging my phone at all (anymore). I’m someone who always promotes and advocates for solar energy, but until recently, I never used solar for myself. There came a point when I needed to take my advocacy a step further. As they say, if you’re going to talk the talk, you have to walk the walk. My mission is to show people the power of solar, and what better way to do that than to get some portable panels and show them off?

My first purchase was one portable solar panel, for just about $50. I purchased it from a company called iNiCE, and it was probably the best company to buy these from for one simple reason: this version of the iNiCE solar panels has 10000 mAh (10 Amp hours) of internal energy storage, enough to recharge my Samsung Galaxy S7 more than three times (or an iPhone 7 four to five times). This means that, with the panel’s 2.4 Amp, 5 Volt output, it takes my phone about 1.2 hours to recharge from empty, the same as the wall plug in a house.

For some technical clarity, storage capacity is defined in terms of how long it takes a battery to recharge at 1 Amp/hour. A 10 Amp hours battery (10000 mAh), takes 10 hours to recharge. The iNiCE solar panel functions optimally at 2.4 Amps under direct sunlight, so, optimally, it takes 4.1 hours to charge (but efficiency decreases as the panel heats up, so allow time in the shade or find a way to cool the panel if you want to maintain peak performance in one sitting).

Trust me, these things get HOT. It's a dark surface sitting out in the sun while simultaneously generating energy. A single panel can get hotter than asphalt (but they can operate up to nearly 190 F). Some warping might occur, but don't worry, they won't break unless forcefully bent.

Looking at other products, most competitors don’t have energy storage attached to their panels. This makes iNiCE convenient and reliable, because I can sit my solar panels out in the sun for a few hours and charge their batteries to full capacity. But try putting a competitor’s panel in the sun all day. It won’t store energy...not without a power bank, which means you need to spend more money.

The 2-in-1 deal from iNiCE is both cheaper and more convenient than what other companies offer - even big names in portable solar. Until I upgrade to charging my laptop, I don't foresee myself purchasing smaller-scale portable panels from any company other than iNiCE because of this feature.

Even with 40 Amp hours of included storage capacity, I did purchase a separate power bank to increase my energy storage: a 26800 mAh power bank (26.8 Amp hours) from Anker, for $60. This power bank can charge my phone just about nine times at full capacity.

In this image, the power banks are the black boxes behind the panels (I put them in the sunlight for this picture so you can see them; otherwise, they would overheat). Each power bank is about 7 inches X 3 inches, slightly bigger than my Galaxy S7. Anker makes smaller and larger models, too, but the 26800 mAh was the perfect fit for me.

But as you'll find out later...was it enough storage?

Part 2: Solar Panels are Fun and Exciting

I'm not going to lie: the sheer awesomeness of owning solar panels definitely put me on a solar-energy-is-the-best-thing-ever high for a few days. I told everyone who would listen that I was now powering my phone off solar energy, and that I was planning to integrate my laptop at some point. I had full-on photo-shoots with them, arranging them in the sunlight for cool visuals and making fancy captions that goaded my new high-tech lifestyle.  I felt like a million bucks, as the saying goes.

I became very conscious of putting my panels in the sun, from the second dawn broke, to the last ray of sunshine in the evening, sometimes even putting them on top of my car to elevate them and get an extra few minutes of light before sunset.

There’s just something so beautiful about opening the panels under the sun and seeing your phone screen light up, indicating a charge has begun. I can be out in the middle of my yard, driving down the road, playing golf, even going for a hike, and these work absolutely everywhere.

 

Solar gives you that freedom. I’d even go so far as to say that solar panels should be a priority for anyone who goes long-term hiking and camping. No need to worry about your phone going dead in an emergency, ever.

 

The picture to the side was taken on a 9 hour road-trip. I stuck my panel to face out the back window, and charged it the entire way. There were five people in the car, and we all used this panel and one power bank, with energy left over, and generating power non-stop.

It’s just exciting. Every morning, I wake up and immediately put my solar panels in sunlight to make use of every photon the day offers. I eat breakfast, take a shower, and then go write my books in a coffee shop for a couple hours. When I come back, the panels are fully charged! By then, it’s usually 10 or 11 in the morning! With my four panels, that's 12 full phone charges, more than enough for ten days, just in the time it took me to edit a few pages in my book and drink a few coffees.

You may be wondering about range anxiety, a common issue people bring up about electric cars (the general argument is that gas stations are everywhere, electric chargers are not. If you’re running low on charge, will you make it to an EV charger before you lose power?) I will admit, at first I was definitely using more power than I had available. Wasting time on the phone, bright screen, playing music and videos off the phone a lot, etc.

I became conscious of how much power I, as an individual, use every single day. I consider myself to be on the low end of power usage, but we all know people who watch YouTube and play games for hours (looking at you, Pokemon Go). We all text, and even more power consuming, we all use Snapchat. Snapchat in itself can run your battery down three-times quicker texting. Imagine how many times a day some people need to charge their phones, maybe even yourself!

I started limiting myself on my phone. I set time restrictions, restrictions on things I’d download, how long I’d use my phone for videos and music, how I would communicate with people. This conscious effort not only made me aware of how much energy I waste, but made me think, if I’m somewhere on the low to middle end of the spectrum, how much energy are we wasting, as a society, when you combine hundreds of millions of people? We don't notice it, though, simply because it is so convenient to access energy. We are almost always near a wall outlet (except for the Starbucks I wrote my fourth book in. That place was a power outlet void).

Let me point something out: sunlight, if you didn't notice...

IS EVERYWHERE*

*except for Portland, Oregon, and London. They all be vampires.

As a guy trying to use sunlight to generate electrical energy and make a solid case for the argument that solar panels are exciting, are a viable and far better source of energy, and should be adopted en masse, I’ve already caught myself in a solar power sin: I keep wishing for cloudy days. No pun intended, but I think that’s where solar power really shines. The fact that I can literally step outside and immediately charge my phone is amazing in itself, but is, in the end, just a cheap trick even I have started taking for granted. The true proof of concept requires you to sustain yourself day after day, even on the cloudy ones.

And in rainstorms.

And blizzards.

And an asteroid apocalypse.

If the sun is always out, there’s nothing to prove. It gets boring. You stop noticing where your energy is coming from. The real excitement, that is, the stuff that gets your blood pumping, comes when the sun isn’t shining. When that first power level light drops down a bar, does your heart start racing, and your mind start thinking, “I need to recharge, NOW.”

As you can see in the image to the side, this particular solar panel only has 75% power remaining. As someone whose life mostly functions on coal, oil, and gas, it's only natural if you collapse into a fit of hysterics.

Yes, the proof of concept for bringing solar energy to the world’s infrastructure lies, surprisingly, not in producing energy, but in storing energy. Sure, enough sunlight hits the earth every hour to power the world for an entire year, but do we have the ability to store that energy and use it later? And if we don’t have enough long-term storage, can we use energy quickly enough, and recollect it just as quickly, in a way that is deemed a successful economic investment? Or is it being used simply to show off, to look flashy and trendy?

Above, I said there is too much energy for me to use. I’m not lying. As of writing this, I haven’t touched my power banks in almost three weeks, because every day, I charge my panels while I’m writing, or at work, or literally driving around town. I am constantly collecting energy, but that doesn’t mean I’m using it.

I can fill 100% of my storage capacity in less than two days of sunlight (15 hours of peak performance). But I use less than 4% of that energy per day, which means the rest of the energy is just…there. Nobody is using it. I would need to connect every phone, laptop, and television in my house just to use most of the energy I can store each day. And I can keep upgrading. I can keep adding storage. With my current 48 inches X 12 inches of surface area (all four panels combined), I can collect about 200 Amp hours each day. That’s 24 laptop charges, or 66 cell phone charges. I just need more storage to accomplish that.

Finding more ways to use this energy will help me pay off my investment. At the moment, if I charge my phone once a day, it will take me a whopping 400 years to pay off this entire system. You can see the problem. To make this investment worth it, I need to use as much energy as possible, as quickly as possible, thus increasing the return on investment. Admittedly, it's daunting to think about that. What if this was a waste of money? What if I die before I use enough energy to match the amount I paid for the panels?

 

I’m conscious about this sobering fact. I have to be. Because that's another proof of concept: the return on investment. Many people won't add solar to their lives because they see it could take a decade to pay it off, despite the range of options available, even when no out-of-pocket expense is involved. For the time being, solar is very much a forward-thinking investment. You do it because you're able to, and you know your investment will help make it more available to more people in the future. For now, the transition to solar rests on the shoulders of people who choose to buy it, people who demand it through activism, and people who see it as a moral duty to future generations.

When I see family and friends charging from a power outlet, I immediately connect them to my panels. I also leave the panels in the open, with the cords already attached, to encourage them to connect to the panel instead of plugging into the wall.

 

Going even further than that, I've just carrying some of my panels and power banks around town, and will offer for the public to plug into my panels and power banks, rather than outlets. It’s free energy. It’s there for everyone to use. I collected it, and I want to share it, so here, have some on me!

 

Whether that's in a restaurant (as seen to the side), in a coffee shop, at an airport, or even at the beach, I want to share all the power I have, and encourage people to invest in their own systems! I said it before, and I'll say it again: opening your solar panels and seeing the energy flow is just friggin' cool.

Part 3: Energy Usage and the Economy of Scale

The typical phone is recharged twice to three times a day. On average, over the course of a year, that adds up to about $2.40 USD added to your electric bill. Not much money, right? And that money is spread out. You don’t charge just at your house. You charge at work. At the airport. At your friend’s house. At a restaurant. You, the individual, might not be paying that $2.40, but it exists collectively, a few cents here, a few cents there. Someone, somewhere, is paying for a portion of the energy that goes into your phone.

Imagine one million average people charging their phones each year. That’s $2,400,000 spent on energy. Now, let’s say they all drastically change their phone habits and charge just once a day. That price becomes a mere $800,000. By limiting their usage, one million people are saving $1,600,000. That’s an extra $1.60 in every person’s pocket, just by reducing the wasteful time we spend our phones. It might not seem like much on a small scale, but imagine that amplified across the world. The savings in just one year would be incredible.

And that’s just from the energy on a phone. Imagine lights. Refrigerators. Air conditioning. Computers. Televisions. The savings from reducing wasteful usage on a large scale would add billions, perhaps trillions, into the world’s economy.

We take energy for granted. We see a wire that runs into our house, and we know that wire provides us with all the power we can ever hope for. But we never see the substation the energy comes from. We don’t see the coal or gas that gets burned. Energy is simply given to us, with the promise that it will always be there.

What about blackouts? When a substation overloads, or a massive storm rampages up the coast, thousands, even millions of people lose power. Suddenly, the single line into their home is no longer receiving energy from the source.

Solar energy, and all renewables, I should add, is different because of storage. When you put solar panels on your house, you can also add a box that collects the energy to save surplus energy for later use, and it can be located inside the house, not out in the weather.

What happens when a storm takes out the neighborhood? You won’t lose power.

What happens when a tree smashes through a power line? You won’t lose power.

What happens when lightning strikes the substation, or a transformer explodes? You won’t lose power.

What happens when ice snaps electric wires? You won’t lose power.

There are still pitfalls—such as cloudy days, or not enough storage capacity—but solar energy, in the long term, is meant to be shared. Energy collected on one side of the world can be transferred elsewhere as needed.

 

Live in Portland, Oregon, or the UK? You could be getting your energy from a location that receives copious amounts of sunlight, too much for that area to use. In fact, there are already entire islands running on solar energy, such as the American Somoa, Haiti, the island of Kauai in Hawai’i, and other small islands.

Consider this: following massive rolling blackouts, southern Australia will soon be powered by solar, thanks to an initiative by Tesla and Elon Musk that has led to a worldwide solar energy arms race. It is this kind of competition – healthy competition that forges an energy revolution – that is steadily rising as renewable energy takes center stage away from limited fossil fuels.

In the end, just remember: it takes money to find, collect, refine, transport, purchase, and use fossil fuels and gases. But with solar, the sun will always shine. It's free. The costs come from manufacturing, purchasing, and (sometimes) installing panels. No foreign treaties, no military protection, no threat of war for resources. Solar energy, and all renewable sources, at that, is the only logical way forward for economic growth, environmental sustainability, and political stability.

What can solar power do for you?

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Alex Martin is the author of six futuristic science-fiction novels. The third book in the Recovery Series, Perihelid, will be published on October 17, 2017. He's also a science communicator, and has given several assemblies at schools, colleges, bookstores, and libraries. The Experience Daliona website is an extension of his books and a representation of his greatest passions.