Last year, when Jonathan Smith was still the president of Earth911.com, a Web site dedicated to recycling, he said he would often board a plane after a speaking engagement or a day of meetings with a dead cellphone in hand.
With limited recharging options available, “it was really frustrating,” he said. “Having access to a working port or finding an open plug during layovers at the airport was just too unpredictable.”
Hoping to solve his problem, Smith bought a portable solar charger he could prop up in the window of a plane.
“I’d plug it into my phone and when we landed, I was ready to go again,” he said.
The charger meshed well with his environmental values, of course. Still, “when I first started using solar to charge my devices,” he said, “it was out of convenience.”
In fact, Smith is one of a growing number of business travelers who, out of practicality or concern for the environment, use portable renewable energy devices — primarily portable solar panels, but also hand-cranked electricity generators known as dynamos or freeplay devices — to power up their electronics when they work in places that offer little or no access to electricity.
“Basically, this technology makes our work possible,” said John Poulsen, a tropical ecologist who investigates logging’s effects on animal populations in the forests of central Africa.
Often, data collection takes Poulsen as much as 38.6km from the nearest road.
“The research we do requires being in the forest for two to three weeks at a time. And if we had to go back to the village every two or three days for batteries, we just couldn’t do it,” he said.
Generally speaking, portable renewable energy devices cannot power large equipment, like desktop computers or printers. But they can generate enough electricity to operate laptops, satellite telephones, movie and still cameras, sound-recording equipment, GPS equipment and camp lighting, said Stuart Cody, owner of Automated Media Systems in Allston, Massachusetts. The company customizes portable solar arrays and battery backup systems for business travelers and adventurers.
The devices have improved significantly since they were first introduced in the mid-1990s. That was about the time the tree kangaroo conservation program, administered by the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, began using portable solar power at its field sites in Papua New Guinea.
“Initially, we got panels that didn’t work very well,” said Lisa Dabek, the zoo’s director of field conservation.
Now, the solar panels used to power laptops, navigation devices and satellite phones “are much smaller and much more portable,” she said.
The organization uses this technology for reasons that have as much to do with practicality as with environmental concerns. Fuel-powered generators, Dabek said, are “very heavy. And to hike uphill with them for two days is not really an option.”
Moreover, generators “make a lot of noise that would scare away the tree kangaroos,” she said.
Cody said users should be realistic about how much power portable solar panels could create.
“People who are starting from scratch don’t realize that solar panels don’t always put out a consistent stream of energy,” he said. “The sun comes and goes. There’s a shadow that reduces the current flow.”
As a result, Cody suggested using the devices to charge internal or external batteries, rather than to run electronics directly.