When most people imagine solar energy, they think of rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, or maybe they’ve driven past utility-scale solar farms installed on the ground and tilted towards the sky. While these applications indeed comprise the majority of solar energy use in the industry today, the opportunity presented by panels that convert natural sunlight into useable electricity go well beyond that. A rapidly accelerating area of focus in this regard comes from a more portable and modular technology: solar generators.
The ease and ability to bring solar generating capacity wherever someone may go, whether that’s camping or in the backyard when the power goes out, opens up a whole new world of solar opportunity. But just as some people may balk at the possibility of adding solar panels to their rooftop because they fear how much it might cost, a natural first question also arises with solar generators: are they worth the money?
What are Solar Generators?
Solar generators are smaller-scale pieces of equipment, combining moveable solar panels with a portable power station connected to them that can convert the rays striking the panels into useable and stored power, ready to be tapped into immediately or stored to be used at a later time.
This article will dive into the details you need to know about solar generators so you can decide for yourself if they are worth the investment.
Understanding the Core Components of Solar Generators
The world of solar generators is a rapidly growing and evolving industry, but at their core all solar generators are made up of the same core components:
Solar panel component: The most visible component are the solar panels themselves. Unlike the massive and unmovable solar panels typical of rooftop installation, the solar panel component for solar generators are much lighter, oftentimes foldable for storage, and are designed to be positioned by the user such that they catch the sun rays. While the technology to convert those rays into electricity is largely the same, the tradeoff is that to make these panel components more portable they are somewhat less efficient. But typically, two to three hours of sun exposure is all that’s needed to fully charge the rest of the generator.
Built-in inverter: Last but not least is the inverter, which is the basis of the entire generator that converts the solar energy into usable electric energy. This inverter is just like the inverters installed with major solar projects, using the same technology but once again on a smaller scale.
Solar charge controller: As the panels collect the sunlight and convert it to physical electricity, the charge controller component is critical to ensure that the power flow is done at the right rate and capacity for healthy operation of the full generator. Too much charge flowing all at once can fry the system, while being too restricted will delay the full battery conversion.
Battery: Solar generators are capable of having equipment plugged directly into them if the electricity is needed right away, such as plugging a cooking apparatus into the generator to simultaneously prepare food while cooking. But many solar generator use cases are better left with the energy being used at a later time, such as for backup power during the night time amid grid outages.
Benefits of Solar Generators
Solar generators may be fun gadgets for the camper or adequate peace of mind for those concerned about the reliability of their power provider, but their utility stretches well beyond that. In fact, when comparing these emerging solar generators with more traditional gasoline- or diesel-powered generators, they bring some unquestionable benefits:
- Quiet operation- backup generators running on fossil fuels are typically noisy because they are literal motors, but the solar energy conversion process literally runs silently.
- Easier to use- keeping a fuel-based generator running requires more maintenance, fuel available on-hand, and with many more moving parts they have greater likelihood to break down compared with solar generators.
- Safe for use indoors and outdoors: a common disadvantage of traditional generators is that they output air pollution that might be dangerous to breath in even when outdoors, but as such definitely cannot operate indoors (not to mention the safety concern of any type of internal combustion taking place indoors, running overnight, etc.). Solar generators avoid all of those potential health and safety risks.
- Clean and sustainable power: as a corollary to the air pollution from traditional generators, the burning of those fuels of course comes with greenhouse gas emissions, public enemy number one when it comes to the climate and the environment. With solar generators, operation does not lead to any emissions and replaces that with clean energy.
How Much Do Solar Generators Cost?
As noted early, the natural first question to a potential customer who is interested in solar generators will of course be: How much is a solar generator?
The typical answer for a consumer-sized solar generator that will meet all of their needs is in the range of just below $300 to about $5000. These prices, however, are notably lowering and becoming more affordable as the technology behind solar panels and batteries continues to improve, so potential customers who find that price point to be too high should keep an eye on how those evolve over time (as well as on where potential tax incentives may end up providing relief for those investing in the technology as a sustainable choice).
That said, as with any major investment and emerging technology there will be a natural range of prices depending on critical factors. Those looking for the biggest and best solar generators will find some that are much more expensive, and those who decide that they are willing to sacrifice on some use cases and features may find more affordable versions.
Overall, key factors to consider and balance when it comes to how they impact the cost of a commercially available solar generator include the following:
- Solar panel capacity: the more capacity, or energy-producing potential, of the generator and its panels, the more the cost will be. A single person who is going camping with their solar generator will find they need less total power generated than a family of five who wants the solar generator during grid blackouts, so care must be taken to evaluate who much power is needed and purchase accordingly.
- Number of panels: number of panels directly impacts the solar capacity of the system, as more panels of course add more generating capability. But many solar generators on the market today will allow consumers to purchase their generator and later on add more panels when they find more capacity is needed, so overall the number of panels is a key variable.
- Battery capacity: similar to panels, the greater amount of energy that can be stored by a battery, the more it will end up costing. So users once again should thoughtfully evaluate how much battery capacity they need when making purchase decisions: is this for multiple days of backup electricity or is this for one off, real-time energy use?
- Brand and quality: state of the art models from the most reputable and trusted brands will cost more than the alternatives, just like with any major technology purchase. That said, paying more for higher quality brands often pays for itself in longer lifetime, better use experience, and more.
- Functions: some models of solar generators will have additional features that add to the cost, aspects like USB charging ports, built in lights, and more. These may be nice to have features, but are they necessary and worth the cost for each need?
Pulling It Together: Are Solar Generators Worth the Money?
As noted, solar generators are very functional and can fill many different potential energy needs. Unlike traditional fossil-fuel generators, they can be used for indoor backup power needs and outdoor activities such as cooking and charging appliances while camping, on-site construction electricity needs, outdoor events and festivals, and more. And by providing that electricity quietly, without air pollution, and without the purchase and transportation of fuel, they truly do open up new opportunities.
Combined, these multi-faceted uses across convenience, emergency needs, and overall reliability really bring home the value inherent to solar generators.
What are the disadvantages of a solar generator?
If solar generators were relevant to every possible application and had no downsides, then studies like this wouldn’t be necessary: every home and business would already have one installed.
But the reality is that there may be multiple reasons someone may choose to hold off on purchasing a solar inverter, at least for now.
For one, just like other forms of solar energy the solar generators do rely on weather factors on when they can generate. If there are multiple days in a row without much sun, the ability of generators to power its batteries will be limited.
Initial upfront costs for these generators tend to also be higher than traditional generators. While the lower maintenance costs and free ‘fuel’ from the sun mean that in the long run they can end up more affordable, purchasing solar generators still requires upfront capital available.
Can I use a solar generator at night?
A common critique by those pushing back on solar energy as a power source come from a natural place: if solar panels generate based on sunlight, is such equipment essentially useless once the sun goes down?
The answer is technically yes: you will not be able to power the solar generator during the nighttime. However, the built-in battery with the solar generator is what can enable nighttime use: charge the battery during the daytime and then plug in and use that electricity when it’s needed during the night.
Solar generators are emerging as a valuable and critical alternative to traditional generators. As the technology advances, these solar generators are only becoming more efficient, effective, and affordable. And in the meantime, the function they offer for outdoor power needs and backup energy production remain invaluable in countless use cases.