Go Solar — In a Small Way by R. Ann Parris
Solar power isn’t the only alternative power we can make use of. It’s not even the only renewable source — we can do small scale hydro with very small waterways, and some of us can make use of wind and wave action for power. It is, however, one of the most universal long-term investments.
Big panels attached to big batteries and battery banks can be attractive, and they absolutely have their uses. They’re not a be-all, though, and they can be tough on some people’s wallets.
Small-scale solar has a lot to offer, for both beginners and old hats, even if they have preexisting house and vehicle-portable systems.
“Mini” panels can be smaller than a wallet or cellphone, charging those phones, small music and video players, or a set of AA or AAA batteries we can use for our headlamps, flashlights, and radios. They can be had for $5-25 and up, so they fit in a lot of budgets.
Popping up a size are hard-case mini’s not much bigger than those cellphones, with much the same uses.
Rigid panels and soft, roll-up or accordian fold panels the size of a clipboard or five are the next size — and price level. They can handle tablets, some laptops, higher-draw radios and their rechargeable batteries, larger types of battery chargers we might otherwise plug into a wall or generator, and in some cases even electric fans or Dust Buster type mini vacs.
There are also purpose-driven solar-powered goodies.
A multi-purpose panel has a lot of potentials. Sometimes we can tap into that potential by using something like a Nokero solar-charged camp lantern or inexpensive yard stake light to charge our batteries. Other times, we might go for an actual box-style solar battery charger. They can be had a big smaller than the old-school kiddie lunchboxes, similar dimensions to a Stanley 8-cup thermos, or as big as we’d like to go.
Whatever direction we choose to go, small options have a big benefit: Portability.
Being smaller than a lot of devices we already have anyway, our small panels are easy enough to keep in our vehicles, and some of them are small and light enough to warrant space in packs. They can easily be handled from our porches, patios, and balconies.
Any of them can hang out in the sun suspended from our backpacks, truck beds, and deck, although the devices that are charging may need some shade. We also want to test them out, because some double-pane windows and UV-treated vehicle windows prevent charging.
Weigh out small-scale solar.
Even the electronics aren’t just about recreation and favorite pictures. They can let us access insurance and account information and important documents after everyday emergencies, and quickly search How-To, DIY, and diagnosis data without thumbing through multiple book indexes.
Getting information to each other quickly revolutionized the world repeatedly, and it will be nice to know if a storm has passed or we’re in an eye or a gap before we leave our cellar or head out to check damage, and make contact with others with short range walkies and longer ranges via SSB CB and even HAM radios (lack of repeaters will curtail that range, but there’s still old methods).
Powered electronics are a force multiplier when it comes to lights, optics, and even alarms. Some or the small panels in the $25-$100 range can even handle electric saws, weed eaters (which run saws and tillers), and drills, magnifying the work we can do by 10-100 times.
Those little panels can put a lot of power in our hands when we need it most.