Whether you need a device to keep your appliances running when the grid goes down at home or you want to charge some small electronics or run your laptop while on a camping trip, portable solar generators are a perfect off-grid energy solution. We've lived on the road in our solar powered home on wheels for over a decade now, and during that time we’ve complemented our larger home system with a smaller portable solar generator as we've traveled around the continent in all types of weather, at various latitudes, and ever-changing solar conditions.
In 2019, we did a deep dive into how solar compares to conventional gas-powered generators. Our goal (and we aren't shy to admit it!) is to help people move away from using gas-powered generators in campgrounds and boondocking areas. No one goes into the woods, the beach, or the desert to listen to their neighbor's gas generator rattle and drone all day/night long, especially when there is a much quieter and accessible way. When multiple people are running multiple generators, the cacophony of noise is enough to make you jump in the cab and drive away! Trust us, we've done that.
In just 3 years since that blog, these all-in-one solar generators have taken some quantum leaps in terms of their size, battery, and inverter capacity–so let's look at what they do, how they work, and some of their advantages and drawbacks.
What is a solar generator?
A "solar generator" refers to a portable power station that uses solar panels, instead of fossil fuels, to provide electricity. It uses solar panels to capture the sun's energy, and then stores that energy into a battery to be used at a later time. In general, solar generators are often used for camping, off-grid cabins/RVs, boats, and as an alternative source of energy when a storm or other situation causes a power outage at home.
How do solar generators work?
With any solar system, there are 4 major components: solar panels, charge controller, batteries, and inverter. Most solar generators have 3 of these components built-in, and can be connected to a solar array or simply a single solar panel such as a portable folding solar suitcase. Not being hardwired to the solar panel array makes these generators much more portable and usable in a variety of settings.
Solar panels convert sunlight into direct current (DC) electricity that then passes through a charge controller. The charge controller serves as the "brain" of the system and regulates the volts and amps going into the battery, where the solar energy is then stored for use later (at night or on cloudy days).
While most solar generators sold today have lithium ion batteries (like those in your smartphones and laptops), Renogy recently released their LYCAN 5000 which includes two 48V-50A Lithium Iron Phosphate batteries, and is designed to be powerful enough to run major household appliances and/or an entire RV or cabin. It's an impressive beast on wheels!
When you need to use the energy stored in the battery, the generator's inverter automatically converts the electricity into alternating current (AC power) which is what most household appliances and devices use.
Small portable solar generators, like the next generation Phoenix 200 or Phoenix 300, typically have some combination of outputs such as USB ports, AC outlets, and 12V utility ports to allow you to charge various small electronic devices such as phones, fans, laptops, and lights. They are small enough to fit into a backpack!
Larger solar home generators, like the LYCAN 5000, have 110V/120V outputs with sizable inverters (up to 3000W) which can handle both 20A and 30A loads allowing you to run major household appliances, power tools, and much more.
Use Renogy’s Super Solar Calculator to explore your energy needs and determine what type of solar generator is right for you!
Pros and Cons of Solar Generators: Let's Break it Down…
Advantages of Solar Generators
Quiet & Low Maintenance
Solar generators are silent, with the exception of a small fan that kicks on occasionally to keep the batteries from getting too warm during the charging cycles. With no noise pollution, you won't bother your campmates, neighbors, or wildlife with the incessant drone of a gas generator. Also, with limited moving parts, the need for replacing worn components is much lower, thus greatly reducing the amount of maintenance required for a solar generator.
Free, Renewable Energy
Traditional gas-powered generators require you to constantly purchase fuel. With a solar generator, there are no fuel costs. Simply set up your solar panels and enjoy the free sun rays coming from above!
Safer & Cleaner Energy
Solar generators rely entirely on clean, renewable energy so you don't have to worry about the ever-increasing cost of fossil fuels nor the environmental impact of using gasoline. Furthermore, solar generators release no pollutants as they produce and store energy, thus reducing your overall carbon footprint. And, recent studies have shown that solar is one of the safest sources of energy to make and use. This is a win-win-win for the planet, manufacturers, and consumers!
Various Charging Methods
Beyond using solar power, you can charge most portable solar generators at home using a standard household plug (included), via USB, or while driving using your car or boat utility port. Many people charge these units at home before leaving, then use solar or car charging to keep them topped off. And if you have solar at home, then It's like you're taking just a little piece of your home generation with you when you travel.
In general, solar generators are either small enough to put in your backpack, have a handle for easy carrying, or have built-in wheels–making them both easy to store and move around.
Drawbacks of Solar Generators
Limited Power Supply
The size of the solar generator's battery and inverter will limit how much it can power. Again, a small solar generator like the Phoenix 300 won't be able to power your entire home; however, it can charge phones and laptops, and keep small appliances running for a short period of time. If you need to power larger home appliances or an entire RV/cabin, you'll want to invest in a unit like the LYCAN 5000, or install a complete solar powered system.
Gas generators, on the other hand, aren't as limited in what or for how long they can power appliances, since they can be refilled at any time that you have access to fuel. Note: Some people who live off-grid with solar, also have a gas generator back-up just in case.
Slower Recharging Times
Solar generator batteries can be slow to charge with the sun, especially when Mother Nature is being fickle. A 100W folding solar suitcase could take 8+ hours to charge most small solar generator batteries in full sun. Generators that run on fossil fuels can be refueled at any time, so you can get more power right when you need it without having to worry about the weather conditions or the time of day.
Higher Price Tags
Solar generators typically come with a higher price tag than traditional gas generators. Solar generators range widely in cost from small (hand-held) around $200 to larger (on wheels) coming in just under $5000. However, solar generators have much lower operating and maintenance costs, and a potential longer lifespan. So, you'll typically spend less over the lifetime of your solar generator than a gas generator.
Congress Generates a Big Bump for American Solar
Maybe you already heard about the “ Inflation Reduction Act" passed by Congress in August 2022? Here's how this federal legislation will be a solar generator in and of itself:
- Production tax credits to help U.S. manufacturers accelerate production of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, and process key minerals.
- $10 billion investment tax credit for new manufacturing facilities that make cleantech like EVs, wind turbines, and solar panels.
- $500 million to use the Defense Production Act to speed manufacturing of things like heat pumps, as well as processing critical minerals.
- $2 billion in grants to help automaker facilities transition to clean vehicle production.
- Up to $20 billion in loans to construct new manufacturing facilities for clean vehicles.
So, if a $5000+ solar investment makes you think twice, keep in mind that this act not only extends current tax incentives (26%) for installing solar, it increases these incentives to 30% of the cost of installation on your home, 2nd home, off-grid cabin, boat, or RV for any system put into place before December 31st, 2025. With a little effort, that $5000 investment is easily reduced to $3500 as solar generators that are a part of this solar installation can be considered in this tax incentive!
Solar generators might be the back-up power solution you've been waiting for if your area is prone to weather-related electricity outages, or it might be the perfect tag along for your weekend camping trip. It all depends on what you need to power and for how long you intend to use it.
Shari Galiardi & David Hutchison have turned their higher education backgrounds, desire for life-long learning, and thirst for adventure travel into writing, photography, video production, and public speaking tours from coast to coast. Known to their friends as simply Shari & Hutch, you can learn more about their full-time, solar-powered adventures on their website at freedominacan.com. Or, follow them on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube as "Freedom in a Can, LLC."