When's the last time you let your cell phone run out of juice without rushing to recharge? The electronic devices we can't seem to live without, even -- or especially -- the ones that fit in the palm of a hand, have a profound impact on our energy consumption. High-tech items like computers and mobile phones account for about 15 percent of home energy use, or about 1,650 kilowatt-hours (kWh) or 2,200 pounds (997 kilograms) of CO2 emissions per year per household [sources: New Scientist, Energy Savers, DOE].
And that's just the devices we could theoretically live without. We're not talking about home heating here.
Energy consumption and CO2 footprint is only part of the issue, though. There's also the 2.4 billion batteries that end up in U.S. landfills every year, leaching toxic metals into the groundwater supply [source: Ji].
What's an environmentally responsible citizen to do? Give up life's electronic perks? Limit ourselves to 10 minutes of talk time per week? Increase the temperature of the fridge to "somewhat cool?" Unplug the range and start cooking over a fire?
Actually, cooking over a fire wouldn't help much, what with carbon monoxide and particulate pollution. But even the more logical options aren't strictly required. With a few technological adjustments, you can still carry on a complete conversation and drink your beer cold.
The world's technology innovators have started turning to eco-conscious gadgets in a big way. Some of the very gadgets we (perhaps guiltily) use every day have "greener," cleaner versions out there. Many of them turn to solar energy to replace the traditional, emitting types. Solar power emits nothing and relies on a limitless fuel source, making it a guilt-free way to power our modern necessities, some of which are actually necessary.
In this article, we'll look at five of the best solar-powered gadgets you can buy -- or make yourself. We'll find out how they operate and how they diminish our environmental impact.
Up first, a tent with added features, without added power consumption.
Woods Solar-powered EZ Tent
It's probably not for hard-core backpackers, what with the added equipment and reduced roughing-it value, but car campers rejoice: Now you can flip on the lights when you walk into your tent.
The Woods Solar-powered EZ Tent uses strings of solar-fueled LEDs for indoor tent lighting, so campers don't have to rely on battery-powered lights that eat D-cells for breakfast. A typical Coleman battery-powered lantern goes through 8 D batteries in 26 hours of use [source: Amazon]. And even assuming those are rechargeable batteries and their owners, like good little campers, won't be throwing them out, they still require recharging, which usually means plugging into polluting, grid-based power.
Instead of using batteries or coal to power the LED lights, the tent comes with a 7-inch (17-centimeter) solar panel that mounts to the roof. The system is fully charged by four to six hours of direct sunlight or eight to 10 hours of indirect sunlight, and a full charge means two to four hours of lighting in the tent. That's more than enough to show you where your shoes are when you wake up in the middle of the night and have to go.
The tent runs about $200 to $250 and also comes with a solar-powered flashlight.
Up next, a true necessity, only greener.
SunDanzer Solar Refrigerator
While a few hardcore greenies have decided to give up refrigeration altogether (see Can I go without a refrigerator?), most of us balk at the idea of having to store dairy products on the porch in winter (and what, no calcium in summer time?). There's still that 450 to 1,000 annual, CO2-emitting kWh to worry about, though.
A couple of NASA scientists came up with an ideal solution: solar-powered refrigeration. It's not a new concept, but the NASA-backed SunDanzer solar refrigerator is one of the most widely available and intensely practical applications of the idea.
SunDanzer is a top-load, chest-style refrigerator (or freezer). It uses the vapor-compression type of system that probably runs your current home refrigerator. It reaches the same low temperatures. The only real difference is SunDanzer plugs into a solar-panel system instead of into a regular wall outlet.
To maintain optimal refrigeration, the solar panels need five hours of direct sunlight per day [source: NASA]. Does that mean your milk goes bad when you've got a cloudy spell? No, and here's the intensely practical part: The unit can store excess energy, so it can actually go for a week without sun and still keep things cold. Plus, there's a battery backup just in case.
Depending on size, a SunDanzer runs anywhere from $650 to $1,300.
Next up, a "Blue" phone that's really pretty green.
Samsung Blue Earth Solar Phone
Cell phones are notoriously dirty gadgets. It's partly about the constant recharging, which results in a fairly substantial amount of greenhouse gasses in the air. It's also about the manufacturing materials that go into the beloved little devices: Arsenic, PVC, brominated flame retardants, zinc, lead and phthalates are just a handful of the toxic substances that leach into our water when a cell phone hits the landfill -- and into our air if it ends up in the incinerator.
Lots of major cell-phone manufacturers are making very public efforts to go greener, and one of the most impressive displays is Samsung's Blue Earth Solar Phone. In Blue Earth, Samsung eliminated several toxic materials, including brominated flame retardants and phthalates, and built the casing from both renewable and recycled plastic. And the big draw: the integrated solar panel. Expose the panel to one hour of sun for 10 minutes of talk, and to 12 hours of sun (a much taller order) for a full four hours of chatting. Samsung says the solar panel increases the phone's energy efficiency by 34.6 percent [source: Miller].
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the solar-powered Blue Earth is that it's not skimpy on technology: This green-ish phone has a full-color touchscreen. It also has a built-in "Eco-walk" pedometer function that counts your steps and tells you how much CO2 you're saving by walking instead of driving.
The Blue Earth should be available for purchase in Europe by the end of 2009 [source: LaGesse]. No word yet on the American release.
Next up: Further greening of an already green solution.
Solio Solar-powered Battery Charger
When rechargeable batteries for electronics became commonplace, the eco-conscious let out a collective and short-lived sigh of relief. As it turns out, recharging those batteries is not the greenest activity in the world, considering it's typically coal or nuclear power juicing them up.
Enter Solio, a battery charger that relies on clean energy to power up the power for your cell phone, MP3 player, digital camera or PDA.
The Solio Hybrid 1000 works pretty much like any other battery charger: Snap in a battery and plug into a power source. Only with Solio, that power source can be a solar panel. And according to the manufacturer, the solar panel charges a battery as quickly as grid-power does [source: Solio].
The device actually stores power, so you can leave it in the sun before a trip and then just throw the charger in your bag without worrying about sunshine. And anyway, in case of clouds, Solio can also charge through a wall outlet or a USB port -- thus the "Hybrid" designation.
The Solio Hybrid 1000 sells for about $50.
And No. 1 on our list of solar-powered gadgets: You can't live without it, and you can make it yourself at home.
"Raw food movement" aside, most of us can't live without cooking our food. Meat can make you sick if it's not cooked to the proper temperature, and so can water if you live in a place without a clean drinking-water source, as millions of people do.
But cooking has its own drawbacks: gas and electric ranges consume, on average, 700 kWh per year, which translates to about 940 pounds (426 kilograms) of CO2 in the air [sources: NRC, DOE]. And both charcoal and wood cooking releases harmful gasses and particulates, making open flames and barbecues an environmental and health hazard.
Solar ovens, on the other hand, use the sun to cook food. Pure and simple.
The simplest solar oven, known as a box cooker, is nothing more than some cardboard, black paint, glass and perhaps some sheets of aluminum foil to act as reflectors to catch more sunlight. This solar cooker is like a heat-capturing bread box: You put a pot of food inside, close the glass, and put the whole box in the sun. The sun's radiation gets trapped in the box, heating up everything inside to temperatures hot enough to fry food (see How Solar Cooking Works to learn more).
A solar oven is hands-down the greenest way to cook outside, whether it's a backyard barbecue or a camping trip or the primary cooking method in a rural African village.
You can buy one online for anywhere from $50 to $300, or you can make one at home for much less. You'll find plans all over the Web, including here:
For more information on solar-powered gadgets and related topics, look over the links on the next page.
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Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Keeping Cool with Solar-powered Refrigeration. NASA STI.http://www.sti.nasa.gov/tto/spinoff2003/er_1.html
- Ranges. Natural Resources Canada.http://oee.nrcan.gc.ca/publications/infosource/pub/home/Buying_and_Using_EE_Appliances_Section04.cfm
- Reedy, Sarah. "Building the Green mobile Phone." Telephony Online. June 1, 2009.http://telephonyonline.com/mag/building-green-phones-0601/
- Solar Cooking. Solar Household Energy, inc.http://www.she-inc.org/cooking.php