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Generators are typically used to provide electricity during power outages (e.g., during storms, emergencies, and related disaster-relief operations) or in off-grid situations or areas where there is no access to a built-in power source (e.g., on construction sites, on camping trips, or at outdoor events—for concert stages, food booths, etc.). So, in a nutshell, they’re mostly used for temporary, portable/mobile, back-up, or remote power needs. Generators are especially critical for some farms, to keep well pumps running (during power outages) to be able to continue to get water to livestock or crops.
Conventional generators have a number of downsides. They require gasoline (or diesel fuel), which can be expensive — especially during emergencies, when there can also be gas shortages. The emissions from gas-powered generators also contribute to air pollution and climate change, and they can cause carbon monoxide poisoning when placed inside a home or building, or too close to doors, windows, or vents on the outside of a building. Furthermore, gas generators are very loud.
Solar generators provide a smart, silent, safe, and clean alternative that uses renewable energy (no fuel = no emissions), and there are a number of products available to choose from these days. (Biodiesel or hybrid generators are other options to consider.)
Below I've listed the solar generator brands that I know of so far; I'm sure it's not a complete list. If you know of other brands of solar generators, please let us know in the Comments. Thanks!
Small-Scale, Compact Units
These solar generators are designed to provide a modest amount of electricity for temporary, emergency, or low-use power needs. The smallest units can easily charge gadgets and power lights, but do not have the capacity to run large, power-hungry equipment or appliances (e.g., refrigerators or heaters) for more than a short time. (For example, a 1500-watt unit can generally only run a small space heater for up to 2 hours or so at night, when the unit is not being recharged by the sun.) The average price among these compact options is somewhere around $3,000-4,000 (as of late 2012), though some are less expensive, and the prices could change significantly in coming months and years. The cost of solar panels continues to go down, while new battery technologies are evolving rapidly.
SolMan (from Sol Solutions, based in Northern California)
EasySun (from Suburb Solar, based in Northern Michigan)
Ready2Go (from E.A.R.T.H., based in Hawaii and Southern California)
Sun Runner (from SUNRNR, based in Virginia)
Some of these are intended for use on construction job sites or public works projects. Most are mounted on trailers that can be towed. While many of these generators are meant for commercial/industrial uses, some could also potentially be used to power an entire off-grid homestead.
Mobile Solar Power (based in Central California)
Mobile Green Power (based in Northern California)
Pure Power Distribution (based in Southern California)
SolaRover (based in Colorado)
Some companies offer hybrid systems that allow for back-up generation using biodiesel (or regular diesel or gas), if solar power is not providing adequate energy for a user’s needs.
Feel free to chime in with any additional info and recommendations in the Comments section below. If you've used a solar generator, please share your experience.