Super-Small-Scale Solar with a Portable Generator and 100-Watt Panel

Reader Contribution by Kyle Chandler-Isacksen and Be The Change Project
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by pentium5

Solar panel with generator.

We started our urban homestead and Be the Change Project in 2011, dedicated to living a low-impact, high-quality life. Part of having a small footprint and withdrawing support from extractive industries like coal was living electricity-free. And, aside from headlamps, we did that for over seven years. Then, in early 2018, desiring some of the trappings of 21st-century civilization, such as a laptop, cellphone, and cordless power tools (ah, power tools), we decided to get a small solar system to meet our electric wants and needs.

Trying Out the Aeiusny Portable Power Generator

Cost. Wanting a simple, all-in-one system, we bought a single 100-watt panel for about $85 and a 296-watt-hour/400-watt Aeiusny portable power station for about $275. Now, I don’t know much about watts or watt-hours, but after describing what we were looking to accomplish to a friend, he recommended this size of generator. They’re common, I’ve learned, with car campers and the RV/VW bus crowd.  We can now easily charge all of our gizmos and bring the battery in at night for some warm, yellow-spectrum light from a string of LEDs.

Using the generator. The power station’s two AC plugs and four USB ports make it easy to plug in and charge away. It has a handy LED display showing its percentage charged, which lets us know when we need to get it back to the solar panel as well as how much each of our gadgets uses.

We’ve learned that our LED lights use next to nothing over several hours — maybe a percent. The cellphone uses almost as little, while the computer will drain a few points over a couple hours. My Ryobi tool battery charger drains the power station rapidly — maybe 40 percent for one battery. As a result, we only charge them during the day when the sun is out, which doesn’t drain the power station battery at all; there’s an equilibrium between the energy input from the sun and the output to the battery.

Charging. The solar generator charges quickly in direct sun, maybe 10 percent an hour, and decently even in partly cloudy conditions. We’ve never run out of juice, and after a string of several cloudy days, it will eventually dip to about 50 percent.

I mounted our solar panel onto a little frame with castors on the bottom so I can turn it toward the sun when I pass by it during the day. The little yellow unit (which is about as big as a large loaf of bread) rests on a base beneath the panel, where it merrily charges out of direct sunlight.

Like so much other technology, this system is a slippery slope for us. Having electricity around, even very little, has opened the doors of temptation, my child. We have since bought a wireless speaker (draws about as much as the phone) and a blender (one smoothie drains 3 to 4 percent).

Generator with blender.

Were we a bit dogmatic, maybe even a little puritanical, when we started our project in 2011? Yes. But, our goal was to live well with what we considered an appropriate amount of Appropriate Technologies: simpler tech that’s accessible to most (democratic) and low-impact. Solar PV, even such a small system, was a big leap for us, but we sure do like it. The blender, for example, has been a big hit with the kids (who love smoothies) and has led to better soups, pestos, and powders from Katy’s solar-dehydrated herbs.

If we desired more power, and maybe we will a few years down the road, I’d buy a larger power station and string a few panels together. With LEDs and today’s low-energy gizmos and advanced battery technology, I think a slightly bigger system would meet most of an energy-thrifty family’s electricity needs at a very affordable price.

Kyle Chandler-Isacksen is a tinkerer, natural builder, and community organizer in Reno, Nevada. He and his family run the Be the Change Project, a fossil-fuel-, car-, and electricity-free urban homestead and learning space dedicated to service and simplicity and inspired by the principles of Gandhian Integral Nonviolence. They were honored as one of MOTHER’s Homesteaders of the Year in 2013. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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