If you live in New York, you might have seen something interesting showing up on people's backs lately: solar panels. It's not common and it's certainly not a trend, but backpacks and laptop bags with solar panels exist and they're in use. Isn't that somewhat impressive on its own?
I recently tried out the Voltaic generator bag, a laptop bag with a solar panel on one side. It fits laptops of many sizes -- I carried a 15" MacBook Pro, a notebook (analog -- that is, the kind with recycled paper in it), a few pens, a book and the various cords that come with the bag.
Jeff Crystal, from Voltaic, told me that the solar bag should charge up in about five hours and provide about an hour and a half of charge for my MacBook Pro. Computers that draw less energy, of course, could run longer. Jeff thought that a MacBook Air could run for about three hours.
But you're already doing the math, right? Five hours of charge for an hour and a half of use? Doesn't work out very well. That brings me to my first point about the generator: It's really cool, it looks like it's from the future, people will ask you about it, and everything will be just fine as long as they don't ask you, "does it work like a dream?"
More concisely, here's a line from a friend who has a pair of the bags:
It generates more conversation than it does energy.
Is that such a bad thing? In this economy, yeah, it's not ideal.
SPREADING THE NEWS
But I have to say that I felt great carrying the thing around and being asked -- regularly -- about the solar bag. Conversations inevitably evolved into chats about how people had been meaning to price out solar for their home and on to solar power generally.
George Soros or somebody should be paying people to walk around major cities and take public transportation with these bags. Hell -- First Solar or some solar company should be doing that!
Frankly, a lot of people think solar power is a joke. Take my roommate, for example. Here's a quick chat we had when I secured the bag for review:
Me: Dude, I'm bringing home a solar briefcase for review.
Friend: Does it protect documents from the sun by a "solar opaque covering and seal?" (i.e. just a f***ing briefcase)
Friend: But seriously, can't wait to find out what the hell it does WITH THE SUN.
Me: Powers laptops.
Friend: Oh, that's genuinely cool. I'm still gonna make fun of it the whole time though. But that's great.
And if carrying the bag around changes people from thinking that way to thinking about how they could use solar for themselves, well that's pretty cool.
I can't say it enough: It looks cool, and it wasn't just eco-geeks commenting on it. In fact, eco-geeks seemed to mostly seethe quietly in jealousy. The commenters were passersby on the street, the subway and one doorman at a marine-themed party.
BUT BACK TO THE FUNCTIONALITY
Initially, I had a hard time getting the bag to work. I tried charging it through one window, then through another, and emailed Jeff again. He reminded me of something that an electrical engineer friend had recently complained to me about: if so much as one cell is covered or shaded, the whole solar panel does nothing for you.
My windows aren't the sunniest.
"Do you have roof access?" he asked.
To the rusty ladder!
On a sunny day, I clambered up on top of our building through the newly renovated, yet still very scary, porthole on the floor above ours. I set the generator bag down, leaning it against a chimney, facing mostly south, and let it alone.
Sure enough, four hours later, when I plugged a laptop into it, it fired right up. Success! A little more than an hour of glorious Web surfing!
Look, the bag isn't for me. It costs a lot ($499) and I don't have a convenient place to use it. But if you've got a deck, an easily-accessible roof, an office with killer windows or anything like that, you would get a lot more value out of it. And to tell you the truth, I'm now very seriously looking into putting stationary solar panels on my roof to power my desk.