The U.S. military has long used portable PVs in Iraq and their other Middle East battles, and “developing nations” like Africa and India are deploying portable PVs in areas where the majority of the population has little chance of becoming grid connected. But portable PVs are also a growing market in the outdoor recreation industry.
These markets seem to be tailor made for flexible thin-film PV manufacturers. For both the outdoor recreation and military, the ability to roll-up an array of PV panels and carry them from location to location is the biggest selling point for the design of these products. And as thin-film PVs become more efficient, that market becomes even wider. Currently these portable units all use either flexible CIGS or mono-crystalline PVs.
Why Portable PV is Growing
Over the past several years, the electronics industry has changed work, entertainment, and communications with an explosion of advanced mobile devices such as MP3 players, cell phones, smart phones, GPS units, tablets, and laptops. This explosion includes the tools to access the internet and work remotely in places where there was previously no access. The downside is that these devices need power to operate and recharge, and that means a need for more advanced remote power sources.
An October 2010 study by ABI Research examined the possible solutions for these mobile power needs and concluded that: “As people carry and use increasing numbers of portable electronic devices, they have a growing need to charge their batteries on the go. Today’s road warriors can tell you it’s not always feasible to plug a cellphone handset into a wall outlet or car adapter for a quick charge.”
The ABI report projected that this portable power industry, called the “Advanced Charging Technologies” industry which includes portable solar chargers, is currently estimated at $1.5 billion in revenue and is expected a grow to $34 billion by 2015. That is a Compound Annual Growth Rate(CAGR) of 86%.
The U.S. military alone is forecast to spend $6.1 billion on portable power units by 2030 for forward military bases and temporary installations.
The new generation of easy to carry portable PV power devices now on the commercial market range in power output from 6 to 60 watts. Those with less power can operate smaller devices like MP3 players and cell phones directly and be used to charge larger devices like laptops. Larger products like solar tents range in power up to 2kW and are all available through recreation portable power companies.
Recreation Portable PVs
A number of companies are currently producing portable PV systems designed to be folded or rolled-up for easy transport in a carrying case for hikers, bicyclists, campers, and hunters. Many either come with a rechargeable battery power unit or offer them as an option. The same is true with DC-to-AC inverters. The over all pricing of these units usually works out to be between $10 to15 per watt.
The top companies in the recreation portable PV field are currently Brunton Outdoor, Goal Zero, and Sunforce. PowerFilm, Inc. (originally named Iowa Thin Film Technologies, Inc) also makes units designed for forward military operations, including folding PV units of up to 60 watts (15.4 volts) and two solar tents (1kW and 2kW).
Sunforce 22010 12-Watt Folding Solar Panel
One example is Wyoming-based Brunton Outdoor company who’s products have become popular with outdoor recreation types. The Brunton “Solaris” foldable solar panel uses high efficiency CIGS PVs that can produce 52, 26, 12 or 6 Watts (12volts / 800mA) of regulated PV power. The company also makes the 17-ounce “SolarRoll” capable of generating 14 Watts of power (15.1 volts at 900 mAh) - enough to run a satellite phone, digital camera, and many other mobile electronic devices. It can also charge larger items like laptop computers or car batteries and the SolarRoll quickly rolls up into a tube carrying case.
Brunton SolarRoll Flexible Solar Panel
A new entry into this growing market is Ground Zero. The testing company Outdoor Gear Lab recently gave the Goal Zero Sherpa 120 Kit their “Editors' Choice” award for “Best Portable Solar Panel.” The folding 27-watt (12-volt) mono-crystalline PV unit also includes both a lithium-iron phosphate battery pack and a universal inverter capable of a 120 or 200 volt output. The Nomad PV panels used in all of Ground Zero’s portable PV units have a power converting efficiency of 17-18 percent, according to the company.
The Military Portable PV
Pew Charitable Trusts released a report, From Barracks to the Battlefield: Clean Energy Innovation and America’s Armed Forces, in September 2011 that notes that the U.S. Department of Defense’s clean energy investments increased 300 percent between 2006 and 2009, from $400 million to $1.2 billion, and are projected to eclipse $10 billion annually by 2030. The majority of the spending will be for portable base applications including portable “soldier power.” In fact, the total market for renewable mobile power for forward military bases and temporary installations is forecast to reach $6.1 billion by 2030, according to recent industry reports.
“DOD’s efforts to harness clean energy will save lives, save money and enhance the nation’s energy and economic future,” said Phyllis Cuttino, director of the Pew Clean Energy Program. “Their work is also helping to spur the growth of the clean energy economy.”
The U.S. military’s deployment of portable PVs to charge equipment in the field has been used in remote areas of Afghanistan since September 2010. These include portable solar chargers, solar-powered shade tents, and portable PV panels for soldiers on patrol that roll up and fit into their packs.
Among the equipment used by the Marines located in the Sangin District of Helmand Province, Afghanistan was the “PowerShade” solar tarp from PowerFilm, Inc., which also makes a large selection of outdoor recreation portable PVs. The tarps are designed to fit over a standard issue Marine Corps tent to power the tent's different electrical needs and lighting. PowerFilm currently makes a 1kW and 2kW “solar tent” which isalso available commercially.
In June 2011, the U.S. Army’s Project Manager for Mobile Electric Power, or PM MEP, began installing mobile power “microgrid” technologies in Afghanistan as part of a project to evaluate the equipment on the battlefield - the first attempt by the DOD to evaluate microgrids in an operational environment.
PowerFilm, Inc. 2kW “Powershade” solar tent
Market Opportunity Conclusions
Given the harsh weather the U.S. and other countries have experienced, it’s likely that portable solar PV units and solar tents will become more and more part of the standard emergency equipment, opening a potential market for those manufactures who are aggressive in this market.
The U.S. military market seems to be still wide open as well. Because the military has moved into renewable energy so rapidly, much of the technology currently being used has been adapted from commercially available civilian models, including portable recreation PV units. In the summer of 2011, the DOD released it’s first-ever “Operational Energy Strategy.” The strategy will “increase the energy efficiency of operations; limit the risks troops face as they use, transport and store energy; and minimize the amount of defense dollars spent consuming energy.”
On June 24, 2011, the Army opened their 10-acre System Integration Laboratory at Fort Devens, Massachusetts to test new technologies as they become available. As data is collected, information from these components will be compared to measure their effectiveness. Once the technologies are proven effective, SIL will use them with currently deployed and future forces for implementation.
One of the wide open markets for new technology companies is the military use “microgrids” at temporary camps that quickly grow in size and power consumption, according to the military.
“They kept adding module after module, and they ended up with 96 separate generator sets,” said Chris Bolton, lead engineer for the U.S. Army’s Project Manager for Mobile Electric Power. “The intent was to take a lot of the commercially available technology and state-of-the-art microgrid systems and apply it to that situation.”
Army researchers are also looking to develop a universal power converter that would enable the interconnection of power generation devices from a variety of sources, such as solar, batteries, and fossil-fuel generators. The key concern for the military in deployed environments is that troops are likely to encounter a mix of both military and commercial traditional and renewable energy sources. What the military needs is the ability to connect these power sources easily with microgrids.
According to a military statement, these need to be designed “so that a soldier can just hook them up any way and plug things in and not have to worry about doing prior analysis of how the power grid should be laid out or what load should be placed where.”