Solar generators:
Have you seen the light?

The past decade has seen the battery-powered electrification of entire lines of outdoor power equipment and tools – but there has been little attention paid to the impact of battery power on portable generators. John Power investigates.

Most trade and DIY purchasers of an impact driver or drill are happy to rush straight to the battery-powered ranges in their hardware store. The ‘battery revolution’, as discussed in last issue’s 40th anniversary special feature, has already won the battle in smaller handheld tool categories and is rapidly making incursions into heavier ranges of outdoor power equipment such as mowers, chainsaws and blowers. Indeed, as revealed at last year’s OPEA (Outdoor Power Equipment Association) annual general meeting, battery-compatible outdoor power equipment in Australia enjoyed a 39 per cent increase in sales in the 12 months to mid-2018.

But what is the situation with portable generators? 

Certainly, over the past year the portable generator sector has had a tough time. In 2017-18 conventional petrol and diesel generators were Australia’s worst performing outdoor power equipment category, suffering a decline in sales of 36 per cent. No doubt this drop in popularity has had a lot to do with the rise of battery-powered power tools; i.e., the huge uptake in battery-powered tools has meant that tradies, in particular, have not needed portable generators to operate plug-in worksite equipment; there simply has not been much plug-in equipment to worry about. And in situations where a generator has been needed, smaller-capacity generators have sufficed to handle the odd piece of gear and perhaps some lighting.

FROM WORKSITES TO CAMPSITES

In light of these evolving practices at building worksites, it is clear that market demand for portable generators is switching from labourers, landscapers and builders to an entirely different set of users. Specifically, future dominant markets for portable generators will be leisure and pleasure seekers, small business operators, as well as homeowners – and Australia’s increasing familiarity with solar-powered household technologies will only accelerate the process. 

Examples of future users of portable generators might include campers, caravan and campervan holidaymakers, farmers and craft market stallholders, homeowners (for emergency power outage backup), owners of ‘tiny homes’ or remote properties, and mobile businesses.

Traditionally, the portable generator category has invited two main purchasing options: how big, and diesel or petrol? However, as market demand switches from worksites to campsites, some fundamental problems with petrol and diesel generators are becoming obvious: old-style, CO2-emitting generators produce noise and fumes; they rely on the ready availability of liquid fuels; and they are not designed to handle a massive range of devices with widely variable power requirements – sometimes a user may want to run a kettle, power drill and fridge simultaneously, but at other times, it might be a matter of simply wanting to charge a phone. A battery-powered generator offers far more flexibility than petrol or diesel models regarding the operation (or recharging) of smaller devices that require frequent, brief recharging intervals.

Demand for portable generators is set to take off in camping and leisure industries.

The deficiencies of conventional petrol or diesel generators are particularly striking as Australia’s population grows, civic congestion escalates, and cultural expectations change to accommodate higher levels of comfort. Whether travelling around the country in a Land Rover or setting up a marquee at the local craft market, electrical devices once considered ‘luxuries’ are now regarded as mainstream. From fridges used to store medications and perishable foods to TVs, wi-fi-compatible  radios, mobile credit card processors and laptops, powered devices are now part of our everyday mobile lives – and modern users do not want noisy smelly generators interfering with their serenity.

SOLAR GAINS STRENGTH

In response to these cultural trends, a number of companies have emerged to satisfy a broad range of DIY and light commercial users, with solar-powered generators now available with capacities from just a few hundred watts right up to 3,000 watts. US companies like Goal Zero and Kodiak, both of which have distributors in Australia, have entered the market mostly via camping and outdoor pursuits retailers, but there is no reason why retail outdoor power equipment outlets should not join the party.

The top-of-the-line Goal Zero Yeti 3000, for example, is able to perform a host of real-world tasks thanks to a powerful Li-Ion battery capable of delivering a peak capacity of 3,075wH (10.8v, 132 Ah) via a suite of handy ports designed to accommodate contemporary devices. These ports include a pair of standard 240v sockets as well as four USB ports for charging electronic units like phones, headphones and laptops. Additional popular configurations like a cigarette lighter-style 12v outlet are great for powering up apparatus like camp fridges. Immediately, the advantages of this kind of electric generator are apparent: not only is it able to harness free solar energy, but its generous range of up-to-date ports means users can charge devices at any time of the day, as needed, in complete silence. By contrast, campers using a petrol or diesel generator would normally be compelled to run their generator for limited durations at certain times of the day, purely to minimise inconvenience to other holidaymakers, and to charge all devices during those brief periods.

A single charge of the Yeti 3000 is sufficient to run several small-scale electrical devices for days on end, with solar charging provided by a couple of 50w solar panels (additional panels may be used, as desired). Charging can occur while the generator is in use, thereby providing a continual refreshing of the battery. Naturally, this means motorised devices with high energy consumption like power tools should be used when solar gain is at its peak in the middle of the day.

Additional batteries can also be linked to the system to increase longevity, though charging times increase accordingly. In general, it might take a day to charge up a Yeti 3000, which can be expedited using a mix of solar and mains electricity inputs.

PERFORMANCE REALITIES

A battery-powered generator is expensive – the Yeti 3000 and accessories can cost $5,000 – so current demand is limited to highly specialised users. However, given the rapid pace of technological change and ever-declining prices, it is inevitable that solar generators will win market share from petrol/diesel models quickly. To put this claim in context, more than 42 per cent of people in the world now have a smartphone, which is incredible considering Apple released its first iPhone just 13 years ago.

Not all industry analysts are convinced that battery-powered generators will be feasible in mainstream markets. After all, a diesel or petrol unit delivers instant power with no fuss and at greater wattages, so who would want to pay an exorbitant price for a smaller-capacity, solar-powered unit?

There are two points worth noting here: 1. liquid fuels like petrol and diesel are incredibly expensive to locate, mine, refine, store and distribute, and they are ONLY cost-effective when used as fuels for combustion engines in the automobile industry. That industry is switching irrevocably to battery power (Volvo, for instance, no longer makes purely petrol or diesel engines), so the bulk market for petrol and diesel fuels is vanishing. That means petrol and diesel fuels will soon be completely unaffordable, and secondary manufacturers dealing in outdoor power equipment will have to switch to battery power whether they like it or not.

And 2. performance of battery-powered equipment is improving at an exponential rate, supported by increasingly efficient tools and devices that use less energy than their predecessors, and therefore have lower power requirements in the first place.

Also, performance is a subjective term. Consider the example of LED and plasma televisions, which replaced cathode ray tube TVs in the early 2000s despite woefully inferior picture quality – the market forgave poor picture quality in favour of slimline depth, larger screens and Internet connectivity. The lesson here is that raw performance is just one of many factors affecting a market’s acceptance of new technologies. 

No doubt, solar generators will be subject to equally complex, even contradictory, considerations.