ower outages are becoming more common throughout the United States due to severe weather events intensified by the climate crisis and the country’s aging electricity grid. The past decade experienced 64% more blackouts compared to the decade prior, Climate Central reports. If you live in an area prone to grid outages, you might want to secure yourself against suddenly being left without electricity. If that is the case, solar power generators are an option you should look into.
What is a solar power generator?
You’ve probably seen traditional power generators used by households and businesses during power outages. Such a device can be a real lifesaver in the event of an emergency but is far from perfect in terms of environmental impact. Most conventional generators are fueled by gasoline or diesel, meaning you contribute to air pollution and climate change with every use. Conversely, solar generators, also called portable PV power stations, allow you to keep your electronics powered by clean and renewable solar energy.
Solar generators include rechargeable batteries paired with solar panels calculator that enable you to run your appliances during blackouts. These stations are self-contained portable units that can be easily transported, making them ideal for indoor use to power your home during grid outages and for providing electricity to any remote location.
Components of a solar generator
A solar emergency generator is a system consisting of four equally important components. Let's quickly go over these elements of a portable solar power station:
- Compact solar panels – to collect solar irradiance
Solar panels for generators work on the same principle as their rooftop counterparts; the only difference is their compact size and complete portability. Photovoltaic panels designed for solar generators are typically foldable and be easily carried anywhere.
Stationary solar panels are heavy because of their metal frames and rigid due to the cover glass. By contrast, panels for solar generators are exceptionally lightweight and much less prone to breakage, therefore can be transported without having to worry about breaking fragile equipment.
- Solar charge controller – to condition power solar panels produce
A charge controller is as essential for generators as for full-fledged solar installations. This element regulates the power coming from the panels to the battery and helps avoid overvoltage.
- Solar battery – to store solar power
Every solar generator has a built-in battery to store the energy produced by panels. This battery supplies electricity when power from the grid isn’t available.
Types of batteries for solar generators
There are several types of batteries used in solar generators. The most widely used are lead-acid, lithium-ion, and LiFePO4.
- Lead-acid solar battery
A lead-acid solar battery is the oldest technology that stores electricity using chemical reactions between lead and sulfuric acid. This battery has been used for decades but is gradually being replaced by newer, more efficient products. The main advantage of using lead-acid batteries is the lower price, while the disadvantages include limited capacity, considerable power losses, and shorter lifespan.
- Lithium-ion solar battery
Li-ion battery is a newer technology whose electrochemistry is based on lithium ions. This battery type is increasingly used in solar generators with a long list of advantages, such as high energy density, low rate of self-discharge, and high efficiency. However, this li-ion battery is more expensive and, therefore, can drive up the cost of the entire power station.
- LiFePO4 solar battery
Lithium Ferrous Phosphate (LiFePO4) batteries are currently considered the optimal choice for solar generators. Their energy density is somewhat lower than that of lithium-ion batteries making them less efficient for small devices like watches. But when it comes to powering larger equipment like a solar generator, LiFePO4 options offer longer life cycles, higher depth of discharge, and lower cost.
- Solar inverter – to make solar power usable
And, of course, a solar generator includes an inverter – a piece of equipment that makes electricity generated by panels and stored in a battery suitable for powering our devices. A solar inverter is typically included in the generator kit. However, in some cases, you may need to buy it separately.
When choosing an inverter, make sure its capacity is proportional to that of a generator to maximize the output. Pure sine wave inverters are considered the most efficient type for solar generators but will likely cost you more than lower-quality alternatives.
How do solar power generators work?
Now that you know what solar generators are and what components they consist of, let’s take a look at how they operate.
Step 1: Solar panels capture solar radiation and generate electricity
First, we need to collect sunlight and turn it into electricity. Solar panels are in charge here: they capture sunlight and use it to produce an electric current through the photovoltaic effect. This process is no different in solar generators from rooftop solar systems. When the sun’s rays reach the panels of a generator, they excite the electrons within solar cells. An internal electric field forces these electrons to move around the circuit, creating the flow of electricity. This current then runs down the wires to the charge controller.
Step 2: Solar charge controller manages the power produced by solar panels
The voltages solar panels produce are usually higher than the voltages the generator batteries can store. This helps the batteries to charge faster but can be dangerous when they are approaching full charge.
The solar charge controller within a generator keeps a check on the battery’s voltage and determines how much electricity can be safely pumped into it. The controller also stops electricity flow when the batteries are full.
Step 3: The battery within a solar emergency generator stores energy from solar panels
Solar energy enters a battery, and a chemical reaction between its components stores it. When the generator battery is discharged, the reaction reverses so that the current can exit.
Step 4: Solar inverter converts DC power to AC power
After leaving a battery, the electricity still isn’t ready to power our devices. This is all because solar panels produce direct current (DC) since the electrons within solar cells flow only in one single direction. Meanwhile, most appliances require alternating current (AC), where the direction of charge periodically changes. That’s why every generator has an inverter that converts DC to AC, making solar power ready for use.
Pros and cons of solar power generators
In this section, we will examine what benefits solar power generators offer and what downsides might come along with them.
What makes a solar emergency generator a good investment? Pros of solar generators
Solar generators provide you with a free fuel supply
Solar power is an unlimited energy source that can be harvested at no cost as long as the sun continues to shine. While the cost of electricity from fossil fuels is rising at an alarming rate, solar generators offer free and limitless power, which results in considerable savings.
Solar power from PV generators is green
Solar power produced by generators is one of the cleanest energy sources: it yields zero greenhouse emissions when operating and isn’t responsible for air pollution associated with fossil fuel-fired plants. According to studies, solar photovoltaics produces 10 to 20 times less CO2 than non-renewables like gas and coal.
Solar generators are portable
A large proportion of solar generators on the market are portable. This means you get a unique opportunity to harness solar power wherever you are, on camping trips, outdoor events such as weddings and festivals, or farming operations in remote areas.
Solar generators are an excellent solution for grid outages
But apart from outdoor use, solar generators can come in handy in case of power outages. If a grid goes down, you will still be able to power your home appliances for hours.
Solar generators require little maintenance
Solar generators have no moving parts and are relatively simply arranged. Therefore, they require little to no maintenance. An average solar emergency generator lasts about five years without failure, whereas the most advanced options will serve you well for up to 16 years.
The noise levels of solar generators are pretty low
Another advantage of solar generators is that they aren’t contributing to noise pollution. While the noise coming from the engine in a conventional generator can reach 100 decibels, the sound created by a generator is barely noticeable. Basically, you will hear only slight noise from cooling fans and a faint buzzing sound from the inverter.
A solar emergency generator isn’t a silver bullet. Cons of solar generators
Solar generators are weather-dependant
Unfortunately, the amount of electricity solar emergency generator produces depends on the density of cloud cover. While solar panels will produce power even on cloudy days, they won’t operate at their best efficiency, meaning it will take longer for a battery to charge. And if a grid goes down late in the evening, you won’t be able to produce emergency backup power.
The amount of power solar generators can produce and store is limited
The energy a solar emergency generator can store depends on its capacity, which can be anywhere between 100 watts and 2 kW. In case of a power outage, an average 1kW solar generator will hardly be able to run your major home appliances longer than for several hours.
Solar emergency generator VS gas generator: which one is better?
Here are some considerations you might find helpful when deciding between a gas-powered generator and a solar generator.
A gas-powered generator converts mechanical energy into electrical energy with the help of an internal combustion engine, which provides the mechanical force to produce current. Such generators are commonly used as a source of remote power and backup units for emergency power supply. They’re valued for reliability: they can be connected to a local underground gas pipeline for a near-unlimited power supply, thus eliminating the need for a fuel storage tank. Additionally, gas generators are relatively cheap and quiet.
Gas generators are popular among people eyeing ways to reduce their carbon footprint because they produce considerably less carbon dioxide and other harmful pollutants than diesel or gasoline options. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), natural gas emits 52.91 kg of CO2 per million BTU, diesel emits 74.14 kg of CO2, and gasoline emits 70.66 kg of CO2 per million BTU. Still, as you can probably tell from the data, power from gas generators is far from being clean.
Solar generators, by contrast, offer clean power produced by harnessing sunlight. Solar panels don't emit dangerous pollutants when generating electricity, and the amount of CO2 produced during solar manufacturing is minimal. As for the cost, while some people prefer gas generators due to lower upfront investment, they end up paying more. Unlike gas generators, solar units run for free by collecting sunlight and don’t require fuel.
Solar generator VS solar battery bank: which solar option is better for power outages?
So if you are determined to power your home with solar, the next decision you have to make is whether to go for a solar emergency generator or a sull-scale solar setup with battery storage. Well, your needs and budget are key considerations when choosing between them.
The biggest selling point of a generator is portability. You can easily carry it with you wherever you go and power your devices in remote areas. A permanent solar installation, by contrast, allows you to collect and store energy only for residential use.
Another advantage of a solar emergency generator over a solar battery bank is its relatively modest price tag: its average cost is around $2,000. In contrast, a panels-plus-storage system can cost you as much as $30,000.
But in all other aspects, rooftop installation outperforms generators. The capacity of a conventional battery is much higher, enabling you to store more energy for later use, for example, for nighttime. Conversely, generators don’t produce or store enough electricity to power more than a few devices over a short period, typically a couple of hours.
A solar installation operates permanently and feeds power to the batteries without any effort from you, while solar generators require that you wouldn't forget to put them on charge. And finally, solar battery storage can be expanded almost infinitely, while storing opportunities of a generator are limited by its size.
What to look for when choosing a solar power generator
So if you decided to buy a solar emergency generator, you would certainly wonder how to choose the one that will suit you most. Below are key parameters you need to look out for when making a purchase.
Solar generator capacity
The first thing you should consider is the size of the solar emergency generator you want. There is a wide range of capacities available on the market – from 300Wh to 2000Wh, and the more devices you have to power and the longer run time you need, the bigger capacity your generator has to possess. So at least a rough estimate of how much power you need is crucial here.
First, you have to add all the capacities of the devices you might need to power outdoors or at home during a blackout (check the capacity plates at the rear). For example, you want to run a refrigerator (400 watts) and a laptop (60 watts). Thus, we need 460 watts of power in total.
The second indicator we need is an output power factor which shows what percentage of the energy can be used by the load. For simplicity, let's take the industry standard of 0.8.
Suppose you opt for a solar generator with a 1,500 Wh capacity. Let’s find out how many hours it will be powering your appliances. Multiply 1,500 by an output power factor and divide by the needed wattage:
1,500 Wh * 0.8 / 460 w = 2.6 hours
So if you believe 2,6 working hours work well for you, a 1,500 Wh capacity will suit you just fine.
Peak power output of a solar generator
Peak power output (PPO), also called surge power, is the maximum power a generator can supply for a short time. The peak power output depends upon its inverter rating. The best residential generators can deliver a peak power output of up to 6,000W.
Solar generator recharge time
Most people are not willing to wait too long for their generator to charge, so this is the parameter worth paying attention to. Solar generators can take 1 to 48 hours to charge, depending on the battery's capacity, the panels' capacity, and the amount of sunlight.
Solar battery a solar emergency generator uses
As we’ve already discussed, battery type plays a significant role in generator efficiency. If you seek the best possible performance, opt for a LiFePO4 or Li-ion battery. If you prefer a budget-friendlier option, a lead-acid battery is just what you need.
What is the best solar emergency generator on the market? Top-8 solar power generators
The market is dripping with options, so everyone can find something for themselves. We have prepared a list of the top 12 generators to help you navigate the variety of models available today.
- Jackery Explorer 1000 Portable Power Station – best solar generator overall
This Jackery solution is versatile, affordable, and ideal for both indoor and outdoor use. It offers a li-Ion battery with 1002Wh capacity and can produce 1000W power. Explorer is sturdy, compact, and not too heavy for its battery size. The device has multiple output ports: two USB-C, two USB-A, one DC car port, and three pure sine wave AC outlets.
- Bluetti EP500 solar emergency generator – the most powerful solar generator
Bluetti EP500 generator boasts a vast power capacity: its 5100Wh LiFePO4 battery allows it to power a small 150W refrigerator for about four days without recharging. The main drawbacks of this model are its high cost and heavy weight, which makes it less transportable.
- Renogy Lycan 5000 Power Box — the best option for domestic solar power backup
This generator is specially designed to supply power during emergencies and power blackouts. It can connect to the main switchboard to ensure an uninterruptible power supply, meaning all your devices will continue working without stopping even when the grid is down. Another benefit is fast recharging which takes as little as one hour. However, this generator is very heavy and, therefore, suitable only for home use.
- BLUETTI AC200P – the best solar generator for living off the grid
This generator can only be charged with PV panels, which isn’t a problem for off-grid living as you don’t need AC outlets. The model features a LiFePO4 battery which can store up to 2000Wh of energy. It can charge fully in as little as 3 hours, depending on the number of solar panels. But for all its advantages, the AC200P generator is quite heavy and has a single 60W USB-C port.
- BLUETTI EB150 Solar Bundle – the best solar generator bundled with solar panels
This is a good package deal for those who don’t want to spend time choosing both the generator and solar panels. Here you get everything included in one bundle for a reasonable price. However, it takes much time for the generator to charge with the panels in the kit.
- Jackery Explorer 500 solar generator — the best lightweight solar generator
This is one of the best solar generators for camping: it weighs only 13 pounds, has an easy-carry handle, and is about the size of a portable radio. Other benefits include a sturdy design, four charging options, and pass-through charging. As for the cons, the generator has no USB-C ports and is not waterproof.
- ECOFLOW Delta 1300 solar generator – top solar choice for simultaneously charging many devices
Delta 1300 generator is a good choice for large families, as a single unit can power 13 devices simultaneously. It offers a 1260Wh capacity, 1800W power output, and a comparatively fast charge (3.5-7 hours when charged with solar panels). But it is not without drawbacks: its capacity goes under 60% after only 800 life cycles, and the noize levels are comparatively high.
- TACKLIFE P50 500Wh Portable Power Station – the best portable solar generator
This solar generator has one of the best capacity-to-size ratios. Despite being compact and lightweight, it has a decent 500Wh capacity and can charge ten devices simultaneously. Still, solar charging is relatively slow.