A month after Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on the eastern seaboard of the United States, there are still thousands of people without power to their homes. Fortunately for many of those people, they've been able to charge smartphones and tablets or run appliances temporarily thanks to Goal Zero, a Utah-based company that produces solar generator kits that can energize anything from a single phone to critical medical units depending on the size. A number of Goal Zero's kits have been donated to the relief effort. Goal Zero provided TUAW with a prototype Sherpa 50 Solar Recharging Kit (US$449.99) that can provide you with off-the-grid energy for your tech equipment. Let's take a look.
The Sherpa 50 Solar Recharging Kit provides all three parts of a workable solar power system -- a solar panel, a battery to store the electrical energy created by the panel and a way to get the power from the battery to your device.
There are actually three pieces to the kit that give you the functionality you need: the Nomad 13 Solar Panel, which charges the Sherpa 50 Recharger that then distributes the power to your devices. An inverter is also available to power AC devices. The Nomad 13 isn't all that large, but will recharge the Sherpa 50's battery in about five hours. That battery will give your laptop two hours of life or an iPad up to 15 hours of happy computing.
The Sherpa 50's battery pack can also be charged from a normal AC wall outlet in about two to three hours or from a car power outlet in four to six hours. This is useful if you plan on using the Sherpa 50 for emergency situations; you'll always be able to have a fully charged battery. Then when the power goes out or you're away from the grid, you can simply use the Nomad 13 solar panel to recharge the battery in about five hours.
The Sherpa 50 provides 50 Watt-hours of power. Just as a comparison, Mophie's largest battery pack, the Powerstation PRO, provides only about 6 Watt-hours of power in a pinch. In addition, that Powerstation PRO needs a wall outlet in order to be recharged. Not so with the Sherpa 50, since you can be anywhere there's sunlight and recharge the battery pack.
You might think that with all of this available power that the kit is huge. Not so; the Nomad 13 solar panel has an area of 10.5 inches x 9 inches when folded, and with the Recharger put into the net pocket on the back, it's only about 1.5 inches thick. Weight-wise, the entire package (without the AC adapter for recharging) is only three pounds, seven ounces.
The Sherpa 50 is nicely constructed and feels very robust. The case that the Nomad solar panel comes in has hanging loops all the way around, perfect for making sure that the panel gets full sunlight for fast charging. There was a plastic covering over the solar cells that I did not remove since the unit had to be returned at the end of the review. The case has a magnetic closure that holds the folding panel closed when in a backpack.
Unzipping the net pocket on the back of the panel reveals a junction box that includes a USB port if you wish to try to charge or run a device directly from the sun without using the Sherpa's battery. A color-coded 12V cable plugs into a port on the back of the Sherpa 50 to charge its battery -- that cable is quite long so that the Sherpa 50 can be placed in the shade while the panels are in full sunlight.
There's also a "chain" cable for daisy-chaining up to three more panels for ultra-fast charging. Finally, a fourth cable is used to charge up rechargeable AA batteries in one of Goal Zero's Guide 10 power packs.
The Sherpa 50 uses a Lithium-Ion NMC battery pack, and can hold its charge for several months. Goal Zero recommends recharging the pack every three to four months or keeping the pack plugged in between uses. On the back is a bright LED bulb that can be used as a flashlight, as well as a bunch of output ports for various purposes -- 12V, USB and a 19V laptop port. Touching the on/off switch turns the battery pack on and displays the state of charge on a small backlit LCD. That LCD also becomes visible when you plug the Nomad panel into the Sherpa 50 for recharging.
The final piece of the kit is the Sherpa's inverter "sidecar" (sold separately), which attaches to the battery pack with one bolt and takes the 12 volt input and produces 110 Volt AC power at up to 65 watts. My first test of the Sherpa 50 was to see if I could run my MacBook Air off of the device for a while. To do this, I plugged the MacBook Air's AC adapter into the outlet on the inverter, flipped the switch to "on" and a few seconds later the charging light came on. Success! Unlike some inverters I've used in the past that make an annoying buzz, the Sherpa was virtually silent.
The Sherpa 50 Solar Recharging Kit is the complete deal for keeping your technology up and running off the grid. Whether you're planning an adventure to a part of the world where power is unavailable or want to be prepared for situations where the power might be out for extended periods of time, it's a reasonably priced solution that can keep your devices going.
Unfortunately, Goal Zero has had to push out availability of the Sherpa 50 kit, and at this time it's not available for order from the company's Web site. If you're interested specifically in the Sherpa 50 kit, I suggest that you visit the company's site on a regular basis to see when it is finally available to the public.
I'm seriously considering getting one of these units, although I live in a part of the country where the power company does a great job of keeping the lights on. But I do some volunteer work where I need the ability to charge or power devices -- an iPad, a camera and a low-power amateur radio transceiver -- and may not always have access to reliable power. The Sherpa 50 Solar Recharging Kit would be perfect for that use case.
- Lightweight and compact
- Ability to charge just about any consumer electronic device
- Even works (although not as fast) in cloudy conditions
- Battery pack can hold a charge for several months
- Additional solar panels can be daisy-chained for faster charging
- Not available for sale at this time
Who is it for?
- Anyone looking for reliable power for consumer electronics devices in remote locations or emergency situations