Are solar-powered phones just the latest consumer gadget – or are they a lifeline for communications in the developing world? Both at once, says Peter Judge
There’s an irony in the way solar chargers are appearing. To our UK readers, they look like an expensive fashion statement for the iPhone crowd. To others – they could be a necessity.
The Novothink Surge, announced this week, is the first solar charger case to get Apple’s approval, and it looks the part – it’s available in attention-seeking green, and at $70 (UK price not available yet) is not aimed at people who are counting the pennies.
But a couple of months ago, I saw a completely different picture. ZTE’s Coral 200 solar is a basic black phone, and the total phone including the solar panel could sell for around $40.
The difference is that the Coral 200 isn’t a luxury. It – and a handful of other solar-powered phones – are designed to be an essential item, for countries where there may not be reliable electricity to charge a phone.
Neither is specifically “green”, we should say – although they let the phone use renewable energy. Phones – even the iPhone – have had their power requirements severely rationed for a long while, and the manufacturing, packaging and shipping are the greatest and most easily reduced part of their footprint.
But the arrival of solar phones is typical of the way “green” technology emerges in different parts of the world. In the UK and the US, we might make a consumer choice to use fewer resources, but for many people it’s a case of finding a way to make something work with whatever is available.
The two can be related, of course, and the needs of the developing world can drive innovation in both markets. Another renewable-energy device, Freeplay Energy‘s wind-up radio, was designed for the third world, but has found a ready market in developed countries from people who want to be green and support the company’s work.
Likewise, the solar panels in the Coral 200 Solar – from Dutch company Intivation – could also find their way into solar chargers for the iPhone and other luxury devices and = according to an Intivation spokesman – when it does, “ours will charge faster, and in all light conditions”.
I’m still unsure of the need to build the charger directly into the phone – either as a sleeve or a replacement back. Electronics shops sell a vast selection of solar chargers aimed at campers and festival goers, and I’d be much more likely to get one that can be used to charge multiple devices.
Again though, luxury consumers may be in line with their third-world counterparts. iPhone users can afford a dedicated solar charger – and in the developing world, users may not be able to afford anything else.
A separate charger would get borrowed or stolen, and the user would lose the benefits of having a reliable phone, according to Thomas Bryant, a vice president of Digicel, the operator shipping the Coral 200 Solar.