The Myth of the Solar PC

Computer makers are hyping their "solar-powered PCs." Too bad there’s no such thing.
Posted September 20, 2007

Mike Elgan

Mike Elgan

While scanning the news lately, you may have seen the headlines about China's Lenovo and their amazing new “solar-powered PC” product, the ThinkCentre A61e. You may also have heard that Dell will soon announce a solar PC of its own.

And didn't some company unveil a solar powered laptop last year? And what about solar cell phones? Are we there yet?

If you think solar powered desktops, laptops and cell phones are available, you're not alone. A lot of people are walking around with that impression.

Unfortunately, it’s a myth.

Let’s have a look at that “solar-powered PC”

When it ships next month, the Lenovo ThinkCentre A61e will be an incredibly "green" PC. It exceeds stringent new Energy Star 4.0 standards. Its efficient power supply and 45-watt AMD Athlon 64 X2 dual core and AMD Sempron single core processors make it use as little energy as just three standard light bulbs. Like the HP's rp5700, the A61e earns EPEAT Gold status, which means it's really, really green.

The "solar powered PC" headlines refer to Lenovo’s readiness to also sell you a product called the Solar-PowerPAC II made by Advanced Energy Group – an 86-pound, cart-on-wheels that combines a solar array the size of a big-screen TV and 60 batteries. The Solar-PowerPAC II costs $1,229.

The Solar-PowerPAC II isn't designed or built by Lenovo, nor even specifically designed for powering computers -- and the ThinkCentre A61e doesn't require the Solar-PowerPAC II.

Don't get me wrong: The Solar-PowerPAC II is nice, and for some specialized applications it makes a lot of sense. But the fact that Lenovo is reselling it doesn't magically transform their green PC into a category-busting "solar PC." They could sell an optional car, too, and call the ThinkCentre A61e a “mobile computer.” That wouldn’t make it so.

HP also resells the Solar-PowerPAC II, and rumor has it that Dell will do so, too.

And what about that laptop?

Solar Powered laptops make a bit more sense, mainly because people are more likely to have a laptop away from a wall outlet. Laptops already have rechargeable batteries and power-saving hardware and software. And they have flat lids, which are ideal for embedding solar panels.

The first generation of solar laptops from major vendors may emerge in a few years. The solar feature of this likely first generation will function mainly as a way to extend battery life -- not eliminate the need for an AC adaptor.

A Taiwanese motherboard and graphics card company called Micro-Star International unveiled a concept notebook along these lines at CeBIT 2006. The laptop had solar panels on the outside of the lid, and an internal voltage converter to enabled the panels to charge the batteries.

The notebook was a proof-of-concept prototype, and not designed as a precursor to a shipping product. Micro-Star shopped it around hard in Japan and elsewhere, and got no bites. Such a notebook might cost well over $5,000, and the major OEMs reasoned that such a price wouldn’t be worth the effort.

Have you heard the one about the solar cell phone?

Google co-founder Sergey Brin carries and uses a solar-powered cell phone, according to The Sunday Times.

We don’t know what this device is, who made it or how well it works. We do know that various labs around the world have developed solar cell phone prototypes.

The question is: If it’s possible -- if Sergey Brin can have a solar cell phone -- why can’t we all have one?

The answer is the same for why we can’t have solar desktop PCs and solar laptops. Solar technology is simply too expensive to build and sell for general use.

Sergey Brin can have a solar cell phone because, well, Sergey Brin is a billionaire.

For you and me, solar PCs and phones are mere myths, urban legends, and misleading headlines.

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