How Apple could revolutionize solar

If Apple launched one of its gadgets with embedded solar cells, it could revolutionize the market for solar. Apple has been exploring how to use solar power to charge gadgets for some time, including looking into ways to embed solar cells in devices. But if Apple made the leap to an actual commercial launch, it could be a solar game changer.

Apple’s solar patents

First let’s look at Apple’s solar patent applications. The latest was granted last month (via Patently Apple), and it is for a voltage converter and controller for charging a device with solar power. A good deal of this patent focuses on algorithms and devices that can monitor and control the way in which a portable device could most effectively be charged via solar, using both embedded solar cells and an attachable solar power source.

According to Patently Apple — which as the name denotes follows Apple’s patent applications like a hawk — Apple now has two solar-related patents granted and five solar applications filed in total. The other solar patent granted was awarded in January 2011 and covers similar territory, including a way to monitor and control a charge from a solar source for a mobile device.

What Apple sees in solar

In all of these patents, Apple looks at solar as a way to enable its gadgets to be charged in locations where there is no grid available and also as a way to generally extend the battery life of a device. Apple has long been willing to invest in ways to boost the battery life of its gadgets, including selling extra battery chargers that will still be able to hold 80 percent of its charge after a year.

Back in 2009, Apple launched a 17-inch MacBook Pro with a built-in battery. Lots of critics didn’t like the built-in aspect of the battery, but the lithium-polymer battery that Apple used could run for up to eight hours on a single charge and retain at least 80 percent of that capacity for up to 1,000 recharge cycles. Compare that with only about 300 recharges for Apple’s 13- and 15-inch models’ removable lithium-ion batteries. The longer life of the 17-inch model was also due to an adaptive charging mechanism — an embedded chip that monitors charge level and temperature and helps manage the charging current.

But the reality is that batteries on an individual level aren’t making all that much progress in terms of capacity and cost. Boosting batteries in the short term will come from things like software for battery and energy management, and perhaps — if it proves to be economic — tapping micro sources of clean power like embedded solar cells. In an increasingly mobile life, the plug is one of the last true barriers to mobility.

Extending the time between plugging in is also another way to target new markets in areas where there’s less reliable grid power. Yes, Apple generally focuses on developed markets and high-end goods, but Apple is no stranger to the need for finding new markets and developing new strategies. I could envision its one day looking to sell its devices in developing markets with less reliable grid power.

Solar gadgets

Adding solar cells to gadgets has been a sort of novelty and in a nascent stage for a while. The big barriers have been the price of solar cells as well as the tiny amount of solar power these tiny cells can usually generate. If you look at the variety of solar chargers for iPhones out there, the bulk of these chargers consists of an extra lithium-ion battery that is supplemented with a small amount of solar power from the embedded mini solar panel. In some of these cases the solar cell is more novelty than practical charging tool.

A startup called Konarka has been developing a next-gen solar plastic that could be a good fit for solar gadgets, and it is meant to be embedded in materials (umbrellas and bags), devices and buildings. However, Konarka has long been in a sort of research and development phase, and the solar plastic also has a very low efficiency.

But as more gadget makers target developing markets and devices themselves become more energy-efficient, these solar-powered products are getting better. Recently Samsung launched a solar-powered netbook that can run for 15 hours, almost double the 8-hour standard laptop, meant for the Kenyan market. The solar netbook is also supposed to go on sale in Russia, the U.S., South Korea and Europe.

And one of the barriers to solar gadgets has been slowly getting solved: the price of solar cells. As you can see if you’ve been following the recent spate of bankruptcies in the solar industry (Solyndra, SpectraWatt, Evergreen Solar), the price of solar panels and cells has dropped dramatically in recent months and years, which is bad for some of the solar tech companies but good for the overall solar market and solar consumers. The price of solar is pretty much the lowest it’s been in history.

Apple’s effect on solar

If Apple decided to launch a gadget with embedded solar, it could help bring down the prices of solar for gadgets even more. As Nat Bullard, an analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance, told me recently, Apple is “a fierce negotiator for components,” and if it’s interested in solar it could lock up low-cost supply deals for solar parts as it has with iPod and iPad components such as glass and memory.

Foxconn, Apple’s key supplier, has been looking into solar production and has been rumored to be investing in solar manufacturing in various ways. And why not? Solar is finally becoming a commodity, with low enough prices to justify the entrance of this type of low-cost supplier.

Apple has also been a leader in embracing new technology, when Steve Jobs deemed that the time was right. Then when Apple launches new tech into its cutting-edge simple designs, the rest of the industry tends to follow. As Bullard said to me:

If any company could reliably integrate PV into consumer portable electronics, it is Apple. Given its other devices, it would likely make the simplest, most elegant integration. It may sacrifice some nominal performance (and greater freedom of choice) for the sake of simplicity and robustness — as it has done time and again in the past decade.

Apple could be on track to sell 30 million iPhones globally in the fourth quarter of this year. Those kind of volumes could have a major effect on the solar industry, not only in the form of contracts but also as a way to educate consumers about the existence and usefulness of solar as a power source.

Images courtesy of Flickr user mikecogh, Samsung, and Patently Apple