The Best Solar Panels for Portable Solar Generators
For anyone looking to harness the clean, renewable energy of the sun, a portable solar generator is a great option. In order to use this power source, however, you will need portable solar panels to charge your power station. Our review will explain the different types of solar panels to pair with the best solar generators and recommend the top brands to purchase.
What is a Solar Panel?
At its most basic, a solar panel is simply a device that absorbs the rays of the sun and turns that energy into usable electricity. Most residential and portable solar panels work using photovoltaic solar cells made of silicon that send that energy through an MPPT charge controller to be stored in lithium-ion batteries or lead-acid batteries. An inverter can take the solar energy stored in the battery and transform them into electrical current, which you can use to power devices, run appliances, or even keep an air conditioner running.
Not all solar panels are created equal, however, and consumers are encouraged to do their homework. In this article, we'll outline some of the best solar panels available today, particularly for use with portable solar generators for outdoor activities or emergency power.
Our Picks for the Top Portable Solar Panels
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
- Best Overall - Goal Zero Nomad 100
- Most Powerful - Renogy 200W Eclipse Suitcase
- Best for Easy Setup - Nature's Generator Power Panel
- Best Conversion Efficiency - Jackery SolarSaga 100W
- Best Expandability - ACOPOWER 120W Mono Solar Suitcase
- Best Compatability - Suaoki Foldable 120W Solar Panel Charger
How We Reviewed Solar Panels
Before we get into specific recommendations, it's important to understand some of the factors that cause one solar panel to stand out from the next. Here are just a few of the criteria we used to assess the best solar panels for use with portable solar generators.
Type of Solar Panel
Solar panels come in three basic types: monocrystalline; polycrystalline; and thin film.
- Monocrystalline solar panels tend to be sleek and highly efficient, but they are also the most expensive.
- Polycrystalline panels, on the other hand, are a little bulkier and less efficient, but can be obtained for a lower price point.
- Thin film solar panels are the cheapest of the bunch, but also the least efficient. And, they require the most space.
As you consider purchasing solar panels, knowing what type you want is one of the first things you'll need to think about.
If you plan to use your solar panel with a portable generator, then you'll naturally want something that you can transport with relative ease. Note that solar panels can vary greatly in their size and weight. Some are so small that they can be folded into briefcases, which is obviously a boon for those seeking portability for an off-grid power supply.
Another crucial factor is power output. Different panels can produce varying amounts of energy, or wattage, which can, in turn, determine things like how many devices you can charge at one time, how long your solar generator will last between charges, and how quickly you can recharge your solar power generator.
The conversion efficiency rating tells you how much of the sunlight that hits the solar panel is actually converted into usable energy. This number is always given as a percentage. So, for example, if you have a solar panel with an efficiency rating of 20 percent, it means that about 20 percent of the sunlight that hits the surface will ultimately be turned into energy that you can use. Typically, any panel with a conversion efficiency over 20% is considered high-efficiency.
Some solar panels include a built-in charge controller. A charge controller, or charge regulator, helps to moderate the voltage/current of your solar system. Basically, the charge controller is what prevents your battery from overcharging. This is an important part of any solar system, as it helps extend the battery life of your system and prevent accidents. Look for systems that use MPPT charge controllers.
When you first start getting into solar power, you may not know exactly how many panels you need. That's what makes expandability such an important concern. Expandability tells you how easy it will be to add more panels to your solar configuration, especially with modular systems that can easily connect more panels.
Naturally, your budget is going to be a major consideration as you look for a new solar panel. Solar panels can vary in their price point, but it's not enough to look for the cheapest model. Make sure you're getting the best overall value, paying a reasonable price for a solar panel that will help you achieve your clean energy goals.
The Best Solar Panels for Portable Solar Generators
Based on these criteria, here are the solar panels that we most heartily recommend for use with your portable solar generator.
Goal Zero has a comprehensive suite of solar products, including both mountable and portable panels. For powering a portable generator, we recommend the Nomad 100 solar panel. It offers a power output of 100 watts, and is can be chained together with additional Nomad panels for faster charging of solar generators like the Goal Zero Yeti 1400 or the Goal Zero Yeti 400.
Why buy: If you're looking for a powerful yet easily transportable solar panel configuration, Goal Zero's products are resilient, reliable, and offer more than enough power for mini fridges, laptops, medical devices, and more. The Nomad (true to its name) is designed to be rugged and portable, perfectly suited for camping trips and outdoor adventures.
Renogy is another line of solar products that provides you with plenty of choices. We like the Renogy 200W Eclipse foldable suitcase model, which gives the perfect balance of power and portability. It includes Renogy's highest-efficiency solar panels in a durable, protective casing.
Why buy: For plenty of solar power that you can literally fold up and carry with you, look no further than to this outstanding option from Renogy. The Eclipse suitcase provides excellent low-light performance with enough power for recharging electronic devices on-the-go with the Renogy PHOENIX solar generator.
There's a lot that we like about these solar panels from Nature's Generator. For one thing, these panels are pretty easy to transport and are made with lightweight aluminum frames and durable wheels. They also feature summer and winter tilt positions to help you maximize the amount of sunlight the panels capture each season.
Why buy: For basic power needs, Nature's Generator produces well-made products that are lightweight and easily transportable. One panel can provide up to 100W of of solar charging power output, and they are reinforced with safety glass that is also anti-reflective.
Jackery offers foldable, portable SolarSaga solar panels that are well-suited for on-the-go adventures. You can choose between a 60W and 100W unit. We like the power output of the SolarSaga 100W option. These panels are made with high-efficiency monocrystalline solar cells.
Why buy: For camping and outdoor adventure, Jackery is the way to go. Their SolarSaga solar panels are rugged, convenient, and extremely intuitive and easy to use. Plus, they offer a conversion efficiency of 23%, making them an excellent choice to use with a rechargeable solar powered generator.
ACOPower is another company offering major portability, in the form of a foldable, suitcase-sized solar panel. One major plus to ACOPower is that they have a wide range of products, allowing you to pick the solar panel that best fits your needs. The 120W lightweight solar suitcase is a great option if you're looking for something a bit heftier to help charge a backup power solar generator.
Why buy: Looking for lightweight and foldable solar panels with lots of power output? Look no further than the ACOPOWER 120W solar suitcase. This solar panel option can also easily expand to 240W by connecting an additional ACOPOWER panel to power your emergency backup solar generator.
Suaoki has a great portfolio of advanced solar technology. We especially like their 120W foldable solar panel, which provides a very decent 120 watts of power output. Made with durability in mind, Suaoki's solar panel is backed with a generous 24-month warranty. And, it's compatible with most brands of generators. A great all-around option.
Why buy: Suaoki combines many of the most important factors that consumers look for when seeking solar panels: power, portability, versatility, and excellent value. This solar panel also comes with a DC outlet and quick-charge USB ports for USB and USB-C. We especially like that these panels are designed to work with most of the top solar generators from other brands.
The Benefits of Portable Solar Panels
Portable solar panels offer a range of benefits.
- Solar panels can be paired with portable solar generators to provide you with emergency backup power in case of a power outage. Unlike gas generators, these are quiet and environmentally-friendly. Plus you will never have to purchase fossil fuels to run them as a backup generator.
- Portable solar panels can be ideal for living "off the grid," or for extended camping or RV excursions. With a good generator and the right types of solar panels, you can enjoy plenty of electrical power for cell phones and small appliances even when you're outside and far from any power outlets.
These are just a few reasons why switching to portable solar power can be beneficial, though again, you'll want to ensure you select the right solar panels to meet your goals.
Solar Chargers vs. Portable Solar Panels vs. Rigid Solar Panels
We already elaborated on some of the key differences between monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and thin film solar panels. Now, let's turn our attention to another important area of distinction: solar chargers, portable solar panels, and rigid solar panels.
A solar charger is a small device that uses sunlight to generate electricity. These are usually used to power smaller devices, like phones or tablets, or anything you would plug in to a car charger.
Portable solar panels, like the ones we mentioned above, help absorb and capture sunlight, which you can use to power a portable generator or battery bank. These are ideally suited for camping or for an off-grid lifestyle. They can offer the same amount of energy that you get from an AC outlet.
Rigid solar panels are designed for rooftop installation to provide power to homes and buildings. Generally, these provide the most energy when connected to high-capacity battery storage.
Types of Solar Inverters
The inverter is an important component of any solar panel system because it's the component that actually takes stored solar energy as DC power and turns it into more usable AC power. There are two primary types of solar inverters used for portable solar generators.
- Pure sine wave inverters are designed to produce smooth, reliable, and quiet electric AC currents and work best at providing continuous power to delicate or sensitive electronic devices.
- Modified sine wave inverter provide a bit choppier and nosier current and are primarily meant for simple devices and appliances.
Knowing your inverter types is another important way to make an informed decision about your solar panel and solar generator purchase.
What Devices and Appliances Can You Charge With Solar Panels?
As you contemplate your solar energy needs, it's important to think about the specific devices and appliances for which you need power.
Some portable solar panel options come with 12-volt and USB ports that allow you to directly connect and charge certain devices. These can include things like smartphones, tablets, and computers. Alternatively, you can connect your panels to a generator or battery to power certain appliances that you would plug into a wall outlet like a mini-fridge, CPAP machine, or coffee maker. The specific devices you can power with energy from solar panels will depend on your system's output, run time, and battery capacity, typically measured in watt-hours.
We recommend using an online calculator to tell you roughly how much energy you'll need from your solar panel. Try this calculator to see what types of devices you can use.
Choosing the Best Solar Panels
The right portable solar panels can completely change your relationship to renewable energy. In addition to serving as a clean energy emergency backup in case of a blackout, they can also empower you to enjoy the adventurous lifestyle you crave.
As you seek the best portable solar panels, make sure you weigh all the important factors, from power output to price point. Use this guide to start your search, but also be sure to carefully assess each product according to your own energy needs.
Josh Hurst is a journalist, critic, and essayist. He lives in Knoxville, TN, with his wife and three sons. He covers natural health, nutrition, supplements, and clean energy. His writing has appeared in Health, Shape, and Remedy Review.