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Portable solar panels

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Portable solar panels are ideal for anyone looking for a way to “go green” while on the go – on a camping trip for instance. Sure, portable solar panels lack the oomph to power an entire home’s electricity needs – traditional roof-mounted (or even ground-mounted) solar panels are best for that purpose – but as a guilt-free way of generating renewable energy, portable solar panels will be an excellent addition to your next excursion.

In this guide, we’ll explain how portable solar panels work, which situations you can use them in and how to do so effectively. We’ll also explore the key differences between the two types of portable solar panels – rigid and flexible – in terms of efficiency, durability, price and weight.

How do portable solar panels work?

With a portable solar panel setup, the panels themselves work in the same way as other types, whether they’re roof-mounted, ground-mounted, integrated or wall-mounted solar panels.

Each panel is made of photovoltaic (PV) cells (also known as solar cells) typically made from silicon, a semiconductor material. When sunlight hits these cells, it energises the electrons within, allowing them to flow and creating an electrical current. An inverter then converts the direct current (DC) electricity the panels produce to alternating current (AC) electricity – the useable type that most household appliances run on.

Unlike traditional roof-mounted solar panels – which are still the best solar panels for powering a home in terms of their affordability and efficiency – portable solar panels aren’t wired into your home’s electrical panel. Instead, they can be connected directly to your devices (such as smartphones, cameras, tablets and portable power banks) via USB ports or to a portable solar power station. These come with built-in inverters and multiple output ports – including AC, DC and USB – which enable you to power several devices at the same time and avoid having to purchase an inverter, which is required to transmute AC into DC separately.

Portable power stations serve a similar function for portable solar panels as solar batteries do for domestic, traditional solar panel varieties. They enable you to store the electricity your panels generate now to use later, giving you a power source even when your panels aren’t directly generating electricity, such as at night or on cloudy days.

The best portable power stations also include an integrated charge controller – a piece of tech responsible for regulating your portable solar panels’ voltage and current and preventing the overcharging of (and damage to) the devices or battery you’ve connected. 

Portable solar panels can also plug into your campervan or boat’s battery to provide an extra, albeit minimal, source of power.

If this sounds like a lot of moving parts, don’t panic – most portable solar panel systems should include everything you need to start generating renewable, on-the-go electricity. That includes the panels themselves and the connecting wires and ports.

Depending on how you plan to use your portable solar panels, however, you may need to make some separate purchases to get the best value out of them. Additional items include:

  • A power station (to charge multiple devices through your portable solar panels and store the electricity for later use)
  • A solar tracker, which automatically pivots to ensure that your portable solar panels are always positioned at an optimal angle and maximise their access to direct sunlight
  • An extension cable for more versatility in how you set up your panels and devices
  • An inverter (to convert the panels’ DC electricity into the AC variety)*
  • A charge controller (to safeguard against overheating)*
  • Suction cups to secure your portable solar panels to smooth surfaces

*You’ll only need these if they don’t come as in-built offerings with your chosen portable solar power station.

Applications of portable solar panels

Wondering whether portable solar panels are right for you? Common applications include:

  • Camping, hiking and outdoor adventures to keep your devices charged as you go, especially if you rely on your phone for music, communication or directions
  • An emergency source of backup power for your home or camper van – though “backup” is the operative word. With a typical power output of around 100 watts (W), portable solar panels are intended for small devices and appliances (such as microwaves and kettles) and will struggle to power a fridge, let alone the electricity needs of a busy household.
  • A nomadic, off-grid lifestyle, where the goal is to live self-sufficiently without relying on the National Grid for your electricity needs. You might also consider a portable wind turbine to augment your private green energy supply.

Types of portable solar panels

Broadly speaking, there are two types of portable solar panels: flexible and rigid.

Flexible solar panels bend to fit the contours of the surface you’re mounting them on. This might be the curving flank of a boat’s hull or the side of a camper van. They’re also ideal for homes and sheds with unconventionally shaped roofs or architecture.

Rigid solar panels, in contrast, don’t bend, although there are varieties that fold, making them easier to pack into the boot of your car ahead of your next trip. They’re heavier than flexible portable solar panels, but they’re also more durable and have a higher power output.

Check out the table below for an at-a-glance comparison between the two, and read on as we unpack the key factors to take into account when picking the right portable solar panel.

Panel typeFlexibleRigid
Efficiency10 to 15 per cent15 to 20 per cent
Weight2kg to 5kg5kg to 10kg
Price£150 to £500+£100 to £300
Use casesHomes and vehicles with curved surfaces (such as boats and campervans) and homes and travellers with less intensive electricity needs or less room for storage and transportationHomes that need an additional source of backup power, multiple devices that need to be charged at the same time and people with bigger budgets and larger electricity consumption requirements

Factors to consider when choosing portable solar panels

The top factors to consider when choosing portable solar panels are:

  • Power output and efficiency
  • Durability and weather resistance
  • Portability and ease of use
  • Cost and warranty

Power output and efficiency

In an energy generation context, power output refers to the amount of electrical power (measured in W) a solar panel can produce. This is directly related to a solar panel’s size – that is, its surface area – as well as the efficiency of the PV cells it contains.

In the UK, portable solar panels start with a power output of as little as 5W, which you can purchase for roughly £15 to £20 online, and go up to 400W, which cost around £670. The efficiency will vary based on the type of solar cell, the price and the supplier.

Expressed as a percentage, efficiency is the amount of sunlight a solar panel can convert into usable electricity. More efficient panels are better for this and generate more electricity. They’re also more expensive. Generally, the type of portable solar panel governs its efficiency: flexible solar panels are around 10 to 15 per cent efficient, while their rigid counterparts have an efficiency of 15 to 20 per cent.

Durability and weather resistance

Another aspect to think about is how durable your portable solar panels are. This is a vague metric but one you can, in part, assess by looking at the panels’ manufacturer-stated lifespan and – perhaps more tellingly – the length of the warranty it comes with.

Most portable solar panels should come with a warranty of around 10 years. Anything less is an unflattering reflection of the solar panels’ lifespan and quality.

Weather resistance is also an important factor to consider, especially if your off-grid excursions will take you into especially windy, rainy or snowy conditions. Flexible solar panels’ ultra-thin surface – mere nanometres thick (10,000 times thinner than a human hair) – makes them particularly prone to weather-related damage and a less suitable choice for adverse climates and environments.

A simple way to assess your portable solar panels’ weather-resistant capabilities is to check for an Ingress Protection (IP) rating. This tells you how robust your portable solar panels will be against moisture, dust and dirt getting into your panels and affecting their functioning.

Any portable solar panel worth its salt should come with an IP68 rating. This is just about the most comprehensive level of weather resistance possible and indicates:

  • Full protection against dust and other particulates (6); and
  • Protection against extended immersion under high pressure (8)

Portability and ease of use

It goes without saying that portability is a must for portable solar panels. It’s in the name!

Fortunately, most solar panels that are branded this way are typically easy to install, dismantle, pack away and transport, especially flexible solar panels. Providing they fold, however, rigid solar panels are usually super simple to transport and use.

The best part? You can install portable solar panels yourself, so you won’t need to rely on the services of a solar panel installer.

That said, there is a drawback to this – the only way to access the UK’s solar panel grants, such as the Smart Export Guarantee (SEG), is by using a supplier accredited under the Microgeneration Certification Scheme. The SEG is a financial incentive enabling you to sell any excess solar energy you generate back to the National Grid at a profit, so you should think carefully about your eligibility before selecting a solar panel.

Admittedly, the negligible amount of electricity you’ll be producing with portable solar panels (at least compared to traditional, roof-mounted varieties) means you’re unlikely to generate enough power to create a surplus, so the idea of saving money over time through SEG payments could be a non-starter.

The main consideration when it comes to portability is power output, which – given it’s directly linked to a solar panel’s surface area – impacts its size. So, while a more powerful solar panel will satisfy more of your on-the-go electricity needs, it will also be larger, making it potentially more cumbersome to transport and perhaps harder to use, too.

Cost and warranty

How much your portable solar panels will cost is tied to their power output and efficiency, with more powerful, more efficient panels costing more.

In the UK, for instance, a 60W portable solar panel can cost as little as £160, while a 160W panel will be closer to £250, and a 220W panel will cost around £350. At the upper end of the scale, a 400W portable solar panel currently costs around £670 in the UK.

Flexible portable solar panels tend to have lower power outputs and efficiency ratings than their rigid portable counterparts, so they’re also the cheaper solar panel option. 

Using portable solar panels effectively

Ready to start using your portable solar panels? Here’s how to maximise the output, longevity and safety of your solar panels and their accessories in 2024.

Positioning your portable solar panels

Getting the most out of your portable solar panels requires getting them the most sun. To this end, positioning is all important.

In the UK, the best angle for static solar panels is between 20 and 50 degrees and facing south. When you opt for portable solar panels, though, you have a key advantage – you can reposition and re-tilt them throughout the day to reflect where the sun is in the sky.

If you don’t feel like doing this manually, you can invest in a solar tracker or tracking system. These systems attach to your portable solar panels and automatically track the sun’s daily journey, spinning and swivelling to give your panels maximum access to the sun. In the UK, tracking systems for portable solar panels sell for £2,000 to £2,500.

It seems obvious, but you’ll also want to ensure your solar panels aren’t in a spot where they may be – or, later in the day, become – shaded by nearby objects, such as trees. The more sunlight your panels have access to, the more green electricity they’ll provide you with.

Maintaining your portable solar panels

While traditional, roof-mounted solar panels allow you to get away with a yearly (or even less frequent) scrub-up, portable solar panels are all-action and, usually, always on the move, meaning they’ll require a more fastidious approach to maintenance.

To keep your portable solar panels clean, regularly remove dust, dirt, leaves and other debris that can accumulate on the surface. You should also avoid harsh chemicals: a soft brush, cloth or sponge plus a bucket of warm water and detergent will do the trick. Try not to be overly heavy-handed with your cleaning – portable solar panels, especially the super-thin, flexible kinds, are more prone to ripping and tearing.

Finally, you’ll want to pay attention to the connections between your portable solar panels, charge controller, battery and devices to check for any signs of damage or corrosion.

Following the safety precautions and guidelines

Maximising the longevity of your portable solar panels means following the guidelines set out by the manufacturer and taking steps to protect your panels from degradation. To do this, try:

  • Storing your portable solar panels in a cool, dry place when you’re not using them and using protective covers or cases (they’re worth the extra money) to prevent scratching.
  • Avoiding overcharging – which can lead to reduced battery lifespan – by using a charge controller. Better still, read the manual that comes with your portable solar panels, and follow the manufacturer’s recommendations regarding charging settings.
  • Testing the performance of your portable solar panels, batteries and charge controllers to ensure they’re firing on all cylinders.
  • Remaining mindful of adverse temperatures, which can impact your portable solar panels’ efficiency and lifespan. Try not to expose them to prolonged periods of extreme heat or cold, and – where possible – store the batteries in temperature-controlled places.
  • Including your portable solar panel system in your emergency preparedness plans, making sure you have the spare parts, tools and backup power sources.

Portable solar panels FAQs

While you can technically power a house with portable solar panels, it’s not feasible.

The typical three-bedroom UK home needs a solar array with a power output of 3 kilowatts (kW) to 4kW to meet its electricity needs. Given that the typical portable solar panel has a power output of around 100W, you’ll need a system that produces at least thirty times that much power – equating to at least 30 panels – to supply your home with a clean, consistent supply of energy.

This means you’d probably run out of roof space before you could equip your home with the portable solar panels it would need to satisfy your household’s energy needs. This is just one reason why, when it comes to powering your UK home, traditional roof-mounted solar panels remain the best option in 2024.

Yes, you can connect a portable solar panel directly to a battery to charge it.

However, you’ll need to use a charge controller between the solar panel and the battery to regulate the process and protect the battery from overcharging. This charge controller also plays an important role when you’re using the battery to power your electronic devices or appliances. It’ll manage the power flow in the charging process – this time from, rather than to, the battery – to ensure it isn’t over-discharged and avoid any loss of that precious solar power.

Rob Binns


Rob is an experienced writer and editor, with a wide range of experience in many topics, including renewable energy and appliances, home security, and business software. He has written for Eco Experts, Home Business, Expert Market, Payments Journal, and Yahoo! Finance. . 

Rob has a passion for smart home technology, online privacy, as well as the environment and renewables, which leads him to the Independent Advisor where he writes about related topics, including cyber security, VPNs, and solar power.