Off the Grid, Part 4: Can you charge a cellphone with portable wind power? (Answer: sort of)

It’s day four of our off-the-grid experiment here at DVICE. To celebrate Earth Week, my goal is to blog, work and live from my home office in San Francisco without plugging into the municipal power grid. It’s sorta like camping, without the rest and relaxation. Needing a break from the solitude (and the cardiopulmonary workout of step-charging my laptop), I hit the streets for a much-needed field trip. Find out what happens when you try to offer free off-grid cellphone charging after the Continue jump…

Haunted by Carbon
Earlier this week, in an e-mail exchange with a friend, I had a thought: avoiding wall sockets is fine and dandy, but my carbon footprint is heftier than I'd care to imagine. The packages of gear that have been arriving for the past two weeks were shipped from California (where I live), Florida (2,903 miles), and just yesterday a solar-charged straggler arrived all the way from Hong Kong (6,897 miles!). This is far from awesome. And neither is the fact every handheld portable solar charger and panel-packing bag comes with a plastic baggie of alternate charger tips. It's cool you can adapt a variety of phones and 5V gadgets, but it'd be way cooler if cellphone companies agreed on a standard universal AC input. For instance: I have one cell. What am I ever gonna do with all those other tips!?

Enter the Free Phone Charge Challenge! My mission: take the baggie of my HYmini’s sad, unused tips and try to put each one to work. The HYmini is the one and only portable wind-powered charger among the gadgets in my green quiver. It includes adapters for charging cellphones from Nokia, Samsung, Motorola, LG and Sony Ericsson (in the baggie in my left hand, above).

Dead Calm
As I headed out yesterday, though, I discovered I’d left my HYmini in the ‘on’ position. The sucker was d-e-a-d. OK, perfect time to test the charger’s wind turbine, right? Sort of. San Francisco is known for its hills, so I attached the HYmini to the front of my bike, trudged up a few mega-hills, and then flew back down with as little breaking as possible. A minimum of 9 mph wind speed is needed to get a charge, and I’m guessing I hit at least 15 mph, plus the makers of HYmini report that SF gets an average wind speed of 10.67 mph (should have rode my bike to the beach and skipped the daredevilling).

After about 20 minutes, I rode to a coffee shop. Conclusion: 4pm is not coffee time in my hood. Eventually I got one eager taker with a Sony Ericsson (note: the guy’s name is Leif, go figure!). Unfortunately, I’d just tested the HYmini on my phone, which apparently drained all the power (my 20-minute ride = about two minutes of charge time). Lesson learned. As advertised, the wind turbine is only a “supplemental” power source. Leif humored me, though, and I swapped in the Sony tip. No charge, but I’m giving myself an A for effort on that one.

Crank It, Baby
In preparation for today, I hit up HYmini’s hand crank. Hard. Too hard, apparently, because the gears stripped after about 30 minutes of intermittent use last night. Lesson learned. HYmini’s crank is no match for the all-out vigor brought forth from these hands.

Which brings me to this a.m. I hit the dog park near my home, where my pug Gus came in handy, yet again. Dude is a social butterfly, so not long after my arrival, I spent about 35 minutes total charging a pair of Motorola phones, including a Q, which isn't exactly the most NRG-efficient PDA. (note: the Hymini's 1200mAh battery never reached a full charge, but two 5V solar panels kept the charge light going and both phones registered a charge; probably not a whole lotta talk time, but again, A for effort).

Last came my idea to use the sign (pictured above; note: that lady would not talk to me). I returned to the coffee shop, where people were surprisingly curious, and one woman with a stroller not only stopped to let me charge her Samsung for a minute, but she also snapped the pic of me. Now, I wish I could tell you I found someone carrying an LG. That would make a great ending to today’s long, epic post and solar saga. Regrettably, I didn’t, so that lonely adapter from the HYmini's set was left unused, notching up my carbon footprint just a bit.

Tune in tomorrow for the conclusion of Off the Grid, though maybe by then I’ll have tracked down an LG to charge!

Previous Entries
Off the Grid, Part 1: Every watt counts
Off the Grid, Part 2: Do watched solar pots ever boil?
Off the Grid, Part 3: How to jump-start a MacBook with foot power