Wing-like origami solar panels bring hundreds of watts to home or camp
One of the complaints we heard about the Sego Innovations origami-inspired solar charger we covered a week ago was that it delivered a rather paltry 25 watts with no option for increasing capacity except buying more units. Well, wouldn't you know – there's another Kickstarter for that. Italian startup Levante upscales origami-inspired solar design, creating portable systems that expand like wings to multiple times their packed size. Unlike the Sego panel, the Levante units aren't meant for lightweight backcountry activities, but they're an intriguing solution for RVing, car camping, sailing and off-grid homesteading.
Levante was founded in 2021 by Sara Plaga and Kim-Joar Myklebust, a travel-happy couple who enjoys sailing and camping. The duo sought to tackle a problem they'd encountered during their own travels: the inability of existing portable solar panel systems to fully keep up with their mobile power needs.
"Although the use of renewable energy in mobility is already widespread, the current solar panel solutions still have too many limitations," said Plaga. "Rigid solar panels, whilst powerful, are bulky, heavy and constrained to a permanent installation. Portable solar panels, on the other hand, are too flimsy, still bulky and just not powerful enough to make a meaningful contribution to covering the energy requirements needed when traveling. To overcome these problems, many are forced to use alternative solutions to meet their energy needs: connecting to the grid, starting the engine or using a generator – all of which are limiting, create both noise and air pollution, and require additional fuel costs."
Plaga and Myklebust thought they could create a system with the power, portability and full-blown sustainability they desired, and they looked to origami to realize the vision. Much like Sego, Levante's work was inspired by origami-inspired collapsible solar panels from satellites and spacecraft.
The origami-inspired foldable panel systems Levante has come up with appear ready to take digital nomading and off-grid power up a notch. With 500- and 330-W ratings, the systems offer more charging capacity than the average portable folding panel but compact down as little as 1/9th their expanded form, keeping them packable and travel-ready.
Levante's design features a series of panels connected together at the edges by zippers. The design functions like a piece of origami, folding out in multiple directions in seconds via a single motion. The 500-W model immediately creates roughly 9 times the surface area of its folded form, going from a 47 x 16-in (119 x 40-cm, L x W) size to a wing-like array with 106 x 65-in (270 x 165-cm) dimensions.
Each Levante panel system comes with a 9.8-foot (3-m) MC4 output cable for plugging into a portable power station, vehicle charge controller or home micro-inverter. Levante also offers an optional zip-on 5-W module for directly charging USB devices like smartphones.
Levante estimates that the 330-W system will fully charge a 1,000-Wh battery power station in about a day's time with the right conditions, while the 500-W version will be able to do so twice in a day. It believes that the 500-W model will be able to meet the full onboard energy needs of a 45-foot (13.7-m) sailboat or double the energy needs of a camper van, assuming the sun cooperates.
A day's worth of strong sunlight is also enough to charge a 60-Wh laptop battery 24 times or an 11-Wh smartphone battery more than 133 times, the company estimates.
The Levante panel can lay flat or prop up using the include telescopic kickstand arm. The marine-grade zippers between the panels make the design modular so users can remove or add extra Levante panels to meet the varying needs of individual trips or uses. The design also allows for replacement in the event one or several of the monocrystalline panels are damaged.
The 500-W Levante system weighs 29 lb (13.5 kg), while the 330-W version weighs 20 lb (9 kg). The latter packs to the same 47 x 16-in area as the 500-W model, just slightly thinner at 2 inches (5 cm) instead of 3 in (7.6 cm). With fewer panels, the 330-W model expands to six times its area instead of nine.
After showing its prototype at the Marine Equipment Trade Show in Amsterdam last fall and testing its panels aboard a sailboat earlier this year, Levante is working to raise the funding it needs to get its systems to market. It's currently offering the 330-W version at Kickstarter pledge levels of €925 (approx. US$1,000) and the 500-W model at €1,388 ($1,500), prices it defines as about 50 percent off planned MSRPs.
It seems the Kickstarter hordes are hungry for just this type of product, as Levante has raised more than $123,000 on an $11,000 goal with over two weeks of campaigning left. A quick look back at Sego's campaign shows that its smaller 25-W origami-style charger has now raised over $237,000, with over a week left.