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Crowdfunding Critic: Lycan Powerbox solar-capable battery
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Apr 17, 2016, 07:41 PM
I suppose it's fitting that I was asked to write the Crowdfunding Critic today, seeing as I'm currently heading into my senior year of a conservation and sustainability degree -- and this product is designed to be, well, geared toward conservation and sustainability. This week, our crowdfunding column takes a look at a new project on IndieGoGo for a heavy-but-totable portable generator -- a solar-capable battery that promises to give you both mobility and security. Today, I dissect the ideas behind the Lycan Powerbox.

The case for solar

I've already established the fact that I'm an environmentalist in addition to being a writer here at MacNN, so I hope that you'll bear with me as I pull out my soapbox and preach renewable energy for a moment. Solar energy is the least-utilized renewable energy resource, powering less than two percent of the US renewable energy totals, far behind biomass and hydropower, and even wind. Renewable energy only makes up somewhere between nine and 12 percent of the total energy that the United States runs on to begin with, so solar is just a smaller fraction of an already small fraction.

Whether or not you're skeptical about climate change, there are lots of studies that show the connection between fossil fuel combustion, and (at the very least) a significant increase in pollution. Coal, which is the number one source of electric power generation in the United States, is an incredibly messy fuel. When mined, it drains chemicals such as sulfur and heavy metals into streams, rivers, and groundwater. It also burns "dirty," throwing off solid particulates such as lead and soot into the air, and it also releases mercury. In fact, one of the biggest reasons you've got to limit your intake of fish nowadays is because most large fish tend to have high concentrations of mercury, which as I'm sure you know, isn't something you want to put into your body. The list goes on and on.

As an environmentalist, I find this a shame, seeing as solar energy is one of the most widely-available forms of renewable energy, and it's the least utilized. Solar panels have dropped in price so much in recent years that there's no reason why solar-powered products shouldn't be more readily available to the general public. However, after sitting through at least five sustainability and conservation-related courses, I think we're going to see a real push for these kinds of things to hit the market. After all, the sun's just hanging out in the sky anyway, I vote we put it to work. I think that must have been Renogy's logic as well.

Introducing the Lycan Powerbox

I cannot help but chuckle at the name -- The Lycan Powerbox. It seems a little funny to name a product that deals with solar energy after a mythological creature that is dictated by the moon, but it actually kind of makes the name stick out to me, so I guess the marketing is working -- even if that might be somewhat of an unintentional benefit of the branding. Silly name aside, it's a very likable idea. A portable battery that is designed to charge via solar panel (or panels) and power whatever it is that needs power. It's essentially a giant, quiet, weatherproof box that contains a lithium-iron phosphate battery that you can plug in just about anything into.

The spec sheet that I looked over said that you can use the Lycan Powerbox to charge your cellphone for about 120 full charge cycles -- that's not a typo, 120 -- before you would need to recharge the Lycan Powerbox once. While that is impressive, I'm willing to bet no one is going to drop a cool two grand on a gigantic iPhone charger. The more important specs are that it'll run a radio for about 24 hours, a laptop for about eight and a half hours, a well-insulated refrigerator for about eight hours, or a flat screen TV for about 11 hours. That should give you a picture of what you're working with. If you're wondering, the Lycan Powerbox has two 12v DC outputs, three 110V AC outputs, three 2.4 amp USB ports, and a single 1A USB port, so you'll have plenty of outlets to plug things into.

The Lycan Powerbox also comes in at a scant 60 pounds, which is impressive for a generator. It might sound heavy, but I can tell you from experience that it's not that bad. My parents have a small gasoline-powered generator, which in addition to being a great way to elicit ire from the neighbors with the smell and the noise, is extremely heavy and hard to move around. The Lycan Powerbox probably feels more like a fully stocked cooler, which is kind of what it's built like in the first place. It features wheels and a long handle that allows you to easily push or drag it along wherever you need it to go.

Battery Basics 101

How does it work? As I said above, it contains a lithium iron phosphate battery (which is also called a a LiFePO4 battery, or an LFP (lithium ferrophosphate) battery.) If you're not "into" the science behind the batteries, the short-and-sweet of it is that it's a long-life rechargeable battery that has some inherent benefits over lead-acid batteries (that are large, heavy, and have short lifespans,) or even lithium colbalt batteries (which tend to have a higher energy density, but a shorter lifespan and are more likely to overheat, rupture, or even explode when overcharged). LFP batteries have a ton of benefits like the ones listed above. They're able to take heavy use on the chin, they'll keep working for a significant amount of time, they're lighter than their lead-acid equivalents, they can be discharged completely without having to worry about reducing the battery life. It's all good, right?

Well, yes and no. LFP batteries are expensive. As a person who has a vested interest in eventually building her own electric bike, I'm well aware that trying to find any type of Lithium battery on the cheap is downright impossible, and it's the same case here. The battery itself is retailed at $650, which is just about 36 percent of the total cost of the Lycan Powerbox (which retails at $1,800, but see below.)

The batteries have a lifespan of five to seven years "with heavy use," which is never really directly spelled out by the manufacturer. It's not known if you're going to be able to return the spent battery for a discount on a fresh one, because LFP batteries are a real pain to dispose of. They can't (or, at the very least, shouldn't be) be tossed in with normal municipal waste, and instead usually require a trip to battery recycling center, who might end up charging you to dispose of it properly.

The image above not-so-subtly suggests spending an additional $4,000 on stocking a library of six precharged batteries

What the heck is a photovoltaic cell

The other components of the Lycan Powerbox are the photovoltaic cells -- which you probably know better as solar panels -- that can be hooked up to the Lycan Powerbox to charge it. Photovoltaic cells work on the principle that sunlight (or bright artificial light, though generally sunlight works best) generates energy by causing photons in the light to free electrons from atoms, which directly creates electric that can then be used to power something, or in the case of the Lycan Powerbox, store it in a battery for later use.

Again, the spec sheet I received told me that the charge time of the Lycan Powerbox depends on how many solar panels you hook up to it. If you've got one 100-watt solar panel, it'll take about nine hours for a full charge, though two will reduce it to about four and a half, and a third solar panel will reduce it to three hours. The Lycan Power Box can also be charged via AC input, which will take about seven and a half hours to charge it from empty to full.

On the Lycan Powerbox and ambiguity

While the Lycan Powerbox takes a lot of time to talk about how it's a solar device, it's worth noting that the $1,800 price tag does not include a solar panel. No, the $1,800 price tag includes the Lycan Powerbox, and nothing else. If you want a solar panel, you'll have to drop an additional money for either a bundle that includes solar panels, or choose to buy individual solar panels at $350 a pop.

Benefits and boons

But even with the concept of having to replace the battery every five to seven years, it's not a bad investment. Not only are gas-powered generators noisy and produce a significant amount of pollution while running, they also require a not-insignificant amount of fuel. If gas prices are up, you're going to pay a lot more to use your generator. The Lycan Powerbox, however, has the benefit that despite the fact that humans have been around for thousands of years, no one has managed to charge us for sunlight (yet). So what you pay to charge the silently-operating Lycan Powerbox from solar energy is going to be exactly the same, every time: free.

But why, though?

Who does this sun-harnessing box even appeal to? Actually, a surprising amount of people. No, it's not going to power your entire house, and if you're looking for a cheap and easy way to go off-grid, this isn't going to do it for you. At the same time, that's not what Renogy is trying to do. Instead, they're trying to give you the freedom of having a big battery that you can take with you when you need it.

Growing up in a rural area in northwest Pennsylvania, I got pretty used to getting knocked off the power grid on a regular basis, especially in the late spring and early summer storm season. Having the ability to use a solar-powered generator to power your refrigerator to keep your goods from spoiling, charge your phone and tablet, and all the various creature comforts that you can't access when the electric is out is pretty appealing.

It's certainly a lot less noisy, and eventually becomes expensive than pouring gasoline into a full-house generator, especially if you're really only looking to charge up electronics, or power your modem and router so you can watch Netflix while you wait out the outage. While my experience with being knocked off grid was relatively innocuous, it's also perfect for natural disasters that may leave people without power for days. Of course, there are also other applications.

Avid campers, hikers, RVers, road trip takers, tailgaters, music festival junkies, and outdoor enthusiasts can take the Lycan Powerbox along with them with minimal effort. Weekend warriors who are looking for an easy way to power their favorite plug-in tools are sure to appreciate this as well. Imagine being able to pull out the electric hedge trimmer and tackle the overgrowth without needing to run a cord halfway across your yard to your house or garage. The uses are fairly limitless.

Looking toward the future

I think that one of the most important things that the Lycan Powerbox does isn't charge your electronics, power your router, or even help you maintain a perfect yard. I think what the Lycan Powerbox's success does, if it continues to do as well as it has on IndiGoGo, is show that the general consumer is ready for alternative, renewable energy in their homes. They're ready to have the choice to make eco-conscious decisions of their own volition, and they're willing to spend their own money to do so.

On top of that, it also shows that they're looking for ways to take care of themselves, be it on an extended camping trip or in the face of a natural disaster -- and I think that's a powerful message. At the time that I'm writing this, the Lycan Powerbox has already made 42 percent of their total goal (a relatively low $75,000) with about a month left to go. I think they're probably going to make it, as a lot of the renewable-energy crowdfunding projects I've been keeping my eye on tend to do well. And, as an environmentalist, as well as someone who just loves technology in all its forms, I think that's pretty darn cool.

If you want to jump in and support Renogy's efforts, you can check out their IndieGoGo page for the Lycan Powerbox. If you're not looking to drop the money on a Lycan Powerbox itself, there are support-level pledges that allow you to snag t-shirts, and even your own solar panels for $100 or less (which can be used for other things). If you are looking to go for it and buy your own Lycan Powerbox, the base model with no solar panels is $1,099 through their crowdfunding page (the retail cost will be $1,800), but you can get upgraded models that feature solar panels included, and bonus features at an additional cost.

-- Amber Neely (@SurferAmber)

Please note that all prices in this article reflect retail costs, not the IndieGoGo incentive prices (unless specifically stated otherwise). You can purchase all items listed within this article for a discount for being a project backer.
( Last edited by NewsPoster; Apr 18, 2016 at 11:42 AM. )
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Apr 18, 2016, 08:47 PM
Uh. This isn't a generator. It is a battery backup. Period. And a seemingly expensive one. A generator generates electricity. The solar panels are the generator part of this equation.

I was really confused by the terrible laptop time, until I realized that was probably plugging the laptop's AC adapter into the 110V outlet, so most of your energy was lost as heat going from DC of some voltage to 110V AC and back to DC. If it had a UPB C port I bet it could run the new MacBook for days! :-)
Mike Wuerthele
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Apr 18, 2016, 09:01 PM
Yeah, Amber does address that.

There's a few massive battery banks like this one that call themselves generators. Not sure why.
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