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Fill’er Up

Firm in Austin offers SolarPump, a solar-powered recharge station for electronics

Over 48 hours, I’ve done just about everything I can with my smartphone except recharge it.

Not charging my phone was intentional for the first 24 hours, part of an experiment to test solar energy. But when my plan fails, the next 24 hours drain my battery down to about a third of its capacity.

Day 1: I plan to fill up my tummy and my cellphone battery at the corner of Austin’s South First and West Live Oak streets, where trendy food trailers share an open lot with a free solar-powered electronics charging station: the South First SolarPump, set up in 2011 by Sol Design Lab, founded by University of Texas at Austin graduate Beth Ferguson.

The station’s 350-watt solar array charges two batteries in a refurbished 1950s gas pump to power up gadgets, laptops and electric scooters. While Sol Design Lab has previously built similar temporary stations around the world, this is the city’s first permanent SolarPump.

Armed with my cellphone charger, I insert the prongs into the outlet. Ta-da! Nothing happens. I jiggle the connections, press the reset button and check the digital display. The batteries are full; they’re just not sharing it with my phone. I retreat to a picnic table to eat lunch and see if someone else figures it out. When no one does, I leave with a full belly—but a hungry cellphone.

I call Ferguson and ask her what went wrong. Nothing, she sighs. The emergency shutoff button is right next to the outlet. Big, red and uncovered, it might as well say “Push me.” And people do.

Day 2: I discover I fell asleep without plugging in my phone, and the battery level’s at 32 percent. So I head to UT’s Perry-Casteñeda Library plaza, where a SolarPump is set up through November. Newer and twice the capacity of the station on South First Street, this one works, Ferguson assures me.

I plug in. Bzzz! The phone vibrates to life, and I smile with relief. Drawing off 1.8 to 1.9 watts, according to the pump’s digital readout, my phone recharges at a rate of about 10 percent in 12 minutes, about like it would at home—but this time, off the grid.

Suzanne Haberman, staff writer