When Hurricane Sandy tore through New York City last year, some of the most stirring photos — aside from those chronicling the storm’s devastation — were of city residents helping one another keep their smartphones charged up and powered on. Daisychained powerstrips were a common sight throughout the five boroughs, and lines stretched out the door at locations where charge was available. That illustrated one glaring problem in a city where public Wi-Fi is available on just about any block (and even underground): There’s no convenient solution for charging our devices on the go.

To fill the void, AT&T, solar kit manufacturer Goal Zero, and Brooklyn’s Pensa Design have unveiled Street Charge, a solar-based charging unit that debuts today at Fort Green park and will be rolled out across numerous city parks and public destinations throughout the summer. For all of Manhattan’s amenities, as AT&T spokesperson Neil Giacobbi puts it, "None of that works if you don't have a charge on your phone and you're coming from a 10-hour day at the office."

Wi-Fi is everywhere, but charging remains a challenge

"There really is no existing elegant solution for power that can just be dropped in where you don't have to wire anything and there's not a lot of infrastructure that needs to be added in order to achieve it," said Pensa’s design director Mark Prommel. And with Street Charge, the Dumbo-based studio has certainly produced something befitting of the word "elegant" — a design it’s confident will complement surroundings at various locales including Union Square, Coney Island, Central Park Summerstage, Randall's Island, Governor's Island, and Hudson River Park.

Each Street Charge unit houses six USB ports in total. For iPhone owners, both Lightning and 30-pin dock connector cables are built in. There’s a micro USB cable included for Android / Windows Phone / BlackBerry devices, and three female USB ports are also available if you’ve got your own cable handy. Wood "charging stations" (carrying AT&T branding) provide ample room for users to place their devices down on Street Charge and chat with others stopping by for a quick boost.


"What's this going to be like at 4:30 in the morning in Union Square? I have no idea."

And everyone involved is hoping there will be something to that social aspect, however unpredictable it may be. "What's this going to be like at 4:30 in the morning in Union Square? I have no idea, but we're going to find out," said Giacobbi.

Street Charge will operate around the clock, 24 hours a day; Goal Zero's powerful sun-fueled battery will continue juicing plugged-in devices throughout the night. Just how much power does it put out? Each port produces up to 10 watts, enough to recharge your smartphone at the same rate as (or faster than) most OEM wall chargers. Representatives tell The Verge they expect most people will stop by for brief 10- or 15-minute charging sessions. The goal is to get you from point A to point B with a generous amount of your battery percentage intact.

In mapping out exactly where Street Charge would go, AT&T and its partners sought end destinations that would enjoy heavy foot traffic, but just as important, areas needed to be well-lit with a regular police presence. (New York continues to deal with a rising number of gadget thieves, and Street Charge could make for an easy target to the unscrupulous among us.) New York City’s parks department played a role in deciding where Street Charge could be placed in the city’s greener areas. Between two and three Street Charge stations will be deployed at each destination, lessening the odds you’ll need to contend with lines that would cancel out the convenience factor.

AT&T "ambassadors" will be on hand at select locations to help familiarize New Yorkers with Street Charge, but at others, the companies plan to take a hands-off approach. They’ll occasionally check in for feedback and to see how the initiative is being received at large. Still, if a pilot held near Pensa’s Brooklyn office is any indication, city residents will be flocking to the charging structures wherever they’re found. "People just sort of got it right away" said Prommel.