done it again. I've just spent a bunch of money on a gadget that I may
never use. But it was so cool, and it was way below retail at my at my
favorite off-price emporium, so I couldn't resist. What did I buy? A wind-up
flashlight from Freeplay [http://www.freeplay.net/newsite/index.html].
Freeplay is a South
African company that does well by doing good. In 1994, Chris Staines and
his business partner Rory Stear adopted and developed the "Clockwork Radio,"
invented by Englishman Trevor Baylis. This radio is powered entirely by
the energy supplied when the user turns a crank. The cranking winds a steel
spring from one spool to another. As the spring uncoils, it applies rotational
torque to a transmission, whose output drives a generator.
Sixty turns of
the crank generate enough energy to power a radio for an hour. Staines
and Stears realized that this product could revolutionize communication
in Africa, where the electrical supply is spotty and batteries are very
expensive. The Freeplay radios, which debuted commercially in 1996, have
been used to disseminate health information and education across the continent.
The Freeplay group
continues to research how to make its dynamo generator work for all kinds
of gadgets, including wireless telephones and GPS navigation systems. The
group also developed this flashlight, which operates on two different power
The first, a rechargeable
Ni-cad battery, runs an incandescent bulb for up to 45 minutes per charge.
The other is a hand-cranked dynamo that runs an array of three bluish LEDs,
or light emitting diodes. These mini-bulbs hardly use any energy at all
and last forever. The wind-up generator powers the LEDs for 10 minutes,
giving you enough time to find your shoes and check that your kids are
all right after a hearty earthquake, for example.
I just feel prepared
for the 21st century! Why? Well, you may have heard — it made all the papers
— that my home state of California is going through a bit of an energy
funk. The situation is supposed to get worse this summer and deteriorate
further the summer after that. California is so large, it threatens to
bring neighboring states down with it.
Forget about saving
the planet. I'm talking about saving our own keesters in a blackout. As
Stears pointed out, "Even if you're a billionaire, you'll need some kind
of self-powered device when the lights go out. We're creating a whole new
industry that can improve people's lives, whether they're in Los Angeles
Speaking of improving
our lives, I wonder if I could use the Web to find ways to stay online
when the grid goes down.
It turns out that
the Web is a terrific place to learn about alternative energy sources.
Patricia Michaels, the About.com guide to Environmental Issues, outlined
five sources of renewable energy in a recent article on her topic site
These are biomass, e.g., burning wood, renewable because you can replant
trees, geothermal, i.e., heat from under the earth, water, e.g., hydroelectricity,
wind, and solar power.
Which of these
options would work best for those of us who want to make electricity at
home? Most of us don't have streams running through our properties to take
advantage of our own hydroelectric power. We don't live on hot springs,
for the most part, so geothermal is out. Organic fuels, such as wood chips,
are renewable, but polluting. That leaves two choices for home-grown power:
wind and sun.
You can buy residential
wind turbines, but these require towers of 80 to 120 feet and a steady
blow. Still, those in windy, rural settings may find these worthwhile.
Find out more about wind power at the Wind Powering America site [http://www.eren.doe.gov/windpoweringamerica/]
sponsored by the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Network [EREN,
of the U.S. Department of Energy [http://www.energy.gov/].
For most households,
the most practical way to become grid-free is by gathering solar energy.
There are really two ways of using the sun. The first uses solar thermal
technology. This just means taking advantage of the natural heat of the
sun. You can do this passively by positioning your house so it makes the
best use of the light that shines on it. Or, you can get more active by
heating the water for your house by pumping it through panels on your roof.
This approach uses the sun's energy, yes, but not to make electricity.
It does go a long way to helping you save energy, though, and reducing
the price you would otherwise have to pay for electricity or natural gas.
The second use
of solar power actually translates it into electricity. To do this, you
use photovoltaic, or PV, technology.
The French physicist
Antoine César Becquerel (17881878) discovered the photovoltaic
effect in 1839. He was working on a primitive battery, a solid electrode
placed in an electrolyte solution. He observed that voltage developed when
the electrode was exposed to the sun. Light just made his batteries work
were made to harness this electricity over the next century. But it wasn't
until the 1950s that a way was found to make solar cells even remotely
practical. Bell Laboratories invented the transistor in 1948. By 1954,
it was found that the high-quality silicon wafers used as semiconductors
in transistors could be used for the same purpose in solar cells. Starting
in 1958, solar cells were put to practical use for the first time, in space
The problem? The
thin silicon wafers needed to translate rays into watts are difficult and
expensive to make. And, up until recently, the wafers haven't been very
efficient, either. If a solar panel could turn all of the energy that shines
on it into power, it would be 100 percent efficient. In the 1980s, you
couldn't buy a solar panel with more than 12-13 percent efficiency.
is changing. In 2000, Spectrolab [http://www.spectrolab.com/],
the company that has supplied solar cells to the space industry for 40
years, made a record-breaking achievement by developing terrestrial solar
cells that achieved 32.3 percent efficiency. Dr. Nasser Karam, director
of Advanced Programs and Optoelectronic Products at Spectrolab, commented
at the time, "This critical breakthrough for Spectrolab brings us closer
to our ultimate goal of manufacturing solar cells with an average efficiency
of 30 percent by 2001 and 35 percent by 2002."
Wow! Hook me up!
Who needs the electric company anyway?
Well, of course,
it's only sunny for half the day. And sometimes, even here in Southern
California, it's cloudy. (In fact, in the first few months of 2001, Southern
California had more rain than Seattle, but then, Seattle apparently got
one of our earthquakes.) So, you can't just use the panels. If you want
to get off the grid completely, you must use your panels to charge up some
deep-cycle batteries (similar to car batteries, but with lower, steady
outputs of power). Then, you've got to buy an inverter. The power that
comes off your PV system or out of your battery is DC, or direct current.
The electricity in your house, upon which all your appliances run, is alternating
current, or AC. The inverter changes the direct current from the solar
panels into the AC needed to power your home.
Storing that big
battery can be dangerous. After all, you are really generating some big
voltages here. A cool alternative to complete self-sufficiency is called
"net metering." In net metering, you gather your electricity, convert it
to AC, then use what you need. Any extra power you make goes out to your
utility company. At night, the flow reverses, and you get your power from
the grid, as usual. At the end of the month, the amount of the electricity
you supplied to the grid is subtracted from what you used. The result?
A substantial savings for you, plus the satisfaction of supplying environmentally
correct electricity to the public.
it costs quite a bit to set these things up. Still, many state and local
governments have begun to offer "buy-down" programs, or rebates, for up
to half of your cost. In 1997, President Clinton started a program called
the Million Solar Roofs Initiative [MSR, http://www.eren.doe.gov/millionroofs/].
The goal of MSR is to enable businesses and communities to install solar
systems on 1 million rooftops across the United States by 2010, primarily
with financing assistance.
states and municipalities have set up "buy-back" rebate programs to make
going solar more attractive.
Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy
Will your state
reimburse you for some of the cost of producing your own power? Find out
using this database.
little issue often crops up when you interact with your utility grid. Say
the power goes out in your neighborhood. The utility company will then
kill the lines to try to find out what the problem is. You, however, blithely
continue to produce power and supply it to your neighbors. This phenomenon
is called "islanding." The linemen now have no real way to know which wires
they are working on are "live." Fortunately, technologies now exist to
help prevent islanding. You may not be able to help your neighbors in a
blackout, but you will have the power to keep cooking along.
In a recent address
to Congress, President George W. Bush announced that "America must be more
energy independent — and we will." He may have been referring to the opening
up of pristine wilderness to destructive oil and coal production. Yet,
the government, in recent years, has developed quite a few programs to
encourage the use of renewable and less-polluting sources of energy.
Resource Data Center (RreDC)
Supported by the
National Center for Photovoltaics [NCPV, http://www.nrel.gov/ncpv/]
and managed by the Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and
Renewable Energy [http://www.eren.doe.gov/],
the RReDC operates out of the Distributed Energy Resources Center [http://www.nrel.gov/energy_resources/]
of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory [NREL, http://www.nrel.gov/].
Got that? The RReDC provides information on several types of renewable
energy resources in the United States, in the form of publications, data,
and maps. An extensive dictionary of renewable energy related terms is
also provided. The News section announces new products on the RReDC.
Get your official
energy statistics here, straight from the U.S. government. This site offers
data and analyses about the supply, consumption, distribution, and price
of energy in the U.S. It is so thorough, it even has historical data. Sign
up for its weekly newsletter to keep up with the national energy scene.
ISO System Conditions
want to know what day they may become the targets of rolling blackouts,
they click into the Web page of the California Independent System Operator,
or Cal-ISO. Cal-ISO is the controller of the state's power grid. It determines
who will get power, based on forecast temperatures and peak loads. You
know the routine: Get up in the morning, check your stocks, check the weather,
then take a peek at the power grid forecast.
vendors must educate customers before selling anything to them. As a result,
Web sites are often great resources for learning about the nuts and bolts
of renewable resources.
an "access company" in Colorado, offers a good example of an informative
vendor site. You order something from the catalog, and Jade goes to the
manufacturer to get it for you. Jade Mountain offers a variety of products
for ecologically correct living, including solar panels and LEDs, water
pumps and purification devices, green building materials, and kits for
constructing yurts and tipis. At every point, Jade Mountain takes care
to describe how its technologies work and why we should all use them.
Big Frog Mountain
Corporation offers a variety of renewable-energy equipment, including windmills,
hydro-electric turbines, and complete solar electric systems for the production,
control, and use of electricity. Big Frog includes plenty of "how to" information
and calculators to help you figure out what, exactly, you need to buy.
Buy your pre-packaged
home systems or back-up power systems from Mr. Solar, solar with attitude.
Also explore his wind and water power area.
These guys make
most of the world's solar cells, modules, and systems. The company offers
a swell package that completely powers a recreational vehicle.
CNN profiled this
Canadian company recently, as it races to fill California's orders for
solar power technologies.
Planning to use
solar energy in your house? You'll need an inverter. Trace Engineering
makes some of the best.
Surrette Battery Company claims to make North America's best deep-cycle
battery. The company manufactures a line of batteries designed just for
energy storage from power generated by wind and solar technologies. Safety
measures include extra precautions against acid battery leakage and doubly
insulated positive poles. This should minimize the sparking that occurs,
for instance, when you improperly attach jumper cables to your car battery.
and his consulting business, Sustainable By Design, bring you a tool that
allows you to calculate how much power you can expect to get from the sun
in your area.
Can you run computers
big enough to power the Internet entirely on solar energy? In Warrenton,
Virginia, there's an Internet Service Provider that does just that. SolarHost
relies on a system of high-density solar panels, a large number of storage
batteries, leading-edge power management, and powerful Web servers.
Slower than a
microwave, but using no electricity. Cook meat, bread, and beans with the
power of the sun! Recipes included on the Web page.
Maybe you want
to start slowly on your energy independence, with gadgets powered by alternative
energy. Here are some online places to buy them.
Channel will happily sell you solar-powered flashlights and radios to help
you explore your world.
That classic dispenser
of Yuppie paraphernalia actually carries cool Freeplay products.
C. Crane seems
to cater to radio lovers with a survivalist bent. Get your wind-up and
solar-powered radios, flashlights, and carbon monoxide detectors here and
help whip the One World Government conspiracy!
Buy your personal
solar power battery chargers here, at prices below retail.
Keeping Up with Alternative
Ah, with renewable
energy technology leaping ahead, how do you keep up? With these Web sites,
This is the bible
of homemade power. Subscribe, or download the entire issue for free. Home
Power offers a rundown of state laws on net metering and maps showing solar
radiation and wind energy available across the U.S.
Solar Energy Society (ASES)
The U.S. branch
of the International Solar Energy Society, ASES lobbies the government
on behalf of power from the sun. It also sponsors the National Solar Energy
Conference and publishes Solar Today magazine.
Sustainable Energy and Development
Solstice is the
Internet information service of the Renewable Energy Policy Project and
the Center for Renewable Energy and Sustainable Technology (REPP-CREST).
Come here to learn about sustainable building and home designs, energy-efficient
appliances and lighting, and environmentally friendly products and practices,
as well as information about renewable energy.
Michaels offers links to information about getting energy from wind, the
sun, biomass (e.g., burning wood chips), geothermal sources, and more!
The Big Picture
Check out this
quote from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory reports (report no.
An average U.S.
household uses 830 kilowatt-hours of electricity per month. On average,
producing 1000 kWh of electricity with solar power reduces emissions by
nearly 8 pounds of sulfur dioxide, 5 pounds of nitrogen oxides, and more
than 1,400 pounds of carbon dioxide. During its projected 28 years of clean
energy production, a rooftop system with 2-year payback and meeting half
of a household's electricity use would avoid conventional electrical plant
emissions of more than half a ton of sulfur dioxide, one-third a ton of
nitrogen oxides, and 100 tons of carbon dioxide.
Is that cool, or
Have I included
all the fabulous information about growing your own power now available
on the Web? No. But these are a few good jumping-off points into the world
of electrical independence and all active as of March 2001.
Sure, you can go
out and buy yourself such solar gadgets as a Solar Power Cool Cap [http://www.crystalbay.net/solarworks/solar-hat.html].
But why buy when you can make simple solar tools out of things you have
around the house?
You probably know
that you can tell time by the sun. Go ahead! Make yourself a sundial out
of a soft drink cup with a plastic lid and a straw [http://www.eren.doe.gov/roofus/sundial.html].
But did you know
that you can distill your own water using solar power? Sure! You can use
the sun to get pure drinking water from a hole in the ground in the desert
You can even make
a solar oven out of a pizza box [http://www.eren.doe.gov/roofus/pizza.html].
Check here for
a collection of various do-it-yourself techniques for making several types
of solar cooking ovens. There are recipes here, too.
are fun and games to us here in the U.S. Yet, their slightly more sophisticated
cousins are helping people in developing countries who often don't have
enough fresh water or fuel to cook food.
Thanks, Mr. Sun,
for all the free power!
e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.