Vol. 9 No. 5 May 2001
I Got the Power: Alternative Energy Resources on the Web
by Irene E. McDermott Reference Librarian/System Manager, San Marino Public Library
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Internet ExpressI've 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 [].

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 resources.

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 or Lagos."

Speaking of improving our lives, I wonder if I could use the Web to find ways to stay online when the grid goes down.

Renewable Energy
It turns out that the Web is a terrific place to learn about alternative energy sources. Patricia Michaels, the 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 [] sponsored by the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Network [EREN, of the U.S. Department of Energy [].

Solar Power
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 better!

Various attempts 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 flight.

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.

That situation is changing. In 2000, Spectrolab [], 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.

Problems? Well, 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,]. 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.

Additionally, many states and municipalities have set up "buy-back" rebate programs to make going solar more attractive.

National 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.

Another interesting 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.

Government Agencies
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.

Renewable Resource Data Center (RreDC)
Supported by the National Center for Photovoltaics [NCPV,] and managed by the Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy [], the RReDC operates out of the Distributed Energy Resources Center [] of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory [NREL,]. 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.

Energy Information Administration
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.

California ISO System Conditions
When Californians 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.

Alternative-energy 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.

Jade Mountain
Jade Mountain, 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
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.

Siemens Solar
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.

ICP Global Technologies
CNN profiled this Canadian company recently, as it races to fill California's orders for solar power technologies.

Trace Engineering
Planning to use solar energy in your house? You'll need an inverter. Trace Engineering makes some of the best.

Surrette Battery Company
Nova Scotia's 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.

Christopher Gronbeck 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.

Solar Host
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.

Sun Oven International Inc.
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.
The Discovery Channel will happily sell you solar-powered flashlights and radios to help you explore your world.

The Sharper Image
That classic dispenser of Yuppie paraphernalia actually carries cool Freeplay products.

C. Crane Company
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 Energy
Ah, with renewable energy technology leaping ahead, how do you keep up? With these Web sites, of course.

Home Power Magazine
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.

American 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.

Solstice: 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.

Renewable Energy's Patricia 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. FS-520-24596):

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 what?

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.

Stupid Solar Tricks

Sure, you can go out and buy yourself such solar gadgets as a Solar Power Cool Cap []. 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 [].

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 [].

Solar Cooking Archive
Check here for a collection of various do-it-yourself techniques for making several types of solar cooking ovens. There are recipes here, too.

These technologies 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!

Irene McDermott's e-mail address is

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