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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Personal Energy?

I tend to think of wasted energy in two broad categories:

1. Inefficiencies in the design and use of all of our gadgets.

2. The more personal “spent most of the afternoon running around trying to find or fix—fill-in-thing-you-couldn’t-find-or-fix-last-week. . .” In that latter category, the issue is more time, irritation, some part of the lining of my stomach, and perhaps the heat loss from those little wisps of steam that come off my head both during and after a rollicking afternoon pacing my living room while on the phone with customer service or tech support people who are busily not addressing my issue.

On the one hand, the idea that we should be recapturing energy from our own activity sounds slightly silly and slightly Tom Swift-like. How much energy could you get, how would you get it, and what’s the point? On the other hand, it’s more energy than you think, and we can get some of it back.

Light, Heat, and Motion. . .

The logical place to start, for Homo Electronicus is the welter of portable electronic devices on which many of us have come to rely: laptop, cell phone, PDA, music player, electronic games, GPS, cameras of various kinds, etc. You come home and—if you want things to work tomorrow—you plug in. And if you commit heavy usage on the road (in your car, on a plane, in your off-grid cabin in the woods) you get that sinking feeling and the cartoon wah-wah-wah-waaaaah sound as you watch the display of your favorite device blink out.

Doesn’t seem like those things would cost much energy but they get us in a couple of ways: not least, most of the charging devices we use are vampires, they are leaking small amounts of energy all the time. Adds up. Like the dripping faucet that costs you four bazillion gallons of water over the course of a year.

You can find portable solar re-charging devices to jack into and they are getting cheaper and easier to find. For the lazy environmentalist, however, they require a few too many steps—something else you have to remember to bring with you, then you have to figure out where to position the thing in the sun for a few hours.

More appealing, to me, are the pocket books, backpacks, or even clothing with built in solar cells: charge-on-the-go Geek Chic. More subtle, sophisticated (and doubtless expensive) options that concentrate on harvesting power from body heat and normal movement are being researched by NASA, among others. We are the batteries. . . here comes The Matrix.

Meanwhile back at the ranch. . .

While I’m pacing and fuming, I’d like my shoes to be generating a little power for me and I don’t see why my house can’t be giving back some energy via the floor. And when I’m in my basement, peddling off some frustration on the exercise bike, that ought to be generating electricity too, like Edward G. Robinson in Soylent Green.

I understand that for a lot of people most of this sounds something between geeky or pointless. Regarding the latter matter, I would simply point to the Starbucks Equation: $4/day doesn’t feel like much for an elegant cup of coffee, but by the end of the year that adds up to almost $1500.

Have to stop concentrating on the drops and look at the bucket.