Sunday, 15 February 2009
Almost everyone in the Western world today grew up with electricity, taking for granted the enormous power – and danger – right behind the wall socket. Almost all electricity comes from massive, centralized power plants, and most of that from fossil fuels.
There are several reasons that can’t last. The supply of fossil fuels themselves may decline soon. Burning fossil fuels is causing increasingly freakish weather around the world. Any breakdown or attack could eliminate power to millions of people, as happened in blackouts in America. And, of course, sending electricity through power lines is inherently wasteful – much electricity is lost in transmission.
But electricity will be a particularly important thing for future generations to maintain, even if casual air travel and personal high-speed fuel vehicles were to become impractical. For one thing, many modern medicines require refrigeration, as does the biological research that will be needed to produce vaccines for future diseases.
For another, most of the knowledge of human history is now preserved on computer servers, and much of the best new writing is on computers only – blogs, online publications and so on. If the electricity were ever to go out, future archaeologists would be left with a strange gap in our civilization when few writings or family photos appeared, for everything existed as ones and zeroes.
The alternative is to transmit small amounts of power near where it’s used, in each home and town. Clean forms of energy – wind turbines and solar panels – naturally lend themselves to this, and such distributed sources would reduce waste and protect us against major breakdowns. Of course, we could each have our own solar panels and wind turbines, but the sun is not always shining and the wind is not always blowing, so our grids can help us distribute power from where it is being generated to where it is needed.
One important change, already in practice in some parts of the world, is reverse-metering: making sure that homeowners are paid when their windmills or panels generate excess electricity. That power, fed back into the grid, can be a source of income for many people, and would provide an extra motivation to get clean energy.
Water wheels are a source of power that could be much more widely used. There are waterwheels in this area that were once used as grain mills, and then went to being tourist attractions – but they could be put back into service, keeping our homes lit.
The world’s first commercial tidal power generator opened last year in Northern Ireland, the prototype of what builders hope will be a chain all along the seacoast, and was expected to power up to 1,000 homes in the area.
Then there are sources of additional power – not major methods of generating electricity, but ways of getting more out of every nook and cranny. We can generate electricity with bicycles, as researchers at Dublin City University demonstrated on RTE radio recently. According to that programme, a gymnasium in Taiwan is now cutting its electricity bills this way – as the members ride the exercise bicycles, they help run the lights and air conditioning.
Designers refurbishing Natuurcafe La Port train stations in the Netherlands recently came up with another creative idea: they are now generating some of their station’s power from the turning of the revolving doors.
Texas professor Tahir Cagin investigates piezoelectrical energy, electricity generated from motion, which some researchers hope will power mobile phones from sound waves. The East Japan Railway Company is putting such technology to use in a different way – putting it in the floor of the rail station, and generating electricity from the feet of pedestrians.
Finally, there are hundreds of millions of used cars in the world, many of whose parts will rust as junk. Their alternators were made to turn rotational wheel motion into energy, and with the addition of a few blades, they could be made into a hundred million small windmills.
Most links obtained courtesy of Chris Leyerle's admirable Hydrovolts blog, which you really should read.