Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Happy to Have Done my Part

About twenty five years ago I was asked to use my electronics skills to develop a device that would not only improve the quality of life of a disabled person, but also to allow him to call for help in the event of an emergency. Over the years I’ve developed several different versions, each one being better than the previous one. The latest allows full control of a telephone, including a memory for up to twenty-four phone numbers, full control of a television and any other device that is normally operated via a remote-control unit, and off-on control of any AC-operated device. With an appropriate speakerphone the system is always functional, even in the event of a power failure. The control device is fully programmable by the disabled user, and all tasks are performed by using only two switches. For a quadriplegic who has no use of his hands, this level of functionality is necessary. A small tube placed close to the users face provides access to the switches. Short puffs into the tube activate the first switch, and a sipping action activates the second switch. The user scrolls through a menu of functions shown on a backlit LCD display by a series of puffs, and performs the selected action by a brief sip.

The user was my brother-in-law Mike, and unfortunately he passed away last week.

As tragic as Mike’s story is, he was blessed with a good family and friends. Each contributed to the improvement of the quality of Mike’s life in his or her own way, and I’m glad that I was able to do my part.

Because a quadriplegic relies on those around him for tasks that the rest of us take for granted, being able to do some of those things unassisted must have been a pleasure. That simple pleasure is what I hope to have brought to Mike’s life for the duration of his disability. Knowing that I had a positive impact on his daily life is my reward.


Friday, August 25, 2006

The Best Application of Solar Photovoltaic Technologies

Large-scale energy projects are wonderful in that they can claim to make substantial reductions in carbon emissions, and provide benefits to the owner or community served, but I find small-scale systems much more interesting. While huge arrays are impressive, they simply serve to replace grid-supplied power with power from the sun. I’m not terribly excited by this. On the other hand, small-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) projects provide practical solutions to a variety of problems. Ranchers, for example, use simple PV systems to pump water for cattle in areas where no power lines exist. While windmills were once used for this purpose, their tendency to breakdown makes PV systems a much more practical solution. The PV solution is elegantly simple in that no batteries, charge controllers, or inverters are required. The output of the PV array is connected directly to the pump. Pumps used in this application have been designed to withstand low-power conditions, resulting from of cloud cover for example, without damage.

Where power lines don’t exist, or where it is simply too expensive to run them, small PV systems are often the best power option. Remote cabins and vacation homes are an example. PV systems offer an alternative to noisy, smelly fuel-powered generators. While the initial cost of a PV system is greater than that of a generator, the cost of fuel to run the generator quickly surpasses the cost of a PV system. And, not having to haul fuel is a bonus.

The limitations of my own small off-grid photovoltaic system keep my interest high. Instead of having a system that automatically kicks-in in the event of a grid power failure, I scramble to run extension cords and lights. I monitor the drain on my system, and ration the power used for the duration of the outage so that I don’t run short. When grid-power fails, I’m the energy czar in my home. While I wish that my system were larger, there are advantages to living with these limitations. Members of my household are aware of the power that certain devices require. While we’ve taken electricity usage for granted in the past, now we tend to conserve. We understand the importance of buying energy-efficient appliances, and turning off lights and other devices when they’re not being used. We’ve learned about phantom loads, and we avoid them. Our goal is to keep enlarging our PV system and to keep reducing our electricity usage. Eventually, we'll be able to produce all that we need. This goal will take years to achieve, but then the journey is the interesting part.

Perhaps the most worthwhile PV systems are those installed in rural third-world country residences. Without PV, many rely on kerosene for lighting. This practice results in fires and injuries, as well as health problems resulting from breathing the fumes. While the initial cost of a system is relatively high considering the income of the recipient, the overall cost is lower than the cost of using kerosene. PV power is also used to run radio’s, TV’s, and computers in rural schools, as well as to provide power for refrigeration needed for medicine. Non-profit groups such as the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) install systems and provide financing. In addition, SELF establishes local dealerships and trains local residents as installers and technicians.

While the first practical application of solar panel technology was in the space program, it seems ironic that the most worthwhile use for this technology happens to be in the most underdeveloped areas on this planet. I wonder what the recipients of this technology think when they look at the charge controller. I wonder if they know that it not only protects the battery, but optimizes charging as well. Do they appreciate the effort that some engineer put into the design of this product?

It seems to me that providing PV technology to those who need it is a far better way to win hearts and minds than by occupying a country and killing its residents. As a solar PV system researcher I wish I were eligible for grants and subsidies. I can only imagine what I could do with one point four billion dollars, the cost of one week of war in Iraq. If I were president things would be different. While I’m waiting to be elected, I’ll welcome contributions large and small to finance my work. Anyone? Hello?

Solar John

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Gloom and Doom

My research in alternative energy has turned up a lot of what I would call “gloom and doom” predictions. Some articles go as far as to predict widespread chaos, and a total collapse of the economy. I guess that some that are looking into alternative energy are doing so in order to protect themselves from a major energy infrastructure breakdown.

Since we’re already seeing gasoline prices rise at an alarming rate, it’s not hard to believe that these predictions have merit. Food will certainly be more expensive in the future due to processing and shipping costs. If this trend continues, we may eventually see only locally-grown items on the shelves.

It’s not hard to imagine gas prices so high that we only drive in emergency situations. High heating costs could force many of us to lower our thermostats and to wear warmer clothing indoors. A major increase in the cost of electricity might prompt us to cool our homes with fans instead of central air conditioning.

Shortages or costly electricity and heating oil need not be a problem for those who prepare in advance. For a modest investment you can generate enough electricity to exceed your basic needs via solar or wind power. It would be wise to consider alternative heating systems that eliminate your dependence upon natural gas pipelines or other utility-supplied energy. Learning to grow and preserve food could also prove to be a valuable skill.

Those who prepare in advance will not have to venture out for solutions in the event of a crisis. At that point, it’s too late anyway. The necessary items will probably not be available. In a serious crisis, those who don’t prepare will need to be rescued. If help comes at all, it will probably come from ordinary citizens, not the government. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina should have taught us that. Meanwhile, some will become victims of looters and others desperate to help themselves. Those who don’t have to venture out are the ones most likely to survive. Those who live in the suburbs are more likely to survive than those who live in crowded areas where there will be a lot of competition for few resources.

We typically have food in our pantries, and some of us have emergency water and food stored away, but what do we do when these items run out? We’re sometimes told to keep a 72 hour supply, but we’ve seen that in some emergencies it has taken longer than that for help to arrive. In many cases, rescued survivors were dehydrated, exhausted, cold, and tired. This won’t happen, even in an emergency where help is slow to arrive, for those who’ve made self-reliant living their goal.

Those who incorporate elements of self-reliant living into their daily lives are not only better prepared to handle emergencies, they’re also saving money on their utilities everyday. Those who grow their own food are most likely getting more exercise than those who do not, and they’re certainly eating healthier food.

Surviving a long-term emergency requires skills that the average person does not possess, and advance preparations. Given the current state of the world, this is a good time to acquire those skills and the necessary equipment. Hopefully, with enlightened leadership, a crisis of major proportions will be avoided and they won't be needed.

Begin by assessing your basic needs, and then look into the most efficient ways to meet those needs. After satisfying your needs for water and food, next consider shelter, heating and cooling, and electrical power. Don’t skimp on your electrical system since it can help to preserve (refrigerate), and prepare (cook) food. You'll probably need to boil the water you'll use for drinking. Your system needs to be large enough to do these things as well as to provide lighting, air circulation, and to power a radio and other equipment. Test your systems once in awhile by simulating a failure of utility company supplied electricity and fuel. You might find that your emergency equipment can be used to reduce your household expenses, and to preserve natural resources such as coal and oil, a win-win situation.

When Technology Fails, a book by Matthew Stein, is a good source of information.

Solar John