Columns, Opinion

MOOK: Individual Solutions

Imagine if each stationary bike, treadmill and elliptical machine in the Fitness and Recreation Center used the friction created while you ran to charge your computer battery. Think of it – all those feet powering all those computers and all that energy going to a practical purpose. I wonder how much we’d save by simply unplugging our laptops from wall outlets.

There’s a professor in the geography and environment department, Nathan Phillips, who does just this. His laptop, desk lamps and telephone are powered by a ‘deep-cycle’ battery that’s charged by the stationary bicycle next to his desk. Professor Phillips is able to provide enough power to effectively take him ‘off the grid,’ meaning he can close up his wall outlets, along with his energy loop, and produce renewable energy with his feet. It takes about a half-hour’s worth of pedaling to run his office for the day. And going beyond the Flintstone simplicity of this idea, since his office faces south, he also has two solar panels on his windows for extra output.

He got this idea by working in a field out in Amazonian Ecuador, where he needed to run his research equipment in places far from any outlet. He initially relied on solar energy but converted to pedal power during the rainy season when clouds rolled in and cut down the sun’s rays. Back in the United States, he decided to put his idea into practice right here on campus. It was a simple enough plan – he had the bike generator, so all Professor Phillips needed was to go to his local electronics store and buy a few power converters to channel his 12V battery into the proper voltages for the appliances.

There’s certain independence that comes with this do-it-yourself attitude that most people in this society don’t understand. ‘It really forces one to treat energy as precious and worth conserving,’ he says. Plus, one big benefit of being self-reliant is that if the grid were to ever fail, he’d still be going strong.’

Now, I’ve been thinking about a global application for this idea. I’ve been to Bolivia, which recently discovered that it is holding roughly 60 percent of the world’s known lithium reserves.

Lithium is the essential element in rechargeable batteries, such as those in your laptop, and will soon be in each of the city’s hybrid taxis. Yet even though Bolivia may be rich in the natural resource, that doesn’t mean it has the infrastructure to do anything with it. It will probably rely on foreign investors to suck the lithium out of the ground and refine it for batteries, thus reaping the profits for themselves. But if the country can develop a closed energy loop, say, by constructing batteries that are also powered by bicycles, it can distribute do-it-yourself power to rural areas, providing energy to the most impoverished communities without necessitating power lines stretching across the Andes mountain range. This multilayered self-sufficiency may just be the trick to spreading energy equity to the impoverished sectors, allowing technological advances for people who know nothing of laptops or elliptical machines.

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