Environment / Technology

The Power Plant of the Future is You

Three times a week, I go to the gym on my way home from work.  And three times a week, I ask myself the same question: isn’t this a waste?

I don’t mean the exercise.   A longer lifespan, plus reduced risk of Alzheimer‘s and cancer, is all the justification I need.  No, I’m talking about energy.  Say I get off the elliptical and it tells me I burned 300 calories.  What was that power used for?  We’re approaching an energy crisis of potentially epic proportions, and here I am putting .3 kWh into a machine that produces nothing.  That’s what I mean by waste.

The future of energy production?

Courtesy flickr/pasukaru

Power From Your Body

Turns out I’m not the only one who thinks this way.  One of IBM’s annual predictions this year was the possibility of people-power:  devices that generate energy from your movements.

The potential of this idea is hard to overstate.  Forget the coal-fired power plant that’s currently belching carbon into the air every time you turn on the lights.  And forget the transmission problems that make solar, wind and other renewables difficult to do on a large scale.  Just go about your day, and let the devices do the rest.

Power From Your Windows

Justin Hall-Tipping, a nano-energy innovator, has worked with scientists to create a different off-grid solution.  They’re working on a thin, flexible, transparent material that converts infrared (heat) radiation into electrons.  Cover your windows with these, and they could theoretically power your home.  (Storing the energy is tricky, but innovators are also hard at work on the battery of the future).

If this works, your home could be its own power source.  It would store up energy all day, and release it to you as needed.

The Future of the City is a Bright One

Courtesy morguefile/Clarita

The City of the Future

Now picture these two innovations integrated throughout the urban landscape.  Leaving the bank, you push through a revolving door that turns a generator.  Outside, the sidewalk absorbs energy from your footsteps, while the glass skyscrapers above harvest sunlight.  Electric buses whiz by, powered by the smart grid you’ve been contributing to, while converting their braking energy and feeding it back into the system.

In short, it’s a vision of flexible, renewable, efficient and decentralized energy production.

Now, as science writer Kat Friedrich notes, smart grids only work if there’s buy-in from regular customers.  But hey!  I’m a customer, and this whole concept is pretty damn appealing to me.

Plus, I bet I can get the gym to toss me a discount, when I point out that I’m the one keeping their lights on.

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8 thoughts on “The Power Plant of the Future is You

  1. Super awesome technologies! I wonder though about manufacture of these materials though. Non-toxic, environmentally sound, plentiful, and overall inexpensive materials are less than easy to come buy. But if those hurdles can be… hurdled, I would love to live in a city grid this smart!

    • True enough, we’re short on practical details at this point. But the vision is so compelling, and there are so many people researching similar projects, that I’m pretty optimistic anyway.

  2. I’m convinced this is what the future will look like. But the technology itself may not be the biggest challenge. Figuring out how to finance the investment-to-build is the real trick. Example: home solar will never scale-up as long as it is a one-by-one homeowner investment decision. Plans are underway to change the way your home solar will be paid for: and it is no different from paying your electric or home heating bill. They become one and the same. And it’s in place when you move in. Painless!

    • I like that idea a lot! The more we can lower the initial barriers to renewable energy, the more the market will demand it. If I’m ever in a position to buy a house, I really hope this is an option.

  3. Have you heard of the nightclub that powers its equipment based on the activities of people on the dance floor? I believe it’s in Europe, but it’s been a while since I read the article.

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