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Off grid power options reconsidered

Now that the sun has been generously pouring energy into our solar panel and deep-cycle batteries, the power woes of early winter are all but forgotten.

Now that the sun has been generously pouring energy into our solar panel and deep-cycle batteries, the power woes of early winter are all but forgotten.

Gone are the short and gloomy overcast days when the sun sneaks at best a hasty peek at our panel and the generator has to make up for the shortfall in solar energy, filling the clean and quiet air with noise and stink.

We’ve been reviewing our puny off-grid system that really only works from about mid-February until late September and decided to make a couple of changes.

Our first way of thinking was, as our society is trained to think, to get a bigger system: add another panel or get a wind generator and more batteries. But since we have no aspirations to a city-like household bristling with plugs, switches and appliances, it always seemed somewhat ridiculous to us to spend another thousand dollars for a somewhat bigger alternative energy system when all we want to plug in is the computer, modem and maybe a couple of lamps.

So instead, we’ve been keeping our eyes open for the development of more energy-efficient computers. If we can cut our power consumption, our off-grid system will be just fine as is. Our current laptop sucks 65W and runs off its battery for just 1.5 hours, a poor performance indeed.

The Energy Star ratings that computers receive for being more efficient usually don’t disclose the energy the individual models actually consume, but this is vital information. Five watts can make a difference. It can be found on the little transformer box that is part of a laptop’s power cable: multiply ampere by voltage and the result is the watts consumed.

Even the information on a company’s website does not always shed light on the amount of power used by the different models.

We found some interesting answers on internet forums. There are now small-sized laptops (to my layman’s eyes and understanding) called netbooks that run on as little as 12 to 23 watts and whose batteries last for hours. Quite a difference to the whopping 65W our laptop consumes—it would translate into more than a two-third reduction in generator use for running the computer in the wintertime.

And the price of a netbook is only half of what another solar panel would cost us.

I’ve also been trolling the web for muscle-powered battery chargers to supplement at least some of the generator power and pollution with. Ironically, wind-up or treadmill gadgets with any significant output are far and few between in the Western world while it seems that in poorer countries, quite a few of them are in use.

Funny in a twisted way that in industrialized countries with their immense output of pollution, hordes of overweight people pay for gym memberships where they fritter away all that useable energy on exercise bikes and treadmill, and then pay again for their power bills.

At the same time in developing countries, already skinny people expend their physical energy and burn yet more calories on such things as stationary bikes that power a computer. In keeping with the bizarre way things are, hand-cranked laptops were developed specifically for children in Third World countries and to my knowledge unavailable in the West; never mind childhood obesity here and the odd off-grid person who would have loved to get their hands on just such an item.

But the wind-up laptops turned out to be riddled with problems, mostly because the cranking mechanism was built right into the computer and made the whole thing prone to breakage.

A more promising gadget (which will even be available in North America) is a foot-powered generator, much like a sewing machine treadle, which can be plugged into a laptop and recharge its battery. The YoGenMax by Easy Energy promises an output of 60 to 80W and sure sounds interesting, but looks a bit flimsy to me. Anything foldable, designed for the yuppie market, might have a pretty limited lifespan with regular hardcore backwoods usage.

We’ll take a wait and see approach with it, checking the internet for feedback from people once it’s available, and downsize our laptop to a netbook in the meantime.

That way, we can make the most of the sun when it shines—which it does right now in plenty.

Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon

River south of Whitehorse.