Pondering Alternative Sources of Energy

As I’ve said before, I think it’s imperative that we find ways to be energy independent as a country and also an individuals.

I wonder why we’re not using the energy that’s around us every day, like sunlight, wind, gravity and in the Pacific Northwest, rain. A lot of power is generated from rain via hydroelectric plants that take advantage of flowing rivers, but it seems like we should be able to use water flowing off our roofs in much the same way.

I started looking for things like “gravity powered generator” and “downspout turbine to generate electricity” on Google just to see if others are thinking along the same lines.

There are quite a few sites out there but I didn’t find anything that seemed fully developed as yet. One of the problems of having relatively cheap centralized energy is that alternative sources of energy are not subsidized in the same way and therefore don’t develop. (The same problem happens in medicine, but that’s another story.)

Technograt.net has a discussion of possible “ambient” energy sources and some of the problems involved. They mentioned the idea of a downspout electrical generator as well as others.

Halfbakery discusses using gravity to drive a generator. A Discovery Channel discussion board makes reference to Semi Perpetual Electric Gravity Generator that uses something called a Waranlinc Wheel created by a UK company called Environ Energy. (Cool looking site but I’d expect better English from a UK site, so I’m suspicious.)

When I was thinking of a gravity powered generator, I was thinking of something that would use some hydraulic device to raise a weight up and when it dropped there would be some way to capture the energy from the force of gravity. That same force could be used without gravity to push something big, like a spring, gear or lever, that would in turn transfer all that energy to an induction generator that uses magnets and wire.

I grew up in a house that had a grandfather’s clock in the hallway. It had three weights in it and about once a week somebody had to pull the weights back up to the top. As they dropped they powered the clock gears and the pendulum moved back and forth in a precise period to keep time. (The HowStuffWorks article is a great description of how this remarkable mechanism has worked for centuries.)

Another way to generate power could involve hydraulics. I’ve written about the power of hydraulic log splitters before and I’m impressed that such a small electric motor can create the several tons of force needed to split a log. It would seem that those same tons of force could be used to generate electricity.

So putting those devices together I can envison a house that has a big weight associated with it. Hydraulic power would be used to lift the weight and as it falls, it powers the house either directly or indirectly through an intermediate generator and storage system.

Such systems could also incorporate simple machines like the pulley, lever and inclined plane. They’ve been around for centuries and provide a mechanical advantage that reduces the amount of force needed to get a job done.

You can’t get energy for nothing and there are strict physical laws governing how much energy any system can produce, but if you can lift a car and split logs with hydraulics why can’t you use that energy to generate electricity? It’s a lot of force.

Then there’s human power. I’ve never understood why all those exercise machines at the gym aren’t generating power. To generate current all you need is a generator or alternator which in their simplest forms use a combination of magnets and wire coils to produce a current. That should be easy to attach to an exercise bike or treadmill. Even if you’re spinning the wheels fairly slow, gears would allow you to spin the magnet much faster. The same principle is at work in something like a crank-driven radio or crank radio-generators. That principle just needs to be translated to a bigger system.

Come to think of it, I could use one of those crank radios for the next power outage.

Then there’s also the “N” word — nuclear. In the great scheme of things, nuclear power is still in its infancy. I could foresee that in the future we will find less dangerous and costly ways to harness the vast amount of energy stored in atoms, perhaps even on a small local scale.

Twenty years ago, who would have ever thought we would have the computing power we now have on our desktops or in our hands? Why couldn’t the same revolution happen with energy production? Dare to dream but keep it rooted in reality.