Electricity: It’s Easier to Generate Than You Think

Gotta go off-grid? The ReadySet charger will power laptops, cell phones and more from remote locations. Originally intended to help people in poor countries, it's developed a strong following among camping enthusiasts in the West. Photo Credit -- Fenix Intl
Gotta go off-grid? The ReadySet charger will power laptops, cell phones and more from remote locations. Originally intended to help people in poor countries, it’s developed a strong following among camping enthusiasts in the West. Photo Credit — Fenix Intl

If you had to, you could get along without quite a few of the conveniences of modern life before you really started to endure hardship. No smartphone? No television? Even no internet access? Sure, losing those things all might seem like major annoyances if you’d gotten used to them, but you could still manage pretty comfortably without them.

But take away electricity, and every aspect of life we consider modern would grind to a halt. The lack of power could result from a natural disaster or just as a consequence of living “off the grid.” Whatever the cause, having no juice automatically plunges people  –  no matter how much wealth or social status they wielded beforehand – into a primitive living standard. Fortunately, it’s getting easier and cheaper to stay powered on when the local grid cuts off … or even when one doesn’t exist at all.

Don’t have a few thousand to plunk down on a solar array or wind turbine? Then read on as we present a few lesser-known ways – for the time-being – of making your own power. Sure, these technologies could make future storm-caused outages a bit less scary for us who are connected to the grid. But more importantly, they hold the potential to radically improve the lives of the 1.2 billion people estimated to lack electricity access.

 

Human Battery

We’ve written before about innovative gyms that are using stationary bikes to generate part of their electricity. But what if pedal power was your primary way to make electricity for your lights or to charge a cell phone? The Nuru Energy PowerCycle was specifically designed to give users in sub-Saharan Africa and India – who live far-removed from any utility power grid — a way to recharge high-efficiency LED lights. A 20-minute workout on the PowerCycle is enough to charge up to 5 lights for a week, according to manufacturer Nuru Energy.

 

Income Generator

Cell phones in rural Africa are like cars in the United States – they seem to be everywhere. The tricky part is charging them when two-thirds of the population lacks electricity. Devices like the ReadySet charger from Fenix Intl have proven popular for personal use and as the basis for a business. Local entrepreneurs have set up thriving enterprises that charge villagers a fee for charging up their phones. The ReadySet can run either on solar energy or on power generated by wind turbines or even a bicycle.

It’s just one of many social entrepreneurial ventures coming to the fore that are designed to fight energy poverty. The GravityLight, for instance, uses simple gravity to create light for up to 30 minutes, simply by pulling on a weight for a few seconds. Count it among the numerous projects social entrepreneurs have undertaken to provide alternatives to dangerous, kerosene lamps that are widespread in countries where people have limited access to grid electricity.

 

Power Cube

Conceived of by the social enterprise Open Source Ecology, the Power Cube is intended as a “source agnostic,” hand-buildable, interchangeable engine. As part of the organization’s Global Village Construction Set of community-made industrial tools, the Power Cube can be inserted into tractors, brick-press machines, generators, and more. In keeping with OSE’s theme of using locally sourced materials whenever possible, the Power Cube can run on renewable fuel such as biodiesel. Want one of your own? OSE makes the plans for its designs publicly available and encourages people to build them, use them, and teach others how to make them.

Micro Hydroelectric Power. You’ve probably at least heard of hydroelectric dams, which convert the power of falling water into electricity, usually on a very large scale. Less well-known is the fact individual homes can take advantage of the basic principle as well. For homeowners fortunate enough to have a stream running near their property, it’s not too complicated a proposition to set up a turbine generator spun by the flowing water. (It’s important to make sure the installation will not harm fish or other wildlife.)

With electric power comes the opportunity to engage more fully with the rest of the world.  People in poor and geographically remote areas can enjoy improved access to education, medical care, technology, and the ability to do work that raises their living standard. In already developed areas, renewable off-grid power offers people a way to gain a greater sense of personal security, independence, and of course, contribution to helping the environment.