Harvesting energy in small steps

Sources of free energy are all around us. The trick is to harvest them. Take the sun for example. You know how high you hop when you step barefoot onto a black asphalt pavement on a sunny day in July. All that heat is energy – energy that simply goes to waste. Plants have evolved to capture the sun’s energy for photosynthesis, but for the most part humans have either ignored the sun or spent inordinant amounts of money trying to reflect it back into the sky in the name of cooling. Solar power has been explored for years with little commercial success, but from what I know of it, those efforts have been focused on trying to come up with add-on solar collector systems – pieces of equipment added on to whatever we already have (an array of panels perched on top of a house, for example) – or on the goal of generating massive amounts of solar energy from single facilities. Until recently, few people have tried to capture the wasted energy from everyday things like streets and the value of small collection points has been of interest only to what the political right labels “tree huggers.” [For the record, I am an avid tree hugger.]

This may be changing. Fast Company magazine features a technology from a company called Invisible Heating Systems in its March 2007 article entitled “The Fast 50.” Invisible Heating Systems installs underfloor heating systems, but the company’s owner, Henk Verweijmeren, noticed flocks of sheep warming themselves on a stretch of road in Scotland and had a brainstorm. So, he devised a system of placing pipes under roadways, pumping water through them, and capturing the heat of the road for snow melting or filling water heaters. Melting snow and filling water heaters doesn’t sound much like the solution to global energy problems, but what if we captured all the excess pavement heat as energy? Fast Company quotes Verwiejmeren: “In Holland, the government determined that if only 15% of the motorways were paved with this, it would produce more energy than all the utilities in that country combined.” Pretty heady stuff.

Think of all the paved roads, parking lots, and sidewalks in the world. What if we captured all that excess energy? For that matter, what if we captured all the solar heat from roofs (think cities), the tops of automobiles, window panes, walls – everywhere the sun hits and creates heat? Incremental bits of energy from all these sources could add up to a lot of free energy.

The problems are that the technologies are nascient or non-existent, the retrofitting costs exorbitant or environmentally worse than the solutions, and popular demand low. It appears that the public is beginning to catch on to the peril the earth is facing due to the mess we humans have made in designing and building all our systems, structures, and products. Hopefully, this increasing environmental awareness will encourage creative solutions to capturing available free energy without – and this is key – causing additional environmental problems. Governments, corporations, think tanks, universities, manufacturers – the time is now to step up research and development and to incorporate these technologies into new roads, buildings, automobiles, and other energy-ignoring products. Energy conservation is no longer a feel-good proposition – the survival of the earth may depend on it. There is certainly money to be made in the process.

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