The power station in your basement

Cooling your car in the summer burns a lot of extra gas, but heating your car in the winter is essentially free. Why? Because the tiny explosions that push the car are also hot. Just scoop up some of the waste heat and pour it on the driver. Problem solved. The car is a natural CHP cogenerator, where CHP stands for Combined Heat and Power. (Note that winter heating is a big problem for electric cars.)

Cogeneration is such an appealing concept. It’s always surprised me that it doesn’t show up in more places, like your house. If you’re already burning something to heat your house, why not do some work at the same time? But identifying waste is one thing and selling profitable products that reduce waste is something else again. The market for expensive durable house-related products is incredibly conservative, even when new efficiencies are at hand.

But change is finally in the air. I was happy when, a few years ago, I started hearing about Honda’s Micro CHP unit. It’s a little natural gas-powered motor that sits in your basement and makes heat and electricity. Does it work in the real world? The answer appears to be yes, to judge by local press stories and YouTube videos.

I was especially glad to come across a Jon Udell interview with someone who works for Freewatt. Freewatt installs (and adds value to) the Honda CHP system. The interview helped convince me that the Micro CHP revolution is the real deal. If you live in a cold climate and you need to replace your furnace, please consider buying one of these.

Why so many electrical plugs?

There’s an old email meme that you still see from time to time about how ancient Roman roads determined the width of modern railroads. Snopes tells us that it’s not terribly accurate, but the moral is clear enough: precedents are hard to shake.

Some patterns, like which side of the road you drive on, are very coercive. In such cases, once a local pattern is established, it’s dangerous or impossible to oppose it. What’s interesting is when these local patterns grow from small seeds into a global mosaic. Coercive growth of left-side driving, for example, propagated through much of the British Empire. But frontiers between differing regions are interesting places. What happens when you drive your car from a left-driving country to a right-driving country? In some cases (like Sweden in 1967) the resulting friction is enough to make the whole country switch. But in general, the cement has hardened, and everybody just has to live with the tension between two standards.

Electrical plugs are good examples of this. The standards are coercive, and when they harden, there’s not much you can do after that. Here’s a good article on Gizmodo about Why Every Country Has a Different F#$%ing Plug.

There’s a nice bit in there about how the UK came up with a new plug design after World War II. It seemed like a reasonable time to try something new, and the UK had a whole empire to foist it on after all. So you can see why they felt a certain sense of entitlement. But their timing was, in fact, terrible. They acted at the very moment the empire was going to pieces, and the legacy is an electrical plug that works (almost) nowhere else in the world. Still, what a manly hunk of metal is the English plug! It certainly shames the effete French two-pronger across the Channel.

The electrification of motoring

The Economist gives a surprisingly upbeat assessment of the future of electric cars in this week’s article The electrification of motoring. I hope they’re right. It seems clear enough that if the battery cost comes down, then a lot can be simplified out of a car. This is looking pretty far down the road, but consider this scenario. If you put the motor into the wheel itself (something that is possible with an electric motor), then you can remove the engine under the hood, the transmission, the drive shaft, the gas tank, and the emissions controls, muffler, and exhaust. Not only does that free up a lot of space, but, as the article points out, it changes the car so drastically that the competitive advantage of existing car companies is much diminished. As a result, we’re likely to see some new players in the automobile industry.

Michelin has already built such an in-wheel motor, dubbed the Active Wheel. It may be a while before it goes mainstream, but it already works in the lab. Check it out.

Any port in a storm: Prius powers house

My family was up visiting my wife’s uncle in Maine this weekend. He told us some harrowing stories: for the better part of a week, his house in York was without power after the recent ice storm (the lights were on in time for our visit, mercifully). A few hours without power can be a charming, boardgame ‘n’ candles filled trip into the nineteenth century, something like a flying visit to the local historically themed attraction. But more than a day without electricity in Maine in the winter is a serious hardship. Most of us have become quite used to the twenty-first century by now.

It quickly became impossible to buy an electrical generator at any price. But Wendy’s Uncle Pete was lucky enough to have a little generator for his old boat from his sailing days. He was able to wire it into the house and keep minimal services online (fridge, furnace, aluminum smelter). Because I still had Pete’s story in my ears, I was particularly interested in the following item from the NY Times Green Inc. blog: Prius: It’s Not Just a Car, It’s an Emergency Generator. It’s the story of a guy who wired his hybrid car into his house. It’s a portent of the coming decentralized grid. Get ready!

House powers car, that’s not a story. But car powers house, now THAT’S a story.