Energy head tilters for this week

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By Elisa Wood

October 8, 2009

I’ve been writing about energy for 20 years.  And during those years, I’ve heard many out-of-the box concepts and witnessed some surprising trends. But it seems that lately head-tilting news comes along more and more frequently, a sign I think of how quickly innovation is occurring in the electric power industry.

Below are three ideas that caught my attention this week as I covered the industry. Perhaps you have your own head-tilters to add. Please do!

By the way, two decades ago solar and wind power were pretty much oddball ideas. Consider that before judging any comments.

  • A 14-year-old boy in an impoverished African village, who has never heard of the Internet, built a working windmill out of scrap material

Too poor to attend school anymore William Kamkwamba went to a US-sponsored library to try to keep up on his learning. There the Malawian boy found diagrams for building windmills and painstakingly followed the directions to bring electricity and water to his famine-stricken village. He scavenged for junk and found old bike parts, pipes and fans to make it work. His fellow villagers thought he was crazy until he succeeded. His story is chronicled in his book, “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.”

There is some irony here that an attempt has been underway for 10 years to build offshore wind power on wealthy Cape Cod, with no luck. Maybe the region needs to hire Kamkwamba as a consultant.

  • Baby you can drive my combined heat and power car

We’ve all heard that combined heat and power is a highly efficient approach to heating, cooling and electrifying schools, stores, office buildings, factories, hospitals, and multi-famly housing complexes. But cars? Thomas Blakeslee, president of the Clearlight Foundation, posits that we could achieve far greater fuel efficiency if, rather than feeding ethanol directly into cars, we used it to fuel combined heat and power plants that would in turn electrify cars. The efficiency would be so great, we could drive these electric cars 22 times farther on CHP electricity than if we used the same acre of corn to make ethanol.

  • Energy efficiency: The invisible hand that Adam Smith never saw

Energy efficiency is often discussed in terms of how much money it can save a household or business on utility bills. But how about what it can save an economy? Environment Northeast issued an interesting report in September that investigates what efficiency can do for state gross product. The macroeconomic report found that every $1 million invested by a state in energy efficiency increases gross state product by $7 million.

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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of She has been writing about energy for more than three decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.