Let's Get Small

Can 'hamster power' help save the West's landscapes -- and the world?

  • Paul Lachine
  • Paul Lachine
  • Homegrown electricity at the off-the-grid workshop of Dan Fink and Dan Bartmann near Fort Collins, Colorado.

    Todd Newcomer
  • artmann uses a hand-crank to power a lightbulb

    Todd Newcomer
  • Fink dusts off the cage and wheel where Skippy the hamster (now deceased) powered a nightlight

    Todd Newcomer
  • Turbine blades made to order at the shop

    Todd Newcomer
  • Paul Lachine
  • More than 200,000 pounds a day of waste at Gills Onions -- "a huge, stinking mess" -- is now food for digester bugs that will create methane gas for fuel cells.

    Courtesy Gills Onions
  • The Gills expect to save hundreds of thousands of dollars annually on waste disposal, and with grants and incentives, will pay off the system in five years.

    Courtesy Gills Onions
  • Courtesy Gills Onions
  • Paul Lachine
  • Sopogy's 1-megawatt installation of compact concentrating solar thermal power generators on a lava-rock hill at the Natural Energy Laboratory on Hawaii. The generators focus sunlight on a fluid that turns into gas that powers an internal turbine. Sopogy founder Darren Kimura has installed solar arrays around the world, but he's particularly focused on offsetting his native Hawaii's nearly total dependence on imported oil.

    Courtesy Sopogy
  • A compact concentrating solar thermal power generators.

    Courtesy Sopogy

In the spring of 2003, Dan Fink got a hamster named Skippy to power a nightlight. It took some imagination. First, Skippy had to be no ordinary hamster, but one of the Syrian variety, a breed that runs particularly fast and goes all night. Next, for all his relative speed, it turned out Skippy could only chug along at 60 revolutions per minute, too slow to charge a battery or generate a volt, so Fink had to build him an alternator out of extremely strong magnets. And then there was Skippy's noisy exercise wheel, which was not only obnoxious, but a waste of energy. Fink solved that by retrofitting it with a smooth ball-bearing.

Finally, after Fink glued 14 magnets to a steel ring and fashioned two coils out of 30-gauge wire, he mounted the whole contraption on Skippy's cage. He then hooked up two LED lights to the alternator. Together, they shone bright enough for Fink to find the bathroom in the dead of night. And even though the little rodent was voltage-deficient, "he had torque to spare," Fink says, so he added another light, and another, the resistance increasing with each new load. He got up to six lights before Skippy showed any fatigue.

Fink, with his friend Dan Bartmann, co-owns the company Forcefield, and lives off the grid in the mountains above Fort Collins, Colo. If you have space for a 30-foot tower, the Forcefield guys will help you build a backyard wind turbine and hook up to your local utility. They talk about the physics of electricity the way other people talk about their favorite bands.

"Did you know you can see electrical charges?" Fink says. "That's why metals look shiny. You're seeing electrons absorbing photons and emitting them back at you."

Fink acknowledges that hamster power is a bit silly; "I only did it because kids wrote in to ask us," he says. But the experiment demonstrates a principle that science-minded eighth-graders understand better than many adults: One way of generating electricity is to spin a wheel of magnets around metal, or a metal wheel around a magnet. And there are many different ways to get that wheel to spin. Wind will do it, and so will a waterfall. Steam will, too, whether raised by burning coal, splitting atoms or with the concentrated energy of the sun. The principle remains the same: Mechanical energy creates electrical energy when electron-conducting metal travels through a magnetic field.

Fink, who considers education to be Forcefield's primary business, believes our widespread ignorance about the workings of watts and volts has gotten us into trouble. "People call us all the time and say, 'I'm worried about climate change! I want to put solar panels on my roof,' " Fink says. "But then we find out their houses aren't insulated, and they're using incandescent light bulbs during the day. We make them do all the cheaper things before we teach them how to make their own power."

When people do make their own power -- on their rooftops, or with a 30-kilowatt microturbine installed in the basement -- they pay more attention to how they use it. They replace kitchen lights with compact fluorescents and reading lights with LEDs. They might even turn the lights off altogether for a few hours.

Electricity generated Forcefield's way -- close to home and in small batches -- is called distributed generation. It's the way Thomas Edison originally delivered electricity back in 1882, when he built the United States' first power plant in Manhattan and provided energy to just 60 customers. In the last decade or so, ever since California became the first state to open its energy markets to individual competitors, distributed generation has been sputtering back into the U.S. energy mix, making a dent in energy demand and securing supplies where blackouts mean disaster. It allows an ordinary electricity consumer to become a one-person power plant, and guarantees that a business can weather a downed power line without incident.

Local power plants are not always easier on the planet than the ginormous remote kind, but at least their pollution is immediate and visible, which makes it easier to clean up before it goes global. "Small-scale operations, no matter how numerous," wrote E.F. Schumacher in his 1973 book, Small is Beautiful, "are always less likely to be harmful to the natural environment than large-scale ones, as their individual force is small in relation to the recuperative forces of nature."

And local, small power plants operate close to the buildings where people live and work, so they sacrifice less energy to transmission. Their waste heat can be used to warm rooms and water, in a process called combined heat-and-power (CHP), which doubles a generator's efficiency. In some cases, that waste heat can turn another fluid into gas to spin another turbine and make yet more electricity.

So why aren't we turning en masse to local generation to offset coal-fired power and reduce carbon dioxide emissions? The short answer is that, ever since 1895, when Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse lit up Buffalo, N.Y., with an alternating current generated 90 miles away at Niagara Falls, the developed world has acted as if all our power plants were waterfalls located far from the cities that need light. The longer answer requires taking a close look at energy policy in the United States: Who makes money on it and how it moves forward.

A revised blueprint that can accommodate smaller, scattered systems would have to be more complicated and would strain and confuse the transmission system that evolved over the last century. That system was set up for the utilities that once owned and controlled every part of the electricity business, from generators to distribution lines to transmission corridors -- utilities that, for more than a century, found that the bigger the plant, the more efficient it was, and the cheaper the power that came from it. Whether overhauling the system is worth it depends on a lot of factors, one of them being money. And, perhaps, how desperate we are for solutions.

Anonymous says:
Jun 15, 2009 10:25 PM
This is a really great piece on distributed generation. I like the hamster analogy, though there's an even more fitting one: your car in the winter. Every time you use turn on the heat in the winter, you use waste heat from the engine. That's what distributed generation is all about.

I'm associated with Recycled Energy Development, whose founder, Tom Casten, is pretty much the leading figure in this field, at least on the business side (though he's no slouch when it comes to thought leadership either). He's been responsible for about 11,000 megawatts of distributed generation over the course of his career. What's truly astonishing is the sheer potential to do more, as this article suggests. EPA and DOE studies indicate that there's enough recoverable waste energy in the U.S. to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 20%. That's as much as if we took every passenger vehicle off the road. We should be doing much more on this front -- though, yes, policy changes will be needed if we truly want distributed generation to explode.

And the potential here is truly massive.
Anonymous says:
Jun 16, 2009 10:11 AM
Yes, this is a good article - right on track. Thank you.

I belive that if we are serious about halting climate change, we will get the most bang for the buck by "getting small". Living large is what got us into this mess. Turn off the switch; unplug your dryer; look for solutions that require the least amount of energy generated by the simplest means possible close to where it is used.

I have a question: Can anybody tell me how much greenhouse gas reduction one can expect from large-scale PV projects when one factors in the life of the panels (20 years?), the energy costs associated with manufacturing them, the energy costs associated with shipping them from (presumably) China, and the energy costs associated with construction (people driving to work, running equipment, etc) of large scale solar projects? Is there really a net reduction in greenhouse gas emission over the life of the project? In other words, how long does it take to "pay off" the initial energy cost of building these things and can one do it within the practical life of the facility? Oh, and I suppose that one also has to factor in the costs of dismantling and disposal after that life is finished. Anybody know of a good source of information on this subject?


Anonymous says:
Jun 16, 2009 10:39 AM
Pat: There's a pair of researchers, Vasilis Fthenakis and Hyung Chul Kim, who have published several lifecycle analyses on this topic. They compare different PV technologies and compare solar to other energy sources. Here's one to get you started:


Great questions. I'll try to blog something about this in the next few days.
Anonymous says:
Jun 19, 2009 11:17 AM

Thank you! A friend just sent me something similar from another source as well. While I don't think everything on the defecit side of the equation has been factored in, the "payback" is, apparently, much faster than I thought. Of course other factors, like loss of wildlife habitat and habitat connectivity, have to be added in when making decisions about building large scale solar facilities. It's not a straight "engineering" question.
Anonymous says:
Mar 03, 2010 02:19 PM
Pat, some of our solar panals are over 35 yrs old and still put out...
Anonymous says:
Jun 20, 2009 12:36 AM
Interesting article, thanks. One point. The quote "Small-scale operations, no matter how numerous," wrote E.F. Schumacher in his 1973 book, Small is Beautiful, "are always less likely to be harmful to the natural environment than large-scale ones, as their individual force is small in relation to the recuperative forces of nature." is true to a point. One could think of internal combustion engines (e.g. cars, et al) as "small scale operations", but there collective effects far exceed the "recuperative forces of nature". This disconnect is why many people have trouble seeing the effects of their car and the few hundred cars around them as a problem. So if small scale power is widespread *and* pollutes, the effects can be huge and exponential. So it's the kind of small scale power that is important, with renewable energy being most beneficial, provided it is operated in a way to exceed the ecologic cost of building it. BUT as the article points out it's really conservation that has by far the biggest impact.
Anonymous says:
Jun 20, 2009 01:02 AM
Tesla still wins because even though power *may* become distributed at some point in the near to far future, it still will be converted to AC power to feed into a building and to run all the devices that use AC power, ie. everything. And when you talk of selling power back into a grid, it's AC baby! As the article alludes to, DC doesn't travel well, but AC does.
Anonymous says:
Jul 01, 2009 12:14 AM
An excellent article in a fantastic special report. The article noted some problems with incentives for distributed generation in California--many of which I experience with my 1.2 KW PV system. Two years ago I generated $25 more electricity than I used. I lost this "credit" at the end of my 1-year net metering period. Because this wasn't credited to me, the incentive was for me to use $25 more electricity, not to conserve. The other problem is that year I only generated 55% of my electricity demand--due to time of use metering, electricity is more expensive during the day, helping me save money. The problem is I'd like to generate a larger proportion of my electricity, but there is no economic benefit to me of doing so.

The article also noted that 2,000 MW of existing (in 2007) distributed generation in 12 million units, out of 1 million MW of generating capacity seems "hardly worth discussing." Sure, this is about 0.2%, but look at the potential. If we increase this small amount by 10 times with an average size system of 1 KW (like mine, which is fairly small), we end up with 120 million units generating 120,000 MW, or 12%. Double the average size and we get 25% of our electricity this way--very doable and very much worth discussing. Maximizing the size of each installation is the way to do this, and California needs to ignore SCE's lobbyists and start creating incentives for me to put a couple more solar panels on my roof. I'm ready to make the investment right now. I'm also ready to buy a plug-in car right now, but I have to wait until they are on the market in a couple of years.