Let’s Power Our Laptops with Kitty Litter

Dumb Ideas are a Lot More Fun Than Sensible Energy Policy

In Apostasies, Zócalo presents stories or ideas from people who find themselves at odds with the fold.

by Lisa Margonelli

Optimism about technology is more or less a California trait, but it requires some discipline.

Consider Burbank Assemblyman Mike Gatto’s proposal to harvest energy from street surfaces. Gatto’s AB306 instructs the California Energy Commission to research putting vibration sensors in some pavements and converting the vibrations caused by passing cars to electrical pulses, which ultimately could be used to power road signs or even sold to nearby communities. Sounds too good to be true? In June, the state assembly voted State Assembly voted 65-3 to pass AB 306 out of the chamber.

Is there still gold in them thar streets of California? The name for this technology is piezoelectric. Here’s how proponents say it will work: Tiny sensors will be embedded in roads. When cars drive over the sensors they will push the top of the sensor towards the bottom, generating an electrical impulse that will join up with thousands of other impulses to form a current. (Piezoelectric devices are commonly used in starters for gas stoves and lighters.) Caltrans, proponents say, will be able to sell the electricity or use it to power signs. Significantly, this is not a decree saying the technology must be applied, but a motion to make the already over-worked California Energy Commission study it and design a test, to be executed by CalTrans with existing money.

This concept is an indicator of the state of our optimism. Are we canny strivers of the future? Or is optimism a lazy habit, an embedded belief that a technological Santa Claus will solve our problems? Beyond the statement that piezoelectric worked in Israel, the media contained very little thoughtful discussion of how this stuff works. This is partly a reflection of our gutted news organizations and more significantly, an indication of how little consensus there is on the technology.

I spoke with Alan Meier, a professor at UC Davis who has worked at both Lawrence Berkeley Lab and the International Energy Agency. “What are they?,” he asked, “Miraculous black boxes that suck energy from the air? When you’re taking movement and pressure and converting it to electricity, that energy has to come from somewhere.” Making the road soft enough to absorb the pressure, he says, will take a bit of energy from cars. And the electricity produced may be greenish, but it’s not cheap. Meier calculates the gasoline used to generate the electricity will cost about five times as much as electricity currently costs.

Meier finds the idea more intriguing when the piezoelectric device is embedded in a long downhill slope — say the Grapevine — where it can absorb braking energy that’s being wasted. After running the angles, he imagines there might be a few niches where the technology works. “But why? It’s not energy from nowhere.”

To be fair, there is another strain of thought that highways are built to withstand the shock of wheels going up and down and that possibly creating a bed of piezoelectric sensors in the roadbed will absorb some of that strain and reduce rutting in asphalt, making it last longer, AND generating a little electricity on the side. However, I was unable to find any papers stating that this is the case with piezoelectric technology in roads. I did, however, come across a press release from the Innowatch saying that their piezoelectric road web can be used to track vehicles and their speed as they pass over–which will undoubtedly drive privacy advocates bananas.

For me, the most telling indicator of the reasonableness of this scheme can be found in the recent report by the research, analysis and events firm IDTechEx. Listing hundreds of companies doing work in the field of energy harvesting, the IDTechEx report is one of those 400 page specialist things that sell for around $4000, and for which I had to beg before they released it to me as a member of the press.

IDTechEx says that by 2021 the total market for tiny devices to power our laptops, harvest energy from our bicycles and even power pacemakers without a battery will be $4 billion. The report details a dazzling array of far- out applications, mentioning offhandedly that the U.S. military is researching robot jellyfish and robot bats, which will benefit from replacing batteries with energy harvesters. In Japan there are two train stations that use embedded sensors to capture the energy from people stepping through fare gates to power signs.

However, IDTechEx views roads embedded with sensors as something of a long shot, saying that while a lot of methods of implementing it have been studied, “the jury is still out on which is best.” A cursory scan of the rest of the report suggests that the cost curve for the sensors is likely to come down dramatically over the next 10 years, meaning that it may make more sense to do this later. Meaning: Not much sense now.

Optimism about technology like this can be more dangerous than a lazy habit. It runs the risk of causing hope fatigue among voters. And worse.

First, it promises something from nothing. The green space has become cluttered with Jules Verne-esque crap that promises only to be “new” while ignoring all the “old” fixes we know to be effective. In fact, we don’t need new energy so much as we need less–most of the developed world uses far less energy to generate $1 of Gross Domestic Product than we do.

Second, we’ve created a political ecosystem where the kind of new technology most likely to survive fake “controversies” is the stuff that’s of dubious efficacy. Last year California shelved an eminently sensible plan to require car manufacturers to use reflective paint and glass that could have saved a comparatively gargantuan half a million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year by 2020 because it became “controversial.” This is right on par with the recent U.S. Congressional backlash against energy-saving lightbulbs.

When I called Alan Meier I had forgotten that he once created a wonderfully pragmatic plan to save the world millions of barrels of oil a day cheaply and quickly. It’s called “Saving Oil In a Hurry.” Reduce the speed limit? Save 363,000 barrels of oil a day in the U.S. Institute a full-on car-pool program with parking, communications, and dedicated lanes? 800,000 barrels. Add in an eco-driving campaign OR a telecommuting campaign and you’ve cut another half a million barrels a day.

We could enact all, or some, of these measures in California and reduce oil consumption and pollution while saving money and pioneering the technology that would support them–telecommuting software, new social networks and geo-spacial systems to enable safe carpooling. But these ideas are not “new.” They’re old. We know we could do them. We just don’t feel like it. We’d prefer, lazily, to dream of a “black box that sucks energy from the air.”

Lisa Margonelli, director of the New America Foundation’s Energy Policy Initiative, publishes the Energy Trap. She wrote Oil On the Brain: Petroleum’s Long, Strange Trip to Your Tank.

*Photo courtesy of {Andrea}.