My turn: Juneau needs to laugh at times like these

Posted: Wednesday, May 21, 2008

We knew it was going to be an interesting summer when the people of Juneau rushed the first cruise ship of the season, bringing a very long extension cord to divert electricity from the ship's generator into the city's power grid. That was the first night in weeks that the city turned on its streetlights.

It could be said that conservation is hitting an all-time high in Juneau. But it's equally true that many of the local efforts go beyond mere conservation. I don't just mean that nobody is running their clothes dryers, and Juneau is sold out of clothespins. We're talking scavenging, salvage and sometimes piracy.

For scavenging, we've seen the birth of home-made portable, personal capacitors; you hook them up to abandoned cars and such to collect the few stray electrons that remain in the solenoid or whatever, and then take them back to your compound to dump that power into your community battery.

Salvaging is a little more interesting, at least with hardware. So much electrical equipment was left where it died when the juice ran out that it opened a new economic niche: de-conversion. A family nearby installed a V8 engine in their former hybrid, running it on fuel all the time, and now when they plug it in at home it feeds power into their grid. In a similar spirit, I unplugged my clock radio and rigged it to run on kerosene.

As for piracy, a battle between local enclaves and roaming outlanders over a Coleman camping generator kept me up too late last night. And I think the smokers are planning something - I can hear their hacking and gasping as they pound along on their generator-treadmills, storing up enough juice so their boss can yell at us over his loudspeaker.

"Just walk away," he keeps warning in that ominous voice, "and make sure you wear polyester and keep glass rods in the pockets to 'catch' the static!"

The economics of this crisis are already quite interesting, and will only get more so. At the grocery store today the clerk asked me, "Cash or charge?" I said "charge" and handed over my battery.

I decided to see Iron Man, and borrowed a friend's kid so I wouldn't feel out of place in a superhero movie. In addition to the usual $10, the theaters are also charging 20 kWh per person. So I'll have to charge my personal capacitor from the solar array my electric co-op salvaged from that Greenpeace vessel (it ran aground last week when the city cut power to the lighthouses).

Then again, I only have 20 minutes of panel-time today and it's cloudy anyway, so I'll have to top my "cap" off with the bicycle-generator I made out of coconuts and bamboo. I don't think the kid has one, so we'll have to hook him into the Matrix Machine-Future Human Battery Thermodynamic Conversion Pod(tm).

Recently, while at the laundromat, I stumbled upon an untapped resource - old Bounce fabric sheets! Sure, we all know they stop static cling ... but did anyone realize that they do so by absorbing stray electrons? Then they just get tossed in the trash! All those precious electrons going into the landfill! Naturally I filled my backpack with used sheets. I'll have to devise some way of getting the static back out - maybe if I tumble-spin them counterclockwise ... ?

I met a feral kid with an aluminum-foil kite for harvesting lightning. I traded him a crankshaft-powered Gameboy for it. (That may have been a bad trade - Juneau doesn't get many thunderstorms.) Last week I installed tiny water turbine generators in all my rain gutters and downspouts. Each generator only produces a few volts, but with 220 days of rain a year, it was a resource just going to waste. It's not like we're going to use up all the rain. Or gravity. Tonight I'm finishing the static electricity collectors that I've built into collars for my cats - why let all that petting go to waste?

• Tony Warren is a year-round Juneau resident, and enjoys typing in the dark.

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