Speed Bumps Power Cash Registers

E.B. Boyd by E.B. Boyd | July 15th, 2009 | No Comments
topic: Green Living

So this was exciting: A supermarket in England has outfitted their parking lot with kinetic plates which produce enough energy to power their cash registers. The development was announced last month, and many green blogs wrote enthusiastically about it.

But then a professor wrote a long piece in The Guardian about why projects such as this one are a waste of effort, and how we should focus instead on systems that provide a bigger bang for the energy buck.

That left me deflated — until I decided he was wrong.

But first, to backtrack. Here’s what the supermarket did: In place of speed bumps, the store installed a system of plates over flywheels, so that every time you drive over one of the plates, a bit of energy gets generated — about 30 KWh per hour, or enough to power the store’s checkout counters.

The project is part of a wider vision being advocated by a British firm called Highway Energy Systems, where such speed bumps could be used in a variety of settings to harvest energy for use in powering street and traffic lights, for example. (See a video on their Web site here.)

The professor, who teaches physics at Cambridge and is the author of a new tome called Sustainable Energy — Without the Hot Air, objected to the hoopla over the speed bumps, saying, “these systems save so little energy, we shouldn’t waste newspaper space on such stories. There must be more important things to discuss (assuming we are serious about getting off fossil fuels).”

I’m sure he’s right that there are many more systems that have much more impact in generating renewable energy and getting us off fossil fuels. But I still think systems like these kinetic plates have value.

First, I love the idea that people are looking in the most random places for ways to generate energy. Instead of simply thinking about power generation in the old industrial model — where factories or farms over there are the ones producing electricity and we over here just consume it — this new system reflects the idea that there’s power to be harvested all around us, if we just stop and look for it. That’s going to be an important mindset to have as we try to overcome the twin challenges of peak oil and climate change.

Second, people got excited about the supermarket idea, and it received coverage in countless blogs and news outlets. Yes, a kajillion megawatt solar farm off in some desert will probably generate infinite amounts more energy. But does the average person on the street want to read about one more solar farm? Probably not. But a supermarket where you can help power the cash registers just by driving over a speed bump? That’s exciting. At this point in our trajectory, anything that gets the wider public thinking about renewable energy and focused on its possibilities is a good thing.

At least that’s my take. What do you think? Am I wrong?


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