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Power, Power Everywhere

February 22, 2016

My phone died on Saurday, not the “Need to go spend hundreds to get a new one” death. Instead, it was the “It’s been too long away from a power source” death. I plugged it in for a couple of hours, but then something broke at work and I had to use it. All day I struggled with getting enough power. It got me thinking about how we use power.

During the Gulf War our soldiers used unprecedented amounts of electronics. (If We Run Out Of Batteries, This War Is Screwed.)  In our modern world we face similar issues. My phone died, but I also have an iPad that needs to be charged. I rarely take my laptop out of its docking station, but when I do, I just leave it turned on relying on the batteries. My noise cancelling headphones need to be recharged.

As stocking stuffers for Christmas, I gave my kids each a USB wall charger. They have so many devices that there was a queue for the available charges. I got to thinking though, do we really need wall chargers? Should we?

We are in the process of putting solar panels on our house. We’ve looked at it for several years and waited for the costs to come down. We can power 100% of our household needs via solar power. The challenge, of course, is that unless we want to install a bunch of batteries, the solar power has to be consumed immediately, wasted or pushed back onto the municipal power grid. But, since our power company will pay us for the electricity we push on the grid, we can end up with no power bill. I still have to pay off the cost of the panels, but once they are paid off, everything else if gravy. As the costs continue to decrease, I expect that homebuilders will start roll that into the cost of the new house. Especially in Utah were we get a lot of sun all year long. There is still the issue of the panels on your roof. Some people consider them ugly. That’s still a deterrent. But, perhaps not for long.

The other day I saw an ad for clear solar panels.  And all buildings need windows. Could it be long before we have self-powering buildings? And if buildings, why not cars? Lexus a few years ago had a car with solar panels in the roof that would keep it cool for you while the car was off. Solar panels are appearing on hybrids to help make them even more efficient. It’s hard to image a solar panel efficient enough and small enough to power a car, but we are getting closer.

How does this impact tech? Even if you could put a solar panel on your cell phone, leaving it lying in the hot sun would more likely cook your electronics than power them. But, Tommy Hilfiger makes coats that have built in solar panels. You can use them to charge your devices. As the cost of solar power comes down and the innovation goes up, I wonder if we are approaching a point where power, at least in small amounts, is essentially free.

I can go to my local Library, or Starbucks or any number of locations and get free wifi access. The access isn’t really free, of course. But, the cost has come down so much that it’s worth the companies to simply give it away.

This is not a new concept. Public water fountains go back the time of the Romans. Cities give away free water. So, does just about every building you go into. In the airport, I can not only fill up my water bottle for free, I can use wifi and charge my device at no additional costs.

I don’t think it will be too many more years before free power is as ubiquitous as free wifi or free water. Perhaps someday people will look back at the power situation in the early 21st Century the way we look at outrageous long distance rates from the late 20th Century. No one pays for long distance anymore, but it used to be really expensive. Let the cheap power flow!

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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(c) 2016 Rodney M Bliss, all rights reserved 

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