BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : AUGUST 30, 1999 ISSUE

Most everybody's got a personal turbine in the 21st century. They can run on palm oil or manure gas, keep things purring in the house, and if there's excess juice, you can sell it back to the grid

As of this summer (it's 2009), I have two electric meters: ''in'' and ''out.'' The ''in'' meter runs most of the time. But once in a while, when power is scarce and expensive, a little generator in my cellar comes on. It keeps everything in the house humming; excess electricity gets sold to the grid. I love watching that ''out'' meter whirl.

Personal power plants have come a long way from the 20th century, when they mostly made a racket on camping trips. Now, they're everywhere, purring like kittens. Sure, there are still big central generating plants, just as there are big mainframe computers. But the hot trend is ''distributed generation''--putting generation close to consumption. That way, the utilities can dismantle their nuclear- and coal-fired plants, and there's no need to tear up the streets to replace power distribution cables.

Check out this baby. It's a microturbine. Runs on natural gas, which is still cheap in the U.S. Other models burn stuff like palm oil and manure gas. You can also get fuel cells, which produce electricity by turning hydrogen and oxygen into water, but they're still pretty expensive. My first power generator ran on gasoline. It was under the hood of my hybrid car. If we had a blackout, I could actually plug the house into the car to keep the lights on and the refrigerator running. I've always been this way: I once had a laptop computer that helped recharge itself by capturing energy from my keystrokes.

Today, my personal power plant takes over automatically whenever there's a power failure or a big price spike. I signed up for so-called marginal cost power, which is supercheap most of the time but gets astronomical during peak periods--like hot summer days. Remember when you could get a discount if you let the utility remotely turn off your air conditioning for a couple hours? Now, it can remotely switch on my generator when it needs an extra punch.

I'm thinking about adding solar panels to my roof, which will make me a net seller of power. But that's as far as I'll go. My neighbor tried to earn a few extra bucks by wiring his exercise bike into the grid, and the old-timers around here came up with a nickname for him: ''Reddy Kilowatt.''

By LARRY ARMSTRONG

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Distributed Power Coalition of America

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West Bioenergy

The Maine Solar House

Journal of Home-Made Power



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