Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Solar Trash Cans?

It now goes without saying that new energy technology will play an important role in improving energy security and addressing climate change. While I have devoted numerous postings to that proposition, I am equally intrigued by clever applications of alternative energy to devices or processes that would be impractical with conventional energy sources. The solar trash bin is a wonderful example. It's not going to save the world, and some might even see it as a distraction, but I think it has merit based on its cleverness alone, aside from offering a couple of handy benefits.

Periodically my mother sends me newspaper clippings on topics she think will interest me. One of them reported the installation of two solar garbage bins at the beach in my home town. When she described this on the phone, I was scratching my head to ferret out the rationale for such an odd use of solar power, but it turns out to be as simple and elegant as anything to do with refuse can be. The solar panels energize a compactor that reduces the volume of trash by a factor of ten. That means that a relatively small container can hold as much garbage as a very large one, and it needs to be emptied much less often. So at the same time that it minimizes something that is usually an eyesore, it also saves on noise, emissions, fuel and the labor associated with frequent trash pickup in parks, beaches and similar locations.

At $4,500 each, it's not obvious that the economic return on the above benefits are high or even positive. I'm sure the company that makes them has a view on that, as do the many communities where these things are springing up. However, they look great and should raise awareness of solar power as something prosaic and useful today. They might even reduce littering, as long as the novelty of the device lasts. Could the same thing have been done with a power cord? Probably, but not without limiting its use to locations with accessible 110 V power. This idea required an energy source with the characteristics of solar photovoltaic power to be practical. I suspect we'll be seeing many more novel applications like this in the near future.

FYI, I'll be traveling throughout the remainder of August. My postings over the next few weeks may become a bit more sporadic, and they're likely to include some "summer re-runs." Responses to comments will probably also not be as prompt as usual.

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