Off the Grid, Part 1: Every watt counts

Welcome to my first dispatch! Earth Week is off and running here at DVICE, and just like I promised, I'm going off the grid for five days. Yep, all week long I'll be getting my power from green sources like solar panels and hand cranks — no wall outlets allowed. From my laptop to my phone to my coffee maker, it's all renewable, all the time for me.

offthegrid_tiny.jpgIt’s early here in San Francisco, but the sun’s shining and there’s not a cloud in the sky. Comforting, since the bulk of power for my laptop will come from the slick 56-inch, 110-watt solar panel pictured above. Sunday, as it turned out, was not a day of rest either for myself or my dog Gus (dude loves lounging in the sun, so I figure I might as well put him to work rocking Solio’s Hybrid 1000 — that's that thing dangling from his collar — which I’ll be using to juice up my cellphone in a few hours). Sometime yesterday, though, it finally hit me: this experiment is crazy. Find out just how nutty after the Continue jump.

Breaking open all the boxes and boxes of panels, chargers, and cranks splayed out on my floor, my thoughts turned to numbers, volts and watts. Power consumption isn’t something I pay much attention to, not like this. We all know we can stretch out a couple days on an iPod depending on how continuous you use it. I know my cellphone’s always a champ for 24+ hours. No, the biggest challenge here isn’t the littler, 5V gadgets. It’s my 55-watt MacBook. (Why didn't I downgrade to a smaller, more NRG-efficient laptop? Self-flagellation? Pride? A little from column A and B.) Essentially, as you might guess, all these pocket-size solar chargers and doodads just aren’t powerful enough. Yet.

Which brings me to the biggest (and priciest) beacon of hope in my collection of off-grid gear: the Solar PowerPac II, a rig that channels the sunjuice from that glorious 56-inch panel *fingers crossed* into a small portable generator on wheels. Now, the box says a computer with a 15-inch monitor will last, oh, 1.7 hours (kinda depressing, considering that same amount of power gets you 40 hours of NPR). But of course, that’s where the panel kicks in with its promise to offset power draws in the ballbark of 100 watts. Guess we’ll see! I’ve also got Weza’s Freeplay step charger waiting in the wings, too.

Either way I’m developing a mindset of conservation and focus. My first quick morning e-mail check: cellphone. Number of desktop apps running at once: two. My usual RSS feeds: limited to 5 minutes. Screen brightness setting: super low (again, self-flagellation). I also did something I never thought I’d do: drafted a blog post in long hand. I’m used to being online intermittently up to 16 hours a day, and to be perfectly honest, I’m just not sure what I’ll do if the power runs out. Over the weekend, a few less tech-dependent friends told me I sounded like I was preparing for a stint in rehab or a prison sentence. Fair enough.

For now, I’m still working off my full-charged laptop battery (1.14 hours remain), but I’ll soon be powering up the PowerPac's generator for the first time. Wish me luck. And tune in tomorrow for a full report on my attempts to brew a solar cup of coffee using Surfer Chef’s Solar Cooking System.