Off the Grid, Part 5: Cooking Smores with the Solar Spark Lighter

Welcome to the final installment in DVICE’s off-the-grid experiment. Since Earth Week kicked off Monday, I’ve been blogging from my home office in San Francisco without plugging into the municipal power grid.

Life has been anything but normal, and I’m now officially tallying up the seconds as this week comes to an end (39,600, but who’s counting?… oh right, me). To celebrate, I tried cooking low-tech for the first time since I failed to brew a cup of solar joe. Get the smoking-hot details and my reflections on this stressful week after the Continue jump…

Smores Success
My attempt to boil water on Monday was a total mega-fail. So I just couldn’t let this week end without showing that the simplest, most low-tech gear available can often let you do some pretty righteous stuff. All week my diet’s consisted of canned goods, half a dozen bananas, coffee, bread and wine (one friend pointed out I inadvertently turned vegan). Well, I saved the best ingredients for last: marshmallows, graham crackers and dark chocolate. I also saved the smallest, cheapest, most user-friendly, and elegant tool in my alternative-NRG arsenal — the Solar Spark Lighter, a $13 concave mirror with a built-in prong. The minimal rig also comes with a hunk of incense, but I skipped the Zen moment and went straight for the saccharine gold: hello, Smores! (roasting marshmallow pictured above).

Sporting polarized shades, I sat for five minutes repositioning the mallow to get the most heat. Simple, and dare I say fun. It’s 67°F and sunny in San Francisco this afternoon, so I knew it was fail-proof, a total no-brainer. And that’s the point. I didn’t want to come up short yet again. (In a tragic epilogue to yesterday's wind-powered phone adventure, last night I finally found an LG phone after biking 2 miles, but the input wouldn’t accept my HYmini LG tip. A for effort, but super deflating.)

It Isn't Easy Being Green, Really!
Overall, I’m just exhausted. I’ve been getting up at 6 a.m. to check on my Solar PowerPac II, which spends the morning in the front window of my home. Around 12 noon, I lug it to the backyard and then reposition it at 4 p.m. to achieve the most optimal rays (yes, I should have installed it on the roof, but the cord it came with is just 10 15 feet long, and once this week started, there was no running off to Home Depot). Constantly monitoring my laptop’s battery supply, cellphone, and the status of all my chargers has been beyond distracting. In fact, I’ve been completely consumed by it (as my wife can attest).

When the clouds rolled in earlier this week, I was relieved to have a step-charger at my disposal, but once it fully powered down, I had a hard time motivating to charge it back up on Thursday (one figure I found online: five minutes of step charging at a minimum of 50 steps per minute supplies a 65W laptop 2.5 minutes of juice—' yeesh, I am beyond lucky it came partially-charged.) And even though the sun these last two days has helped put back some juice in the PowerPac II and therefore my laptop, I’ve relied on my phone for most everything: Net access, e-mail, camera, and video. It’s been my lifeline.

So yes, I’ve made it, but fittingly, this afternoon the PowerPac II’s Volt Minder alarm started beeping (i.e. “Last call”). With enough money, you could do this, no question. Yet, with about $5,000 worth of gear, I wasn’t leading even a semblance of the life I’m used to. Beyond the massive cutback in the time I normally spend typing at my desk, here’s a short list of what unexpectedly fell off my radar while I tended to the solar garden: all news, the election, Flickr, Facebook, my iPod, instant messaging, most personal e-mail, shampooing, all household chores (again, just ask my wife), calling my parents, and taking time to respond to the comments left on my previous posts. Thank you for reading and for all the encouragement!

So would I try this again? Maybe. Under the same conditions, not a chance. I'd definitely want more gear (short list below!), and I'd have to see about tracking down a typewriter. All this long hand is killing my wrist.

Enjoy your weekends. I can't wait for mine.

Gear I Wish I Had...

Anything pedal-powered:
I wanted to finagle one of Windstream Power’s Human Power Trainers, but alas, their test units were booked up and dropping $595 just wasn’t in the cards. Something like this seems ideal, because hitting the step-charger’s sweet spot is tough enough. Trying while seated is near impossible.

More wind options:
At $600, the Air-X Land Wind Turbine is sort of affordable, but if it delivers what it promises (400 watts with 28mph winds), I could see how someone working with something like a Aleutia E1 could sustain a home office (in combination with solar).

Solar fridge:
I wanted the $615 SunDanzer from Solatron Technologies. I’ve dropped about 5 pounds since Sunday (yes, really). No dairy and no meat (I only eat fish anyhow, but protein has been scarce). I originally debated a 20-liter Mini Fridge for some milk, cheese and beer, but I got lazy. Plus they can suck between 40 to 65 watts, so it seemed easier to avoid refrigeration all together and save my main generator for my laptop.

Travel-size solar panels (strong enough for a low-NRG laptop):
Brunton’s SolarRoll14 is $300 per folding panel for a max output of 14 watts. Not exactly enough for prolonged use of my 55-watt MacBook, but had I downgraded to something like a MacBook Air, going mobile without being tethered to my generator would have ruled (note: I did spend time working remote on Tuesday, but only eeked out about one sad hour before my laptop quit).

Previous Entries
Off the Grid, Part 1: Every watt counts
Off the Grid, Part 2: Do watched solar pots ever boil?
Off the Grid, Part 3: How to jump-start a MacBook with foot power
Off the Grid, Part 4: Can you charge a cellphone with portable wind power? (Answer: sort of)