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It’s pretty nondescript when you first see it- just a shiny silver rectangle with a black belt through the middle. It looks like it’s part of a bigger machine, just one bar from a device made from thousands of cogs, levers, and gears. The shiny black belt, the steel frame, and wire coils add up to an engineer’s toy, a piece of industrial art, anything, really. Until you realize that this innocuous-looking object is one of the most promising innovations in the history of wind power.
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Shawn Frayne, the 28-year old Californian inventor of the device, calls his brainchild a “windbelt." The windbelt works by harnessing the power of a fluttering strip of mylar. The mylar strip vibrates just like a guitar string, except powered by the wind instead of a plucking finger. The end of the strip is attached to a small button magnet, which moves between two coils to generate three to ten watts of power.
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How Much Electricity Does the Wind Belt Generate?
Three to ten watts does not sound like much. By comparison, a typical light bulb requires a whopping sixty watts of power. But Frayne has found a niche market for the windbelt: third world communities. Lighting in rural areas of countries like Haiti is either nonexistent or depends on shaky grids that are blackout-prone. The windbelt can easily run small LED lights that would need minimal maintenance. In addition, the device can also power small sensors on bridges, roads, and tunnels that are in poor shape.
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However, there is something far more interesting about the windbelt than just its applications in impoverished areas. Frayne’s invention was the result of an independent inventor thinking about a problem in challenging environment (rural Haiti). The windbelt did not come from a think tank in an office complex, but from a single mind experimenting in a small workshop in California. The goal was not to find a complex gear system to improve existing turbines, but to find a cheap, simple method of harnessing wind energy. These two trends will define the next ten years of the renewable energy movement: individual innovation and basic, uncomplicated products.
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If renewable energy ever becomes a viable alternative to fossil fuels and nuclear power, it will likely be due to a string of small innovations, not a watershed invention. In the mid-18th century, one of the most important new ideas in economics was marginalism. Marginalism described economies through the effect of small increases or decreases in supply and demand. Marginalist thinkers argued that a string of small events ultimately drove economies, not large-scale movements. The same can be said about new energy technology.
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Consider the past ten years. From an environmental perspective, it’s been a rich decade: hybrid cars, clean coal, and safer nuclear plants. Even Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth. Solar panel efficiency has improved dramatically, and apartment buildings are now constructed with extensive garden space. None of these are major changes by themselves, but add up to extensive progress in the conglomerate. It’s a marginalist movement.
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Future of Renewable Energy
So, while it’s easy to appreciate Frayne’s windbelt for its simplicity and ingenuity, it is important to also note that the windbelt is just one link in an ever-lengthening chain of new technology. We have recently seen a string of small but significant improvements: hybrid cars, clean coal, and now Shawn Frayne’s windbelt. While there may be some large-scale changes ahead, it won’t be a green revolution. It’s a green evolution.