Dean Kamen on Clean Energy, Clean Water, and Commuting in the Mega City (Part One)


Dean Kamen is the kind of inventor we don't imagine exists anymore—a fervent polymath like Thomas Edison. Best known as the creator of the Segway, Kamen is also responsible for major breakthroughs in clean energy, water purification, prosthetics, and other urban transport devices. He is the owner of a small island off the coast of New York where he tests his creations. He recently took the island zero-net energy with solar cells and LED lighting.

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Full text after the jump.TreeHugger: So you're the owner of a private island in the Long Island Sound called North Dumpling. You were able to render the island net zero energy. How did you do this, and why?

Kamen: Well, it's a long story, but that island has a great, great history. It was discovered and named in 1609 by the English explorer Adrian Block. For all of his great service, in 1639, it was granted to him by the King. And it went from his estate to other notables, including the then Governor Winthrop of the colony of Connecticut, until just after the Civil War when it became a part of New York. In 1847, it was taken by the federal government to be the location of a lighthouse, which they call the North Dumpling Light. From 1847 till the 1930s, it was manned by lighthouse keepers that used oil lamps to help keep the shipping lanes in and out of New York safe with the North Dumpling Light.

In 1932, the federal government ran an eight mile undersea cable and electrified the light. They discontinued having lighthouse keepers there, and some number of years later they auctioned this unique, historical island off because the government didn't need to own the island, they just needed an easement for their light.

It turns out that just last year the government decided, "We don't even need to continue to operate the 80 year old undersea cable." They could—and I applaud them for doing so—change to an efficient light and photovoltaics, and their goal of keeping the light on and keeping the shipping lanes open would be solved.

Unfortunately, for the three houses I have on the island, their little photovoltaics wouldn't do it, and I wasn't in a position to take over responsibly for the undersea cable. So I had a very high incentive to figure out how to use technology to instantly substitute for the eight-mile undersea cable.

Nearly 20 years ago, when it wasn't very popular and nobody knew what a carbon footprint was and nobody talked about global warming, I did put a ten kilowatt wind turbine on the island. It turned out it was a bit more of a hassle than I thought to actually put my own wind turbine on my own island. But that's another fun and interesting story.

As of last year, as I said, when we were told by the Coast Guard that the electricity was going to be eliminated, we immediately started figuring out how to reduce our overall loads by putting LED lights everywhere. And we got a lot of cooperation from the Phillips Company and Color Kinetics.

We started looking at all sorts of other ways to dramatically reduce our consumption of energy and to increase our production, including photovoltaic cells and a Sterling cycle generator (which is one of my own designs), and other things to augment and improve the wind turbine system.

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