The Stirling Engine: A New Way To Power Cable

ORLANDO — Imagine a world in which every cable hub not only has its own independent power supply, but a supply that also generates power for the surrounding community. Where back-up power isn’t just an operational cost, but also a revenue generator. Where owners of multiple dwelling units come to the cable company not only for broadband services, but also for heat. If visionaries like Dean Kamen have their way, that future is not so distant, and it could have a transformative impact on the world.

At yesterday’s opening keynote session, Kamen, an entrepreneur, inventor, and CEO of DEKA Research and Development, discussed his vision with Time Warner Cable CTO Mike LaJoie. Central to this new way of thinking about powering is Kamen’s Stirling engine (for more information, go to http://www.cable360.net/ct/news/ctreports/commentary/Sneak-SCTE-Cable-Tec-Expo-Keynote-Peek-Dean-Kamen-Talks-Green_54667.html). This “appliance,” as Kamen calls it, generates 10 kilowatt hours of electricity a day and runs on any type of fuel. Waste heat from the device can be used to warm buildings, and the engine is reliable, quiet and virtually maintenance free, he says.

Kamen is seeking partnerships with industries like cable to drive down production costs of the Stirling engine. As a prototype, each unit runs about $250,000; in production, Kamen believes those costs would drop to $10,000 apiece. Kamen’s goal isn’t simply to introduce a new type of generator to the world, but rather to supply some 4 billion people in the undeveloped world with clean water. Kamen also invented a water-purification system, which Coca-Cola is helping to move into production. But the system requires electricity, and half of the world’s communities that don’t have clean water lack electricity. Thus the need for the Stirling engine.

Why should cable be interested in this?

“There’s a growing demand for power and a huge peaking power problem,” noted LaJoie. “To solve this problem, we have to think about it differently.” The solution could be the “micro grid” – a collection of small power-generating devices that connect to the grid. “Putting power generation nearer the demand may be the way to go,” added LaJoie. “If we’re willing to look at it with new eyes, there may be some real opportunity there.”

After The Session

Speaking to reporters in a follow-up to the general session, LaJoie noted Time Warner Cable has about 1,500 hubs and more than 100,000 nodes — all needing backup power. “Our generators sit idle 99 percent of the time. There’s all of this generation capacity that just sits there. Is there a different way to think about this, to use those generators to respond to peak power needs?”
Kamen hopes to find a couple of industries to start using the Stirling engine for their own benefits to lower the production cost curve. “We have the capacity to supply energy, the core most valuable energy, those first few watts per person for communication, lights and security, worldwide,” he explained.

“We are constantly solving the problem of supplying reliable energy to back up our systems,” added LaJoie. “When I encounter someone like Dean, and he says ‘Let’s think about this in a way that has downstream benefits, that actually might help mankind,’ I’m inspired by that.”

Jennifer Whalen

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