With thousands of gas-powered generators in use across cable systems, inventor Dean Kamen showed up at SCTE Cable-Tec Expo to pitch operators a new twist on an old idea: The Stirling engine, which uses heat energy instead of combustion. "Power is going to be the 800-pound gorilla soon, and this box is something that can help solve the problem," he told Time Warner Cable CTO Mike LaJoie during an onstage Q&A.
Kamen’s prototype "box" basically operates as a 10-kilowatt generator, albeit one that currently costs about $250K per unit. But his goal is to sell enough to the cable/telecom and power industries to bring the per-unit cost down to $10K. In a press conference after the session, Kamen acknowledged that the devices, which he described as "nothing more than a refrigerator running backwards," will never be as cheap as traditional motor-operated generators. But he said they would be more reliable, longer lasting and potentially even create new industry revenue streams—such as selling back excess power to electric utilities.
LaJoie said he isn’t sure whether the economics will ultimately work out but added that he’s intrigued—especially because Kamen’s goal is to make the devices affordable enough to power small villages in 3rd-world countries. "That gives me goose bumps," said LaJoie, noting that he could see a number of business uses as well: Beyond power backup, LaJoie noted that "this kind of thing would be ideal at the bottom of cell towers."
Kamen also had other motives for being at SCTE, including a pitch for the industry help publicize his fast-growing FIRST initiative (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). LaJoie announced Wed that SCTE has signed a memorandum of understanding with Kamen to bring FIRST’s robotics competition to the next Expo. "What we need is you guys," Kamen told the cable exec in attendance, explaining that 250K kids now participate in the competitions across the country, with $14mln in scholarships handed out. Kamen also showed attendees a video on the program narrated by Morgan Freeman. "Maybe we can get the cable companies to get it out there," he said. VOD channel, anyone?