What amateur radio can teach us about energy efficiency

As I was testing out a Jackery Explorer 300 power plant (the full review for this one will come out early next week), I realized that one of my hobbies can teach us a lot about energy efficiency. As the EV and solar power industry moves towards higher and higher power levels, bigger batteries, and TONS of current, there is still a lot to be said for minimizing your energy use.

The “QRP” corner of the amateur radio hobby has pioneered doing something with next to nothing for decades. To better understand how these “efficiency nerds” have helped the world, we need to look at what is possible now. It turns out that the work of “dumb” energy efficiency hobbyists can do a lot of good in the world.

Global communications without infrastructure, in a backpack, for disasters

The United States Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommends that everyone assemble a kit with basic survival supplies for 3 days. Why? Because in the event of a natural disaster, terrorist attack or other horrific situation, the federal and state governments can take days to respond. Unfortunately, I learned in graduate school that only about 6% of the population does this. About 4% of the population is Mormon, and that’s because it’s part of their religion, which means governments have only convinced 1-2% of the American population to be ready.

I am not an apocalyptic preparer preparing for disaster for religious or political reasons. Personally, I’m more interested in helping friends, neighbors, and maybe local officials if something bad happens, but you can’t fill other people’s mugs if yours is empty. So I went above and beyond the normal FEMA recommendations. My bag is good for about a week for my own needs, but I can use it to help other people indefinitely as long as someone brings food and water.

In my bag I have a 60 watt foldable solar panel, a Jackery Explorer 300 power station, my laptop, a Yaesu FT-818 multiband transceiver and all the wires / accessories to make it all work together. I have a simple wire antenna on my roof at home and a “slinktenna” in my bag. With all of this, I am able to bounce radio signals off the ionosphere and establish digital communications anywhere from the city to the oceans, even without electrical service and working infrastructure.

It might seem a bit extreme to some readers, but a wandering backhoe operator once took my hometown completely offline a few years ago when he snapped several copper and fiber lines. Landlines, the Internet, cell phone towers, and even some radio stations have died out. 911 service was not available and the local state police office could not contact the state capital. Eventually, a ham operator in another city contacted a local ham operator, and they were able to arrange for someone to come to government offices and re-establish contact until the issue was resolved. can be resolved.

Modern communications infrastructure is easy to use and does a lot of good for the world, but it is fragile. Beyond stupid construction workers, things like severe thunderstorms, hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, cyber attacks, war or the sun belching in our direction can all cripple or destroy the networks on which we are. let’s count every day.

If communications go down, being able to send “I’m fine” messages to people’s families, requests for help between government agencies, and other things can help us stay out of the 18th century while we pick up the pieces.

The efforts of “idiot” efficiency enthusiasts were essential to achieve this.

To build this kit, I put myself on the shoulders of giants. I needed a solar panel that could fit in a backpack to power all of this, and that meant being able to communicate over great distances without using a lot of power. My skills as an electronics technician are quite limited, but luckily amateur radio enthusiasts who came before me played with this for decades in their spare time.

Some of them made a point of seeing how little power they could use to exchange messages across the world, and this is known in the ham world as QRP. The challenge is to communicate on 5 watts or less. The easiest thing to do in the beginning was to use better and better antenna systems to get the most out of those 5 watts, but using Morse code and then computers allowed the power levels to drop. even more. As computers have gotten better, signal analysis has improved to the point that some operators send signals thousands of miles away with just a few millionths of a watt.

The most extreme operators use special modes where signals take hours to send and receive, but the discoveries they have made and the methods they have developed have made it possible to send more convenient and useful messages. in seconds with 4-5 watts.

With plentiful electrical power available, even from small solar panels on the poorest parts of the planet, what these hobbyists have been doing over the past two decades may seem silly to most of us. Getting a million miles per watt of power is a little ridiculous, but their work spawned new knowledge and methods that later became useful tools for people doing practical emergency work.

‘Dumb’ Automotive Efficiency Enthusiasts Also Lead To Better Cars

Over the years it has been fun to dunk on people aiming for maximum efficiency. A 50 MPG Prius wasn’t enough for hypermilers, so they added aerodynamic upgrades to push it past 100 MPG on the highway. People have also tried to get the most out of EVs by modifying their driving behavior, with some people going over 500 miles in a Tesla Model 3.

Image provided by Aptera.

Now Aptera is taking that obsession with efficiency to the next level, building an electric vehicle that can travel 1,000 miles with the same size of battery as a Tesla Model S. It will be so efficient that it can use solar panels. on board to recharge. For many homeowners, they will hardly ever have to plug it in to charge it.

2022 GMC Hummer EV

2022 GMC Hummer EV, image courtesy of GM

Compare that with the Hummer EV. It drags its 9,000-pound hulk 350 miles, but uses 200 kWh of electricity to do so. This means that it uses more than twice as much electricity as a Model S or X, and more than six times as much electricity as an Aptera. Sure, it’s an electric vehicle, but it only hits around 50 MPGe, which means it’s still almost as dirty as a hybrid pickup like the Ford Maverick, unless you charge it up. strictly with renewable energies.

Even at 7.6 kW, it will take 26 hours to charge it. This means that the load on the power grid will be much higher for the Hummer EV than for other EVs. It will also require twice as many battery minerals as other electric vehicles, exacerbating mineral shortages.

What we can learn here

To make a successful transition to renewable energies, we need as much efficiency as possible. If we only have enough battery minerals and grid capacity for a few Hummers, we won’t get there. If we have efficient vehicles that use fewer minerals and put little to no strain on the grid, that brings us closer together.

Instead of making fun of efficiency enthusiasts, we need to take their approach.

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