Learning from Someone Who Gets It

| 3/9/2011 12:21:10 PM

I always like being around people who “get it.” From time to time you meet someone who really does something well and understands something completely. I’ve learned that when you spend time with people like that their expertise and knowledge can almost “rub off” on you and help you to understand things too. 

One of the greatest influences in my life over the last 8 or 9 years has been my friend Bill Kemp. He really “gets” the whole electricity/energy/off-grid thing. He engineers hydroelectric dams and biogas systems and he lives off-grid, and when I met him he was actually making his own inverters for his house. What a concept! I met him when I went to his house to pick up some used batteries from him. I asked him a question about why my batteries weren’t holding their charge very well. I’d asked this same question to many “experts” over the years and had never received a satisfactory answer. When I asked Bill, he drew a graph and explained to me that I hadn’t been running my generator long enough in order to push the battery charge far enough up the curve so that they’d hold their charge properly. His description was so simple and made so much sense that it was like a light bulb clicked on over my head. A compact fluorescent light bulb, of course.

As I spent more and more time with Bill he continued to hammer away at me about the difference between power, measured in watts, and energy, measured in kilowatt-hours. I’d say things like, “My toaster uses too much energy” and Bill would correct me and explain that it uses a lot of  “power” (1200 Watts) while it is on, but since it’s only on for a few minutes, it doesn’t draw a lot of energy out of my batteries. Years later I’m finally starting to catch on.

One night as we drove back from doing a renewable energy talk in Toronto, I mentioned that I had received a shock from my generator. It had been a humid day and I had stood on the concrete garage floor in my bare feet while I started up the generator. In hindsight it was probably not something most rocket scientists would have done. But I didn’t think it should have shocked me none-the-less.

So at 10 pm we rolled into my driveway, and I opened my garage door and turned on the lights, which don’t light up the generator very well. My ONAN generator is a big scary beast with a lot of pipes and wires, which completely baffle me. Bill pulled off a plate hiding some electronics and, I kid you not, before I had time to shine a flashlight in there he said “There’s the problem right there…” and proceeded to fix it within seconds. Who does this kind of stuff? That anyone could know what the problem was to begin with is beyond me, but to find it within seconds is just bizarre to me.

Then he started up the generator, spit on the floor and put something, which I can’t recall (a multimeter? A piece of wire? A magic ostrich feather?) between the floor and the generator to test that it was grounded properly. Then suddenly he was gone in the night, like some kind of electricity super hero, turning down any compensation, just continuing on his mission to make electricity safe and teach the masses about power and energy. Or something like that.

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