Charged!

Going off the grid, one Gatorade-soaked onion at a time

I'M NOT THE KIND OF GIRL who goes around peeing into batteries, but I'll give anything a shot. I'd been looking for ways to boot up life's little gizmos without plugging in. Here in northern New Mexico, Earthship capital of America, my lifestyle was starting to seem bourgeois. I don't brew my own biodiesel, I can't afford a solar water heater, and while my house runs partially on wind power from the utility company, it's not like I've got a giant turbine in the yard. If I couldn't unplug entirely, the idea of going renewable with just the small stuff seemed like a victory to me.

When I heard about NoPoPo rechargeable batteries, I was stoked. On the outside, these Japanese wonders look like regular AAs; on the inside, magnesium and carbon are supposed to react with any old liquid—water, milk, even, as bloggers gleefully pointed out, urine—to recharge. Perfect, I thought. I'll take them camping, and when my headlamp runs out I'll holler, "Ooohhh, honey, would you mind?" I mentioned the idea to my boyfriend, Win, delicately—after all, he'd be the one providing the manwater to run the things. He perked right up. "Do they run on blood?"

The NoPoPos look a lot like a Hello Kitty science kit. Sky, a friend of a friend living in Tokyo, had gotten me the goods—bright blue AAs and AAAs, packaged with a tiny plastic eyedropper for refueling. The instructions, which Sky had helpfully started to translate, were intimidating: BE CAREFUL! USE THE PROVIDED DROPPER AT ALL TIMES! But Sky abandoned the script fairly quickly. "Actually, it doesn't matter," he wrote, disgusted with the NoPoPo's anemic voltage. "These are only for your shitty LED light and pocket radio in a postapocalyptic world where the dead are the lucky ones and you wander in search of something to drink just so you can piss into your batteries one last time . . . "

Sky was right. Water, beer, bourbon—none of it worked. The NoPoPos did manage to illuminate (dimly) the little LED light in a headlamp for more than a month. But then I realized that I'd put an Energizer in there with them. The Bunny was doing most of the work.

I thought about going the DIY route. There's a Web site, HouseholdHacker.com, that says you can power your laptop with half an onion soaking in Gatorade—something about the electrolytes—but after a week of soaking, I couldn't get the onion to absorb even an ounce of Mountain Blast Powerade, and my dogs were looking at the blue potion suspiciously.

So much for the gimmicky home science. I was going high-tech. In the past couple of years, portable power devices for emergencies and travel have caught on—from tiny wind turbines to solar-paneled messenger bags, backpacks, and even a solar bikini (alas, just a prototype). On a spring camping trip on the San Juan River in Bluff, Utah, I loaded the car with all the alt-power devices and small appliances I could carry. Win and I would play Scrabble under the table lamp, I figured, fix margaritas in the blender, and, in the morning, fire up the Mr. Coffee. I'd wash my hair in the river ... and blow-dry it right in camp!

Strewn around our plot at the Sand Island campground were a solar backpack from Voltaic; a compact Solio charger that unfurled like a flower into three little photovoltaic panels; a tiny HYmini wind turbine that could attach to a bike or car; and two folding Brunton solar panels that connected to sturdy metal batteries. One, about the size of a deck of cards, could charge an audio player or phone. The second, a dictionary-size, 14.6-volt Portable Power Plant capable of running your laptop on Everest, was strong enough that it came with a set of wee jumper cables.

Excitedly, I plugged the hair dryer into the big Brunton. Nothing. Lamp, coffeemaker, toaster oven: No dice. But when I fired up the blender, the blades began to turn slowly. And stop. Whirr. Silence. Whirr. Silence.

"Babe," said Win, "I think what you've got there is an alternating current." It was true; the AC coming from the battery's inverter was so weak that it ran the appliance in fits. Win, who is a river guide, was philosophical. "The only thing we learned is that blenders don't belong in the wilderness." He looked around at the next campsite, where a church bus was discharging 30 teenagers. "Then again, this isn't really the wilderness."

I was undeterred. "We could at least stir drinks with this!" Of course, our tests had already sucked up half of the device's 36-hour power supply.

For the rest of the weekend, we ran—rather fitfully—on nerd power. The HYmini needed wind speeds of nine miles per hour to generate electricity, so we attached it to the car window and drove off on our adventures, shouting over the whirring of the plastic propellers—never mind that it ran my cell phone for only 20 minutes. We geeked out over the solar backpack, which, with all its wires and batteries, seemed better suited for a space walk. "You can wear it hiking," I chirped, filling it up with sandwiches. "Oh, my goodness," Win said, taking one look at my cell phone nestled in the strap charger pocket. "You'll be wearing it hiking."

But if your wilderness needs don't include 1800-watt hair styling, the solar stuff is bomber. Win snatched up the little Solio like it was his blankie and carried it on a two-week trip down the Grand Canyon—for the first time, he could lie on his boat and listen to music for more than one night. I made off with the little Brunton, which seemed nearly indestructible.

Back home, I vowed to stop using the wall outlet. The HYmini was out; I drove around for days trying to recharge it before realizing that once you suck the device dry, you have to plug it in: It can't recharge from scratch on wind.

So mostly I rolled on solar. Some days, when I'd been diligent with my outdoor charging chores—shifting the panels to face the sun, making sure they were slanted 45 degrees—living on sun juice was easy. Others, not so much. The little Brunton survived a dousing when I dumped a full water bottle in my purse, only to warp when I left it baking for six days on the griddle-hot dashboard of my car. (Note: Dashboard frying not recommended, nor are hot surfaces much above 120 degrees.) The big Brunton soldiered on doggedly. Still, after charging it for 36 light-filled hours, it ran my laptop for six, a sobering reminder of just how much electricity fire-hoses out of our outlets every time we plug something in.

In the end, I simply stopped using my gadgets so often. Now when my charge runs out, I'm done for the day. But whatever nano­wattage of self-reliance I can eke out feels like opening the window and letting in a little puff of freedom—just enough breeze to fruitlessly spin my teeny turbine and make me feel partially, crucially in control of my fate.

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