Clean energy’s mass appeal
By Tyler Hamilton Energy and Technology Columnist
Nikola Tesla, the inventor of much that we take for granted, is finally getting his due.
I’m a huge fan of Tesla. Even wrote a book last year in his name. His life and mind are fascinating subjects. So it was delightful to hear last week that efforts to build a museum in his memory had passed an important milestone.
At last count, roughly $1.2 million (U.S.) has been raised to buy back Tesla’s famous Wardenclyffe laboratory, located on Long Island about 100 kilometres from New York City.
It was there, roughly 110 years ago, that the Serbian-American engineer began conducting wireless communications and long-distance power transmission experiments. He predicted a world without wires that only in the last two decades we have come to realize.
Telsa’s vision was so compelling that he convinced financier J.P. Morgan to invest in construction of the 57-metre tall tower that was to be the heart of a global communications and free energy transfer system.
Like many of Tesla’s grand projects, however, the money ran dry. The whole operation got shuttered after about 15 years and the property was sold off.
Now, Tesla followers are determined to buy it back. But what’s fascinating about this story is how they’re doing it.
The Tesla Science Center, a not-for-profit group trying to take possession of Wardenclyffe, approached humour cartoonist and long-time Tesla fan Matthew Inman, who operates the popular and highly clever website They explained that if they could raise $850,000 they could get a matching grant from the state, giving them enough to make the purchase.
Inman decided to help. A crowdfunding campaign was set up on the website and the cartoonist used his wide online reach to draw attention to the museum project. With 29 days still left in the campaign, Inman has already blown well past his $850,000 goal. (Find project at
About 28,000 people have donated, myself included. The final tally could very well top $2 million.
This story illustrates the power of the crowd and how more organizations and entrepreneurs — too often turned down by government and banks — are going straight to the masses to get financial support for their projects. Clean energy initiatives are no exception.
Take the PlanetStove project, spearheaded by Dylan Maxwell and Olivier Kolmel, the founders of Montreal-based firm Novotera. The company has developed a new type of wood-fuelled cooking stove that addresses many problems associated with traditional indoors wood fires, which is the common way of cooking in many developing countries.
Indoor cooking fires and the smoke inhalation that results cause thousands of premature deaths a day, according to the World Health Organization. The carbon dioxide and soot that’s release also contribute to global warming. The mere presence of smoke means such fires are an inefficient way to make heat.
Several years ago Maxwell and Kolmel began working on a new type of portable indoor stove based on the TLUD or “top lit, updraft” design, which is basically a metal cylinder with another metal tube inside that gets packed with wood and kindling.
As the name suggests, the kindling at the top of stove is lit on fire. This begins to heat up — but not burn — the wood below, releasing hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Those gases travel up through the air gap between the cylinder and inner tube and are ejected out small holes at the top of the stove into the burning kindling, where the gas itself begins to burn.
In effect, the wood is “gasified” and the stove burns like any gas-burning stove. The result is very little smoke, making it much safer for indoor use. The approach also produces the same amount of energy using a third less wood.
But just as important is what the stove leaves behind when the cooking is done. After the wood is gasified it is essentially charcoal, which still contains 50 per cent or more of the carbon that was in the original wood.
That charcoal — or “biochar” — has amazing properties. It is a known soil enhancer for its ability to help land retain water and valuable nutrients. And when it’s added to the soil, the carbon inside the biochar is essentially sequestered.
Maxwell and Kolmel discovered that in some countries that char can be sold for just as much as what was paid for the original wood. So not only does the stove improve health, reduce impacts on climate, and reduce the rate of deforestation, it can enhance agriculture and is also a potential source of income for villagers.
Having tested the stoves for two years now in China, Maxwell and Kolmel now want to distribute 1,000 of them across parts of Asia for free, which is where crowdfunding comes into play.
Like the Tesla museum initiative, Novotera — with the help of greentech investor and consultant Lee Schnaiberg — has launched a fundraising campaign on
The company has found a manufacturer in China that can make the stoves for $25. The two entrepreneurs are hoping to raise $25,000 by mid-October so they can purchase the stoves and begin handing them out later in the fall.
“If you pay $25 you’re basically giving a stove to a family,” said Maxwell.
Last time I checked, they had raised $1,200 with 43 days left to go in the campaign. Their big challenge is in spreading the word.
Schnaiberg said the success of the Tesla museum initiative boosted their confidence. “Our goals are much more modest, but that campaign really confirmed to us that using IndieGoGo was the right choice.”
Come Oct. 12, they’ll know for sure. The bigger question, however, is how many of these efforts the crowd will be willing to fund as the calls for help begin to grow.
Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies


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