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Turning Cable Television Into Clean Energy

Inventor Dean Kamen is exploring using his new shiny new version of a 19th-century engine to provide clean power to keep your TV on. It’s no Segway, but it just might work.

Cable television keeps America entertained. However, cable television is also an energy hog: Cable operators deploy small armies of electrical generators to provide backup power to their infrastructures to make sure you’re never without your latest Real Housewives. Now Dean Kamen, the inventor best known for the Segway, has a new idea: Using an obscure 19th-century technology to relieve the cost of backing up these enormous systems.

Stirling engines are non-internal combustion powered engines that Kamen compares to "your refrigerator running backwards." The beautiful-to-watch machines generate power by using temperature differences to compress and expand gas, which drives a piston. At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, Stirling engines were touted as an alternative to steam engines. They became less and less popular over the years, due mostly to their high production cost. At the present time, they’re mainly used in the global south and for niche applications. But Kamen is talking with the cable industry in hopes of the adapting the engines en masse.

In a keynote presentation at the Cable-Tec Expo, an industry trade show, Kamen and Time Warner Cable CTO Mike LaJoie announced a new partnership between Kamen’s Deka Research firm and the Expo’s sponsors, the Society of Cable Television Engineers (SCTE). The cable industry is dealing with the increasing cost of their backup generators, which lie idle 90% of the time; Kamen hopes to prove that Stirling engines are a cost-effective alternative. That slack in the system will still exist, but it will be much efficient than providing it with internal-combustion generators. A Stirling engine can use anything to generate the heat that powers it, so its fuel options are much more varied.

The SCTE is risking little by teaming up with Kamen. No cable carriers are obligated to test out the potential Stirling engines, and the deal centers primarily on research. But energy consumption is a general problem for the cable industry—even set-top cable boxes are power hogs. If Kamen’s scheme works, it’s an easy (and lucrative, for him) way to cut those numbers.

Kamen, meanwhile, has a knack for enlisting prominent global companies for out-there schemes. Just last week, Deka and the Coca-Cola Company announced a new initiative to deliver millions of liters of clean drinking water to Africa and Latin America. Coca-Cola will help distribute and install Deka’s Slingshot water distribution system at scale. Deka’s other projects include patents used in everyday technologies such as portable dialysis machines, insulin pumps, and—of course—the Segway.

Of course, there’s one problem: Stirling engines are, in a word, expensive. One of Deka’s Stirling engines currently costs approximately $225,000 to build. Kamen promises that Stirling engines will become much cheaper once they’re building a lot of them at once; the going estimate is that an economy of scale means they can be built for as little as $10,000. It is an open question if they actually can. At the same time, Kamen’s engines could become a potential money saver for the cable industry.