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All images in this article by Jennifer Sensiba.

Clean Transport

What Ham Radio Can Teach Us About Power Efficiency

While I was testing a Jackery Explorer 300 power station (the full review for that is coming out the beginning of next week), I realized that one of my hobbies can teach us all a lot about power efficiency. While the EV industry and solar is going toward greater and greater power levels, larger battery packs, and TONS of current, there’s still a lot to be said for minimizing your power use.

The “QRP” corner of the ham radio hobby has been pioneering doing something with almost nothing for decades. To better understand how these “efficiency nerds” have helped the world, we need to look at what it’s possible to do now. It turns out that the work of “silly” energy efficiency hobbyists can do a lot of good in the world.

Global Communications With No Infrastructure, In A Backpack, For Disasters

The US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommends that everyone put together a kit with basic survival supplies for 3 days. Why? Because in the face of natural disaster, terror attack, or other awful situations, it can take days for the federal and state governments to get the response rolling. Sadly, I learned in graduate school that only around 6% of the population does this. About 4% of the population is Mormon, and does this because it’s part of their religion, so that means governments have only convinced 1-2% of the U.S. population to be prepared.

I’m not a doomsday prepper who prepares for disaster for religious or political reasons. I’m personally more interested in helping out friends, neighbors, and maybe local officials if something bad happens, but you can’t fill others’ cups if yours is empty. So, I’ve gone above and beyond the normal FEMA recommendations. My pack is good for about a week of my own needs, but I can use it to help other people indefinitely as long as someone is bringing food and water.

In my bag I have a 60-watt folding solar panel, a Jackery Explorer 300 power station, my laptop, a Yaesu FT-818 multiband transceiver, and all of the wires/accessories to make it all work together. I’ve got a simple wire antenna on my roof at home and a “slinktenna” in my bag. With all of this, I’m able to bounce radio signals off the ionosphere and establish digital communications anywhere from across town to across oceans even with no electrical service, and no working infrastructure.

This may sound a little extreme to some readers, but an errant backhoe operator once took my hometown completely offline a few years ago when he broke several copper and fiberoptic lines. Landline phones, internet, cell phone towers, and even some radio stations went dark. 911 service was unavailable, and the local State Police office couldn’t contact the state capitol. Eventually, a ham operator in another city made contact with a ham operator locally, and they were able to arrange for someone to go down to government offices and reestablish contact until the problem could be fixed.

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

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

The Efforts Of “Silly” Efficiency Hobbyists Was Key To Doing This

To build this kit, I stood on the shoulders of giants. I needed a solar panel that could fit in a backpack to power all this, and that meant being able to communicate over great distances without using much power. My skills as an electronic technician are pretty limited, but fortunately the amateur radio hobbyists who came before me have been playing around with this for decades in their spare time.

Some of them made it a point to see just how little power they could use exchanging messages around 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 range out of those 5 watts, but the use of Morse code and then computers allowed the power levels to go even lower. As computers have become more capable, signal analysis has improved to the point where some operators are sending signals thousands of miles with only a few millionths of a watt.

The most extreme operators use special modes where the signals take hours to send and receive, but the discoveries they’ve made and the methods they pioneered made it possible for more practical and useful messages to be sent in just a few seconds with 4-5 watts.

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

The “Silly” Automotive Efficiency Hobbyists Are Also Leading To Better Cars

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

Image provided by Aptera.

Now, Aptera is taking this efficiency obsession to the next level, building an EV that can go 1000 miles on the same battery size as a Tesla Model S. It’s going to be so efficient that it can use onboard solar panels to charge itself. For many owners, they’ll almost never have to plug it in to charge.

2022 GMC Hummer EV

2022 GMC Hummer EV, image courtesy GM

Contrast this with the Hummer EV. It drags its 9000-pound carcass 350 miles, but uses 200 kWh of electricity to do it. This means it uses over twice the electricity as a Model S or X, and over six times the electricity of an Aptera. Sure, it’s an EV, but it’s only getting around 50 MPGe, meaning it’s still almost as dirty as a hybrid pickup like the Ford Maverick unless you’re strictly charging it with renewables.

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

What We Can Learn Here

To achieve a good transition to renewable energy, we need as much efficiency as we can get. If we only have enough battery minerals and grid capacity for a few Hummers, we won’t succeed. If we have efficient vehicles that use less minerals and put little to no strain on the grid, that puts us closer.

Instead of mocking efficiency hobbyists, we need to be embracing their approach.

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Written By

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.


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