Energy independence is still only a hypothetical goal for the U.S., but the owner of a tiny island off the coast of Connecticut says he has already achieved that feat and is offering his work as a model.
Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway and numerous medical devices, jokingly refers to his North Dumpling Island as an independent nation and himself as Lord Dumpling. Kamen claims to have his own currency and offers visas to visitors to the tiny island a few miles from Mystic, where he is the only resident.
But Kamen, who bought the three-acre island in the 1980s as a retreat, is serious about energy independence and the lessons it offers at a time of volatile gas prices and fears about global warming.
"The rest of the world will eventually catch up if the Dumplonians can get their message out," Kamen said.
Kamen's energy plan began when the Coast Guard recently notified him that it was cutting off electrical service to the rocky island, part of New York state, because it was switching to solar energy to power a lighthouse.
"That can typically ruin your day," said Kamen.
Then he had an epiphany: Why not make the island energy self-sufficient and a showcase it to the world?
Kamen, a prolific inventor who has hundreds of patents, already had been working on energy conservation projects that he has introduced in poor countries.
He also figured his island's timely new status could be used to draw attention to the annual high school robotics competition he created called FIRST, or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. Kamen believes that by getting children excited about science and technology, the robotics competition is creating a large pool of innovators who can eventually solve the world's energy crisis and other challenges.
Kamen granted "visas" to representatives of a select group of corporate sponsors such as Wal-Mart and other companies, inviting them to North Dumpling Island to brainstorm about his plans for the island and how it could be used to raise awareness and money for his robotics competition.
Visitors arrived on a wind-swept day, with Kamen's wind turbine spinning a generator and solar panels facing the sky. A replica of Stonehenge is lit up with green LED lights that use less electricity than common incandescent light bulbs.
Kamen has been installing LED lights all over the island.
"We have zero tolerance for filaments," he said of incandescent bulbs.
Philips Color Kenetics, a Massachusetts-based company doing the project to draw attention to LEDs, says the lights cut Kamen's electrical use at least in half.
A high-tech island
The tiny island even has rapid transit — Kamen's Segways. He says the self-balancing, two-wheel vehicles go up to 12 mph, faster than traffic moves in most major cities around the world, and his point is underscored as a Segway rider zips past.
Kamen says his island nation will distribute the technology he is demonstrating to poor countries.
"It will be part of our foreign aid program," Kamen says.
Kamen showed his visitors his basement water purification system, which he already has put to work in Honduras. The system can turn water from any source into clean drinking water free of disease, he said.
He also demonstrated the energy-efficient Stirling engine that he has used in Bangladesh to produce electricity by burning methane gas generated by cow manure.
Before Kamen can show off his green nation, he says he'll have to win "re-election." The campaign even features negative advertising, with "Dump Dumpy '08" signs abounding on the island.
"I'm quite sure I'm going to win again," says the island's sole resident. "I'm the only green candidate."