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Posted on June 20th, 2008 by Matthew Sparkes

From a wind-powered 386 to solar-powered ThinkPad

In the current issue of PC Pro, which has just hit the newsstands, I’ve written a feature in which I document my attempt to leave the National Grid for a week and run my mobile phone, MP3 player and notebook on solar and wind power. If you want to know how I got on then you’ll have to go and buy an issue, but I’ve already received an email from one reader to let me know that he’s been investigating exactly this sort of thing for 16 years already.

Chris Dixon has been playing around with sustainable power for well over a decade, starting with a wind-powered 386, and has got more interested in solar power in recent years as the cost of panels has fallen. The image above is of two 15 Watt panels he has installed in his garden on top of his shower room.

“I set them up on a home built frame so they could be rotated and tilted to track the sun,” explains Chris. “This increases their output considerably but is a hassle! So now I point them due South and tilt them three times during the year to get an optimum sort of position.”

As well as these panels, which after three years have started to degrade slightly, he also has a mono crystalline panel, which is “far more resilient and more powerful for the same surface area”, and outputs 20 watts.

The electricity harvested from these panels is stored in a battery, but a regulator sits in-between to make sure that the battery doesn’t get overcharged.

“Over charging is a sure fire way of killing a battery so the reg box is essential. A deep cycle battery is best as it can stand being discharged more than, say, a car battery. The leisure batteries are cheaper but not as good,” says Chris.

Chris obviously has a great deal of experience with this sort of thing, and his set up can run his 1GHz ThinkPad for three to four hours a day. If anyone has any questions for him then please leave them in the comments – it would be a shame to waste his expertise.

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5 Responses to “ From a wind-powered 386 to solar-powered ThinkPad ”

  1. Victor Horner Says:
    June 26th, 2008 at 8:49 am

    I would like to contact Chris Dixon to find out more.
    Could you pass on my email address – Green Market is a local magasine with a particular interest in this area.

  2. David Torrens Says:
    June 26th, 2008 at 12:53 pm

    I am in the design stage for what may be a near carbon neutral house.

    I am considering haveing a PV array and wiring the house with a DC supply and battery back ups. The idea being to run all elecronic equipment, TVs and some dc lighting etc off this DC supply direct. The back up would be a bettery charger coming off the mains.

    My question is what voltage is best for that DC system. I would think that 12 volts would be best as there is so much equipment around designed for caravan/car use with a 12 volt supply. (I already have an adapter/psu for my laptop that is designed for in car use).

  3. Chris Dixon Says:
    June 27th, 2008 at 11:57 am

    Firstly, Hi Victor,

    If you check out my website at you’ll find my email address there as well as more details of various things re low energy, permaculture design and the like. Please feel free to mail me if you want more information.

    Secondly, hi David,

    I’m thinking along the same lines as you, namely a 12 volt system for lighting (LEDs) and electronic equipment, for the same reasons- availability of equipment etc. Like you I power my laptop from a car adaptor/psu. If you find you need 240 volts for any reason (like compact fluorescent bulbs) you can always plug in a 12v/240v inverter which gives you a standard 240 volt AC power socket. I use a 120 watt inverter to power my router (Maplin, about £20).

    My router is in fact a 12 volt model but I’ve not risked plugging it straight into my 12 volt supply, hence the inverter and router psu combination. This is a similar situation with many other peripherals (my scanner, printer and external hard drive for example are all 12 volts with AC power bricks) but I’m concerned about voltage regulation. My battery system varies from as low as 11.5 volts up to 14.5 volts so I need to learn a bit more about voltage regulation first. Each device may need something like a fuse, regulator and possibly a capacitor for protection.

    Anyone out there an electronics wizard?



  4. Steve Cassidy Says:
    July 7th, 2008 at 1:04 pm

    Try asking in some of the carpc forums. Some of those have to go through all sorts of grief from wonky car power supplies!

  5. Chris Dixon Says:
    July 19th, 2008 at 9:39 am

    Thanks for that Steve- a good tip. There’s some very useful kit out there.


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