Dean Kamen, arguably the world’s most famous living inventor, is in his favorite place. It’s the basement of the main house on his private island, a pristine concrete bunker outfitted with a command station that can monitor and control all aspects of the production and consumption of electric power on the island. The island, off the coast of Connecticut, is called North Dumpling Island, but Kamen, who invented the Segway and is something of an eccentric, calls it the Dumplonian Empire. He, of course, is Lord Dumpling.
Hanging in the foyer of the house is a charred, yellowing copy of North Dumpling’s ancient constitution, a nearly word-for-word match with the U.S. Constitution. The island has its own currency, called—what else?—the Dumpling, dispensed somewhat inconveniently in units of pi. Though the money and the constitution might be tongue in cheek, Kamen’s latest endeavor is anything but: North Dumpling is becoming the world’s first energy-independent nation.
Kamen seceded from the electrical grid last October, when the U.S. Coast Guard, which operates a lighthouse on Kamen’s island, informed him that it was cutting the power to the submarine cable feeding his island. The Guard would instead power the lighthouse with solar panels, with little electricity to spare for the rest of the island. So Kamen did what any self-respecting multimillionaire engineer would do. He went off the grid.
”Off the grid” is a term more likely to come up in connection with grizzled hippies or disturbed militiamen than with famous inventors. But Kamen is determined to use his North Dumpling empire to show that zero-net energy is not only possible now but that it will be very appealing in the future. He has resolved to live off the renewables on the island: a wind turbine and three monster arrays of solar panels, plus Kamen’s beefed-up version of the Stirling engine. It all adds up to a peak generation capacity of just under 25 kilowatts. To coordinate the different sources, Kamen designed an intelligent system that knows, down to an individual solar panel or light source, how much energy is being produced and consumed on the island and, based on that information, negotiates the relationship between the two in real time. It is this system that he monitors and controls from his basement command center.
Kamen has many strategies to minimize his energy use, but the big breakthrough is the island’s lighting. With the help of his friend Fritz Morgan, chief technology officer at Philips Color Kinetics, in Burlington, Mass., Kamen has replaced every bulb and fixture on his island with light-emitting diodes. That switch cut the power he needed to light his lair by 50 to 70 percent.
LEDs last about 30 times as long as incandescent bulbs and three to four times as long as compact fluorescents. And they’re gorgeous. They wash the island in colors that cycle through the rainbow (and they can be set to a disco beat, but that’s another story). Just as stunning is the system’s engineering marvel that lets Kamen control every circuit on his island empire from anywhere in the world.