Solar Power isn't Feasible!

Solar Power isn't Feasible!
This cartoon was on the cover of the book "SolarGas" by David Hoye. It echoes the Sharp Solar slogan "Last time I checked nobody owned the sun!"

Sunday, July 13, 2008

How Solar CITIES began... A story of Thanksgiving

(Our colleague and African development/Shea Butter cooperative specialist Marlene Elias demonstrates the Native American-designed "poor-man's solar hot water system" on the roof of the Los Angeles Eco-village. A 30 watt BP Solarex PV panel runs the 12v circulation pump since copper coils don't thermosiphon well, and the tank is a recycled 40 gallon gas-fired water heating tank donated by another Eco-villager).

Around the turn of the century our good friends Colin and Ronna Filkow invited educational reformer Dr. Sherry Kerr, her daughter Emily, and me to their home in Palm Springs California for Thanksgiving.

Colin was the general manager of Priority Records but had been an inventor who holds patents on Leather Glove making machines in Canada and he shares my enthusiasm for innovations and do-it-yourself technology. He knew I had recently moved into the Los Angeles Eco-Village and wanted to experiment with solar energy systems and he had kindly torn a page out of a recent Popular Science magazine he had been reading that had a cross sectional diagram of a solar hot water system and a paragraph about people building their own heaters.

He presented it to me at the breakfast table Thanksgiving day and said something to the effect of "you know, it doesn't look all that hard to build".

"Why don't we try and make one this weekend?" I asked.

"That could be fun. I have the tools in the garage, we would just need to buy the materials."

That afternoon, since Ronna and the others were busy preparing the turkey, I took it upon myself to borrow the car and drive over to the nearest Loewe's hardware superstore, a massive but isolated building surrounded by a huge parking lot in the middle of the desert.

Because it was Thanksgiving the store was as deserted as the landscape around it.

Clueless about solar construction, being more of an academic armchair inventor than a hands-on engineer, and being completely unfamiliar with hardware super-stores, I slowly made my way down the long aisles with the torn page from Popular Science in my hand, trying to figure out what I would need and where I would find it. There were no helpers on the floor.

I thought I would start with copper pipes since they were the obvious and most visible part of the system needed for carrying and heating the water, so I made my way over to the plumbing section and started laying out different lengths and thicknesses of pipe on the floor, trying to match them to the diagram.

"God help me" I thought, "I really don't have a clue what I am doing. This may be harder than I thought".

As if in answer to my silent prayer a sudden voice behind me said in a distinctive but hard to place accent, "looks like you're trying to build a solar hot water system".

Startled, I turned around to face the only other customer in the cavernous store - a dark copper-tan skinned man with jet black hair wearing denim.

"Actually, yes I am." I held out the torn magazine page for him to see, "but I only have this to go on. How did you know?"

"I build solar hot water systems. On the Native American reservation nearby, where I live. So I could tell -- only somebody trying to build a solar hot water system would lay out copper pipe in that pattern."

He smiled at my startled look.

"Do you know how to braze?" he asked gently.

I smiled self-consciously. "To tell you the truth, I don't even know what the word means!"

"So you are a total beginner. That's what I thought." He laughed, gesturing at the way I had been building my jigsaw puzzle on the floor.

" Brazing is torch-welding. To make those pipes water tight you will have to braze them and do a good job of it. Here in Southern California a solar hot water system can get so hot it will produce steam that will have to be vented with an over-pressure relief valve. I've had systems get so hot they cracked the welds. There is a lot of pressure in that steam. These things really work. But you have to do a decent job of brazing."

"Is it hard?" I asked

"No, but it takes a little practice. You have to buy an oxy-acetylene torch system and brazing rods and practice a bit."


I studied the diagram as he pulled out a pen and tore a flap off of a cardboard box.

"Here's what I recommend," he said, sketching a system on the cardboard."What I've drawn here is the simplest of solar hot water systems..."

He placed the sketch in my hands and ran down the aisles, pulling parts from various bins. Then he grabbed a 60 foot coil of copper pipe and threw it down on the ground amidst the pile of parts.

"Build a box that fits this coil, about 1 yard by 1 yard, insulate it with styrofoam and place a sheet of aluminum, also about 1 yard by 1 yard, on the styrofoam in the box. Paint the aluminum sheet matte black, lay this copper coil on the aluminum sheet and fasten it in various places to the aluminum sheet with these clamps so as much of the copper touches the metal as possible and it is held down.

"Drill two holes in the box, one for the cold water coming in, one for the hot water pipe coming out. Paint the coil black too, and slap a sheet of glass or plexiglass on the box. Seal it with silicone.

" Now all you gotta braze is one connector to the in pipe and one to the hot pipe. You don't have to worry about braze joints cracking or leaks.

"The rest is just standard plumbing. A coil won't thermosiphon all that well, so you have to use a small circulation pump. Connect the pump between the bottom of your water tank and the cold connector and connect the hot connector to the top of your tank.

"If you can afford to buy a solar electric panel -- around 30 watts will do -- to run a 12 volt DC circulation pump it will turn on when the sun rises and off when it sets. It will cost you 150 or 200 bucks. But that's a luxury. Any cheap circ pump on a timer will work.

" Voila, you've got an automatic solar hot water system! On the Indian reservation people call these "the poor man's solar collector" because they are inexpensive and easy to build. Anybody can do it. But they are more than that - they are a way out of poverty and misery, a way toward comfort and dignity. A way of getting in harmony with nature so we can take care of our needs ourselves. The sun can do a lot for us once you know how to use her..."

He smiled and patted me on the shoulder. "Good luck!"

"Thank you" I said, deeply impressed. "Thanks a lot. I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't appeared."

"Sure." he replied with a wink, "It's Thanksgiving".

With that he turned and disappeared down another aisle. When I had gathered up the supplies he had brought me and returned the other copper pipes to their racks I tried to find him to get his name and contact information. But he was gone. The vast hardware store was empty.

When I got back to Colin and Ronna's everybody was worried.

"You were gone so long!" they exclaimed. "We were afraid we would have to eat the turkey without you."

"I feel like one of the first pilgrims, one of the pioneers on the first Thanksgiving" I told them as I poured the contents of my shopping bag on the living room floor.

I told the story of my mysterious encounter with the Native American solar engineer.

"What are the odds?!" I asked incredulously.

Emily said, "Sounds like he was an angel."

That night we sat down to our Thanksgiving meal and said a heartfelt prayer of thanks to the Native Americans of the past whose wisdom and kindness saved the European pilgrims from starvation that first cold winter, and to the modern Native American from the deserts of Palm Springs who shared his wisdom so that a new Eco-villager could start his pilgrimage toward using the power of the sun to help save the descendants of those Europeans -- and all those whose lives they have adversely impacted over the centuries -- from the growing nightmares and threats that have come from foolishly using fossil fuels and atomic fission to heat up water.

The next day Colin and I built our first solar hot water system from the design our mysterious Indian friend had sketched on the cardboard box, and that system became my first water heater on my apartment at the eco-village.

When I moved to Egypt in 2003 and began living and working with the urban poor, wondering how I could contribute to the development effort in the land of my cousins Naveen and Hisham, I remembered the Native American angel's advice: solar energy is a way out of poverty, a way to get into harmony with nature and find our comfort and dignity by being able to take care of our own needs.

I realized that teaching people the simple task of building a solar hot water, as our Native American friend did for me, could be the first step in building capacity and confidence in thinking creatively on how to work with what God has provided us. As the simplest of renewable energy projects, learning to build a do-it-yourself solar hot water heater puts us on a path that leads to ever more sophisticated projects as our understanding of the laws of physics and nature grows. From an understanding of how to work with local materials to provide domestic solar hot water we more easily scale up to understanding all forms of self-provisioning, from household level solar, wind, and micro-hydro electricity production, to solar adsorption chilling and solar air conditioning, to an understanding of ground-source heat pump technology, to home biogas production from urban wastes, to home hydrogen production and water purification, to rooftop gardening, composting and all other forms of ecologically sensible self-provisioning. They all flow from that first small step of learning how to harness the starlight that started all life on earth.

At any rate, it is how I started this journey on one special Thanksgiving, thanks to one mysterious Native American angel, and it showed me, as one who is descended from Irish and French Europeans and Iraqi and Lebanese Arabs yet calls himself by birth and passport "American", how we could, in turn, also act as true American angels in the lives of others when we go around the world purporting to give development help and U.S. AID.

And thus, inspired by those thoughts, a with the fortune of obtaining a grant from the American People that we wrote through the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Solar CITIES project was born...

(A song and slide-show I wrote about the experience, called The Thanksgiving Song (As We Sow so Shall We Reap), can be accessed below:)

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