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:)

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Let them eat cake: Food vs. Fuel as a red herring

I'm a new father with a one-week old baby so you will have to excuse me if I take the newspaper headlines a little too seriously these days.

They will affect my son's future.

And your children's.

But for some reason we don't spend a lot of time connecting the dots, putting the puzzle together, trying, as parents, to figure out how current events are going to play out as our little one's come of age.

Today's headline, "Biosprit macht Nahrung teurer" infuriates me because of what the ensuing article doesn't say. The english translation of the headline is "Biofuels make food more expensive" and the article goes on to tell us that biofuel production is being charged guilty for raising food prices by up to 75%. The figure comes to the German WAZ from the British newspaper "The Guardian" and all I can help thinking is that all of these newsrags are acting as the guardians of the status quo -- a status quo that puts my newborn son in mortal danger.

The irony is that this headline, from July 5th, comes one day after Americans had their yearly "get drunk on biofuels (primarily beer) and gorge yourself on the barbecued flesh of dead animals fed on soybean from destroyed Brazilian rainforests" party, celebrating their independence from the British. Independence day. Hooray, we're still independent from the British! Not from oil, though! Not from radioactive rocks! Not from foreign dictators! No, we wouldn't want to celebrate that, now would we? Maybe in 200 years?!?

Another irony is that the headline appears a mere 4 days after Germany finally decided to (loosely) enforce the "you can't poison other people's air with your smoke" law that was supposed to go into effect last year (they wanted to give people time to adjust to the idea that pregant women and babies like mine might want to sit in a restaurant and not be asphyxiated).

How do all these events link together?

For one thing, with all these articles indicting biofuels as the culprit in the rising food price drama, development experts wagging their fingers and saying "shame shame for trying to use corn or rapeseed or grains for fuel when they could be used to feed the hungry" NOBODY is saying "shame on the tobacco farmers for using land that could be used to grow food for the hungry to grow a toxic weed that kills millions".

Not one word is mentioned about competing land uses that are vastly more profitable than food or fuel crop growing that are taking arable soil out of production for nutritious products.

Nobody talks about how the growing of non-nutritive cash crops causes food prices to rise.

The public is being fooled into thinking that there are fields that grow corn and fields that grow tobacco and that corn should be used for food and tobacco should be used for cigarettes, and you violate some sacrosanct principle by using some corn for ethanol. The critics of biofuels never mention that for every acre of corn you plant for fuel you could simultaneously take an acre of tobacco out of production and grow food corn there.

To make it worse, Presidential candidate John McCain talks about the Brazilian success in using sugar cane for ethanol fuel production, criticizing Barack Obama's support for the midwestern farmers who are experimenting with corn fed ethanol but nobody mentions that sugar is also a non-nutritional cash crop that does more damage than good for society, or questions why we allowed so many millions of hectares of fertile rain-forest to be destroyed just so that people could sweeten their coffee and eat candy bars. Last time I visited sugar can plantations in Venezuela, Hawaii and upper Egypt I noticed there was nothing for the peasants who grow the sugar cane to eat for miles around. In the book "Death Without Weeping" Nancy Scheper Hughes documents how the sugar cane industry caused misery and starvation. But nobody said, "hey, stop! Growing sugar cane on this land drives the price of real food up by 75% -- you can't grow this garbage here!"

Likewise, nobody talks about how much corn goes into making "corn syrup sweetener" -- America's challenge to the sugar cane industries of the south. Did you notice when coca-cola and other soda pop companies switched from using sugar to corn syrup sweeteners? The fact is that we don't grow corn only for food in America or anywhere else in the world -- we grow it for sweeteners. Sweeteners that destroy people's nutrition, wreck their teeth and make them fat. All while raising the price of real food.

Oh yeah, and we grow it to feed factory-grown animals that we can barbecue on "Independence day" -- animals that could be wandering around the plains happily munching on cellulosic feedstocks like grass and other weeds that we can't eat and that happily grow on land that won't produce food crops for us.

But all the corn used for corn syrup and all the corn used to fatten animals for slaughter never makes it into the headlines as an "evil" or "bad" or even "competitive" use of our crop land.

What is more, corn fed ethanol is made from -- guess what? Corn syrup! The stuff that is in the candy and sodas and other junk food crap that makes kids hyper in school, makes cavities grow to the size of craters, makes Fat Albert fat, and causes the twinkie murderer to go on a killing spree. Some sacrifice if we have to use that garbage for fuel instead!

In California we had a visitor to the school I taught in (Jefferson High School in South Central L.A.) from a representative of the California Energy Commission who drove an ethanol fueled car. The ethanol came from the recycled waste of a local soda pop factory -- the liquid effluent waste from the corn syrup used in the soda that would otherwise have been dumped in the local rivers or sewer systems (to end up in the ocean). So it wasn't even a competitive use of the corn syrup -- it was just what was left over. Other ethanol came from a cheese factory, after they had made the cheese, taking the sugars in the whey they had to separate out. That would have been dumped down the drain too.

The fact is that an enormous amount of the sugar content from our corn production and other agricultural industries is being flushed down drains every day. But that doesn't get talked about in the alarmist articles criticizing biofuel production.

I am NOT a fan of food for fuel, and I certainly was disturbed when I visited Malaysian and Guatemalan rainforests that were being burned down to make way for vast oil palm plantations, some of which is now going for the production of biodiesel. But oil palm isn't food either -- the oil palm plantation boom began before the biofuel boom (I saw it with my own eyes as a rain forest researcher from 1985 when I was with a Harvard team in Borneo to 2003 when I was working in Central America with the L.A. Zoo) and most oil palm products ended up in cosmetics, as lubricants, in soaps, and in desserts. Desserts are not food. They are luxuries that make us fat and give us heart attacks. Sure they are fun to eat, but don't tell me you are outraged because fats and oils that would have ended up in your arteries are now being converted to run through your car engine!

Naturally I favor switch grass and other cellulosic feedstock for my biofuels. I have long been a critic of using food crops for fuel, but I have also long been a critic of using land that could be used to grow food in order to grow non-nutritional cash crops for cigarettes, coffee, tea, snacks and sweets. There is an obesity epidemic going on around the world because we don't eat right and their is a cancer epidemic going on because we let people poison our air and water with the polonium 210 and tar and nicotine that tobacco plants produce. This is hardly the time to be bickering when farmers look into ways of using their land that can help us kick our addiction to fossil fuels. It isn't as if we are going to stop growing food to get our fuel. First we would convert the land that we are using to grow tobacco and sugar cane and all that corn and wheat and rice that goes not into food for the hungry millions but into snacks and cookies and cakes that are killing us, and use that non-food crap to drive our cars right? Wouldn't we? We would use this time in history to end our addictions to not only OIL but to drugs like cigarettes and coffee and tea and other stimulants and junk food, right?

No, no. I get it. We aren't going to do either. We are beholden to our addictions. The articles waging war on biofuels are really an attempt by the party of the rich to knock the good Senator from Illinois out of the race. Because Obama is a smart man and gets it, and McCain is a panderer to the oligopolists who just wants to make sure they stay in power. McCain, a man who thinks war is a joke and sings "Bomb Bomb Bomb, Bomb Bomb Iran", makes offers of prizes for battery makers for electric cars, but his real agenda is to get us hooked on massive quantities of electricity that he will argue can only be provided by nuclear power plants. Since domestic energy can so easily be provided by wind and solar and other renewables at a much lower cost than building and maintaining and securing nuclear power plants, the nuclear lobby needs a massive turn-over from oil fueled cars to electric cars to make the argument for their latest centralized energy distribution scheme. And biofuels threaten that.

I see this as a bid to keep centralized power in the energy industry -- the same fight that Henry Ford had to wage with his chemurgists against John D. Rockefeller and William Randolph Hearst when he launched his Model A alcohol powered cars and proposed that every farmer could be both an energy and a food provider. Ford lost his battle when the oil lobby got desperate enough to force congress to enact prohibition. That killed the alcohol car. The resurrection of the electric car (which both Ford and Edison worked on and drove together in the late 1800s), while admirable if fueled by electricity produced by renewables, is, in the Republican's hands, merely an attempt to monopolize electricity through their ownership of uranium mines and nuclear power plants.

Heaven forbid we should use real plants, which are powered by the sun, to power our cars.

Smart do-it-yourselfers know that when push comes to shove we can distill our own ethanol fuel or cook up biodiesel or make biogas in the backyard using garbage and animal plant food waste. We know there is no competition between food and fuel. We know that making fuel is not going to drive up the cost of real food.

What the scaremongers would have you believe is that people are going hungry because we are turning away from oil and exploring different sources of solar powered energy, some of which involve using biomass. But if you let a poor farming family decide how to use their land they will wisely grow enough food for themselves and enough cash crops for the market. It usually matters little to them whether that cash crop is ending up being burned with a match to provide the cough in someone's lungs or burned as calories providing the sugar high in somebody's dessert or candy bar or bringing the buzz into somebody's beverage cup. Or putting the "vroom" into somebody's gas tank. That isn't what determines whether they a farming family goes hungry or not, and it isn't what is driving up food prices for the non-farmers.

If it were then there would be a simple answer for people worried about the food vs. energy debate, given how much land on this planet is devoted to non-nutritional cash crops:

Let them eat cake.