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, December 13, 2009

460 Lucas: Green for the Red, White and Blue

(Photo: A typical American street where a typical American house is flying a new kind of "flag" -- the red, white and photovoltaic blue flag of green energy independence.)

The American greenback, the dollar bill, states "E Pluribus Unum", "from the many, one". We should also keep in mind that another kind of desire for "green" unites the diversity of Americans who came to the United States to share the dream of peace and prosperity and liberty and justice for all. Advanced and ancient ideas for environmental services provision and sustainability are part of our heritage too, coming from as many places as we do...

There is a perception perpetuated by the power majority, often in the media and in academia, that technology generally transfers from the North to the South and from West to East. And it is supposed to flow from university laboratories and corporate headquarters and factories to 'the poor'. I find, however, it is many times the other way around. Necessity being the mother of invention, great discoveries are often actually made in the developing world (generally by people in countries located in the South and East whose underdevelopment, Andre Gunder Frank would have us understand, was usually engineered by policies favoring the centers of power) and also by the people of poorer regions of otherwise rich countries. They are then implemented on a small scale to solve the daily challenges of survival. Only later are these ideas capitalized upon by those in the developed world (who have the capital and tend to reside in the North and West) and commodified. (For more on this see "Aborted Discovery: Science and Creativity in the Third World by Susantha Goonatilake" and "Bio-Piracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge" by Vandana Shiva, among others) If they later get re-imported by developing countries or regions it is because of the vectors of the global market, not necessarily the vectors of innovation.

Today we see a global shake up and Tofflerian "Powershift" occurring and with it the acknowledgment that some of the best ideas on the horizon come from lands that, for regions like America and Europe, are on the horizon -- Central and South America, Africa, the Middle East, India, China and Southeast Asia. The great ideas also often come from the so-called "poor" communities of so-called "rich" countries.

At Solar CITIES we have the great fortune to be able to spend some portion of each year visiting the "underdeveloped world" to see first-hand what's in development there, and we then strive to bring the best ideas we witness to our home countries of Germany and America, and blend them with what's going on there.

(Photo: Steve Lyons, Frank DiMassa, T.H. Culhane and a SunnyBoy Inverter)

(Photo: Alvaro Silva and T.H. Culhane in front of the Sunny Boy inverter)

Case in point: After our recent trip to Egypt to continue working on solar and biogas innovations with the Zabaleen garbage recyclers, the Darb Al Ahmar craftspeople and the Bilbaes agricultural engineers, we spent a month in California working with visionary utility consultant Frank DiMassa of Utility Consulting (who is on our advisory board) and our U.S. team (among them Alvaro Silva of Solar South Central, Licensed Electrician and Photovoltaic Guru Steve Lyons and Charles Munat of Munat Inc. Web and Database Development) where we were working on a green-retrofit and rehabilitation of a foreclosure property that Frank bought in Santa Rosa (Sonoma County).

(Photo: The 2 KW Photovoltaic system that powers the main house at 460 Lucas. It consists of 10 Sharp 220 Watt modules)

At the 460 Lucas property, which we are developing into a green demonstration home, many of the ideas being implemented are the direct result of our experiences over the years in Indonesia, Guatemala, Mexico, India and Egypt (not to mention South Central Los Angeles). They also come from our neighbors themselves, who are as diverse as the United Nations.

In particular, what we have learned about self-installation of photovoltaics, the building of solar hot water systems and small-scale biogas digesters, greywater recycling, edible landscapes and aquaponics are all now being put to the test by Frank and our team in a typical American mixed-income/mixed-ethnicity neighborhood.

460 Lucas Circle is a quintessential slice of Americana, a neighborhood of small one story two and three bedroom houses with a diverse mix of typical Americans -- from the native American couple (Pomo and Chumash) a few houses away who moved in 40 years ago thanks to the GI bill, to the young white couple down the street with strong religious values who just moved in last month and transformed their living room into a Montessori classroom to home-school their 3 children, from the 20-something auto-mechanics next door who are endlessly tinkering with multiple car and truck engines, to the Latino family around the corner trimming their hedge, from the white haired old man across the street who endlessly waters his rock garden to the tatooed Harley-Davidson riding 30-somethings at the end of the block. And of course, with the exception of the Native American family, all the other Americans represent the constant movement of people and ideas from East to West and South to North, for that is the history of the United States.

(Photo: T.H. Culhane stands atop the second 2 Kw photovoltaic system which powers what was the garage and is now the instructional space and multi-media studio. It is also made up of 10 Sharp 220 Watt modules but each module has its own new EnPhase inverter)

Our neighbors at 460 Lucas are the working people of America; neighborhoods like this are its sinews, its hands, its heart. The people who live in this part of Santa Rosa already have the necessary values for the green revolution that is becoming the new American Revolution -- hard working, clever and resourceful, they are do-it-yourselfers with the Horatio Alger ethic still intact. They shop for values and frequent stores like Home Depot and Sears. And they share with their neighbors. From one African American community member we learned how to remove sheet rock without damaging it (get a magnet to locate the screws, expose the heads with a flat-head) so that we could eventually give it to one of our neighbors to redo their garage (instead of paying to take it to the landfill or recycling center), and from another neighbor we learned that any broken pieces could be mulched into the garden as one of the best soil amendments money can buy (gypsum is calcium sulfate, a great plant nutrient). From the young couple doing the home schooling we learned about square foot gardening, and they even came over and started building a raised-bed garden and aquaponics pond with us. Talk about barn-raising!

The 4 pillars of civilization

4 things that we all have in common, whether we live in a rainforest village, a desert town, a manicured suburb or a teeming city, is the need to deal with Energy, Water, Food and Waste. While our hunter-gatherer ancestors usually found energy, water, food and waste recycling supplied by Nature as "environmental services", the advent of civilization led to the over-burdening of these systems and forced human-kind to learn how to take care of these amenities ourselves.

In urban environments in particular, the challenges of usefully transforming energy, producing food and recycling water and waste have become severe and it is the poor who shoulder the greatest burden in finding healthy, economical and sustainable ways to meet these challenges since their very survival depends upon it. However because the poor of the world, however innovative they can be, lack the materials, credit and capital to put their ideas into widespread practice, it is up to those of us who have the current luxury of "having" to build supportive environmental services infrastructure and refine and implement solutions for those who have not.

Thus the need to build demonstration homes in the true heartlands of America and Europe, the beating pulses of those dynamic regions where people are still in touch with their immigrant forebears or still have linkages to areas where the ethic of self-sufficiency and creative provisioning and problem solving continue to drive innovative thought. Where people have settled into a dull conformity to a "sites and services" approach to development, allowing the municipality and for-profit companies to build their homes and landscapes according to cookie-cutter designs, and connect them with pipes and cables to centralized power, water and sewage treatment providers, the over-riding obsession is simply to "keep up with the Joneses" and innovative approaches to environmental service provision are discouraged if not banned altogether.

We believe that communities that conform to the sites and services approach to development and its consequent aesthetic are no longer connected to the real worlds of energy, food, water and waste recycling. We suggest that most urban and suburban developments are tenuously sustained by "bridges to nowhere". One has only to live in such a false utopia during an earthquake, flood or other such disaster to see how vulnerable most of us in today's "civilization" are.

460 Lucas is intended to operate as one hub of a hopeful experiment to reconnect human-scale communities to their provisioning environments and to each other. From those who have lived through the disasters that poverty and/or a collapse of services brings on, we have learned approaches to sustainability that we hope will flourish and be improved once some capital and design consciousness is put into the mix.

Here is some of what we are learning and doing at 460 Lucas:


In the rainforests of Indonesia a quarter century ago and the jungle villages of Guatemala a decade ago we learned that putting photovoltaic panels on a roof to provide electricity was a no-brainer and was something so easy to do that anybody who knows how to wire a home stereo system and can use a drill and a screwdriver can handle the basics of an installation. So Frank and I put up a 4 KW solar electric system at 460 Lucas.

To make sure we were code-compliant and to be able to grid-intertie with the city's electric supply, and to qualify for the loans and rebates and tax credits we were supervised by solar construction expert Alvaro Silva and licensed electrician and master solar installer Steve Lyons, but the basics can be learned from any barefoot villager from the barefoot college in Tilonia in Rajastan, India.

(Photo: National Geographic photographer John Livzey documents the conversion of the 460 Lucas foreclosure retrofit for a book going to school kids across America. It is estimated that 80% of housing stock needs to be green retrofitted if we are to meet our climate change mitigation goals.)

To make high efficiency use of the electricity we create on our roof we are installing LED and CFL lighting everywhere, and energy star rated appliances.

(Photo: T.H. talks to John, one of the photographers from National Geographic School Publishing)

(Photo: 460 Lucas owner Frank DiMassa self-installing one of the new EnPhase Inverters)

(Photo:  T.H. Culhane holds the sixth of 10 Enphase inverters that he and Frank DiMassa and series stringing on the roof of the once-upon-a-garage solar powered multimedia studio)

Since heating water and air with electricity is about the dumbest most wasteful use of fuel known to Man, we are putting in a solar thermal water heating and solar hydronics system with methane back-up. Our experiences in Jamaica, Israel, Palestine, and Egypt have taught us not only how efficient solar assisted heating is, but that we could make the heaters ourselves. Recently we discovered in Egypt that we could make an inexpensive solar hot water heater using black plastic irrigation pipe instead of copper to complement the recycled plastic water barrels we had already been using. At 460 Lucas we will install both a professional solar hot water system and a home-made one, showing do-it-yourselfers how they too can go solar.

(Photo: T.H. Culhane and 12 year old  Kevin DiMassa paint,  measure and cut aluminum sheeting that will serve as the absorber plates in their home-made solar hot water system.)

(Photo: 12 year old Kevin DiMassa assembles the plastic pipes that will be tied to the aluminum absorber in their home made solar hot water system, based on a design Solar CITIES came up with at the SEKEM farm in Cairo, Egypt.)

As for the methane back-up, we will continue to use so-called 'natural gas' piped in from the city but will supplement with our own home-made biogas (see below).


(Photo: The Two-Tiered Greywater system using IBD Totes with overspill tube and aquarium airstones for oxygenation of sulfides to sulfates to prevent odor, an innovation Solar CITIES came up with in Germany, using the top tank for head pressure for toilet flushing and distant irrigation and the bottom tank for overflow and local irrigation.  A family of four can easily fill one of these a day just from bathing and clothes washing)

(Photo (copyright NGSP): National Geographic's John Livzey  took this photograph of  T.H. Culhane sitting atop his greywater system holding the aquarium air pump and air stones that oxidize the bad smelling sulfides in soapy used water into sulfates, removing the smell as the first part of home-scale wastewater treatment.)

From the Zabaleen of Cairo Egypt, who experience severe water cuts and shortages every other week, and who are charged water prices far beyond their means, we learned to re-use water as many times as possible before flushing it down the drain. Our Zabaleen hosts Hanna and Sabah Fathy save their shower and bathwater and use it to flush the toilet (we agree with them that it is a crime to use scarce drinking quality water merely to dispose of fecal material!) and to irrigate plants. Returning to Germany Sybille and I took the concept one step further, plumbing a greywater holding tank to our toilet and garden with an automatic sump pump and an aeration system. This way everytime we take a shower or use the sinks the water automatically goes to its site of secondary use. Following this success we are implementing the same type of graywater system in 460 Lucas. We have learned that it is best to have a two-tiered tank system -- the top tank collects the immediate greywater and, because it is elevated, gravity feeds the toilets and distant garden areas. An overspill pipe fills the lower tank which immediately drains the soapy water (which floats) into the nearbye garden.
Fortunately, the same metal-caged IBD Tote tanks that we use for our new biogas system design can be used effectively for greywater systems.  They hold 275 gallons (1000 liters) each and can be stacked. This is superior to using a single large tank because as you use up the water in a single tank you lose your head of pressure, making it impossible to fill the toilet or reach distant parts of your garden.  Many people resort to building a sturdy stand and elevating their single tank but this takes money and labor and space without increasing the utility of the area.  Using a second tank as the stand you have the advantage of greater capacity storage and controlled overflow catchment for a fraction of the cost.  Used HDPE IBD Tote tanks can be had for anywhere from 50 to 150 dollars, depending on supply.  The ones shown above, ironically, were used for transporting flocculants across the country.  Appropriate that we should be using them for a home waste-water treatment system!


(Photo: Frank DiMassa proudly points to the last pomegranate of the season on a tree that is being planted in what was once a driveway, soon to be converted to agroforestry landscape. The idea is to end the American obsession with the car, where the most notable feature of the home is the driveway and garage, and refocus on nature and utility and food security)

From our Mayan friends we learned about the value of agroforestry (how perennial tree crops could satisfy an enormous amount of our nutritional needs with low maintainance) and from our Indonesian friends the basic principles of aquaponics -- how fish could be grown in small areas to provide necessary protein and how their waste could be used to fertilize the food plants we depend on for carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, which, in turn, would filter the water so it could be returned clean to the fish. We also learned in India and Egypt about rooftop gardening, making a lot of food grow in a very small area. And from our Mexican friends in South Central Los Angeles we learned the value of tearing out the decorative lawn and making every part of the front and back yard as functional as it is beautiful. Working with our neighbors we are applying these principles to creating an edible landscape par excellence.

(Photo: The 460 Lucas Circle Green Retrofit Team in front of the aquaponics pond: Steve Lyons, Al Silva, Kevin DiMassa, Frank DiMassa, Conrad Hernandez and T.H. Culhane (missing is Charles Munat))

(Photo: June Brashares and Woody Hastings and T.H. Culhane in front of the delicious Meyers Lemon tree. Woody collected the lemons and made lemon cakes for the National Geographic video production team that had flown in from Washington DC to document the project .)


From our Zabaleen Trash Recycler friends in Cairo we learned the truth of the adage "waste not, want not". Taking this concept to heart led to a trip to Pune, India where Dr. Anand Karve of the ARTI Institute taught us how to make simple biogas digesters that turn yesterdays kitchen waste into today's cooking gas -- about 2 hours per 1000 liters per day from about 2 kg of stuff everybody else calls garbage. In addition to the clean burning gas we get about 10 liters of liquid compost fertilizer which goes to the garden to make more nutritious delicious food.

At 460 we have implemented the second "Solar CITIES cold climate digester" based on a design T.H. Culhane came up with to take advantage of ubiquitous HDPE ("High Density Poly-Ethylene") IBD ("Intermediate Bulk Delivery") Tote Tanks (1000 liters or 275 gallons).  As shown above, we also use two of these Tanks for our Greywater system.  Other people recycled them for use in biodiesel systems. They make great trellises for plants and because of the sturdy metal frame are easy to climb on to do work without damaging the tanks. Because the frame protects them we've found that one person can easily "roll" one into place (we had ours delivered on the street and the author rolled them down the block to get them in the back gate).

Besides making use of readily available recycled materials to build the digesters, the idea behind the design is to create a household scale digester that can operate in cold climates. The normal cylindrical water tanks we use in Egypt (and which ARTI uses in India) are not readily available in Europe and America. Special ordered they can cost up to 500 dollars, while these used food and chemical containers can be had for 5 to 10 times less.  So for low cost systems these ar the way to go.

The system Solar CITIES has designed is composed of three tanks. One, which is ground mounted, is the digester itself. Filled on the first day with about 40 kg of animal manure and 975 liters of water it is subsequently sealed. Because it is sealed it can be insulated for outside use or placed indoors. The gas is piped to a second ground-mounted collection tank that is initially filled with 1000 liters of water to which ethylene glycol or some other anti-freeze additive can be added. This tank is sealed. As gas evolves in the digester it creates its own pressure which forces it into the collection tank. As the sealed collection tank fills with gas, the gas displaces the water/anti-freeze mix via a looping tube into a 20 gallon sump (basically just a plastic trash can placed next to the collection tank). In the sump is a fractional horse-power garden pond pump and a float switch. When the sump fills about 3/4 full the sump pump goes on and pumps the water to an empty holding/pressure tank that is mounted above the collection tank (and is open to atmospheric pressure via a small hole in the top). As gas fills the collection tank the pressure tank fills with water. When one wants to use the gas in the kitchen or the barbecue one simply opens the valve to a 1" pipe that connects the two tanks. The water in the top tank then flows back into the bottom tank and forces the gas out the top through a tube to the stove.

With this design the gas collection/water-displacement pressure part of the system can be kept outdoors in a safe location and remain uninsulated. The minimal energy requirements of the water pump can be handled by a solar charged battery (in our case we use an AC pump with an inverter, but a DC pump can also be used directly).

Thus kitchen waste is directly turned into fossil-fuel-free cooking gas and easily transportable liquid fertilizer, smells, flies and rodents are eliminated from the home, and the other so-called "garbage" (paper, plastic, metal, glass) can be easily sorted and cleanly stored for recycling or sale.

Ironically the tanks shown below, which  we purchased from a recycler in Santa Rosa we found on Craig's List,  had previously contained Kosher food-grade glycerin.  We are sure this makes the methanogenic bacteria very happy!

(Photo: The second "Solar CITIES experimental all-climate biodigester" (the first is in Egypt). The system is built from three identical IDB Tote HDPE tanks. To the rear one can just make out the biodigester itself. The top of the digester is connected by 1/2 inch clear plastic tubing to the top-side of the water displacement tank (WDT) . Water from this tank is forced by gas coming from the digester out of a length of clear 1/2" plastic tubing from the bottom of this tank that loops over the top of the WDT into the sump (20 gallon plastic garbage bucket in the foreground).  The more gas is forced in the more water is forced out until the sump is about 3/4 full. At this point a float switch turns on a pump inside the sump which carries the water up the blue 1/2" tube to the top of the water pressure tank (WPT)  on top of the WDT.  The pump is powered by a rechargeable battery with inverter (orange box, bottom right of photo).  When the WDT is filled with gas and the WPT is filled with water, a valve in the one inch white PVC pipe connecting the two is opened and the water pressure forces the gas out of the top of the WDT to the kitchen stove or barbecue via another 1/2" blue plastic tube.)

Photo: "The throat of the cow".  This 2" PVC tube runs to about 3" off the bottom of the digester tank so that ground up food and water can "feed the stomach of the cow" (the digester tank itself.)

(Photo: "the mouth of the cow" in the center of the digester is where the food enters.  Gas comes out the 1/2" PVC pipe at the top of the digester and makes its way through the clear plastic tubing (after the red valve) to the Water Displacement Tank shown in the top photo.)

(Photo: The digester has two tubes coming out of it; the clear plastic 1/2" tube carries the gas into the water displacement tank in the foreground. The black 1" tube coming out of the middle of the digester carries spent slurry, now transformed into a liquid compost tea fertilizer, into a bucket behind the digester.  There is a valve at the end of the black tube (not shown).  The green hose is not relevant to the system; it is a simple garden hose being used to fill the digester, which previously had 20 gallons of horse manure and two buckets of gravel loaded into it,  with water on the first day.)

(Photo: From the top of the water displacement tank an elbow joint connected to a red valve carries the methane to a 1/2" inch blue plastic hose that takes the biogas to the kitchen stove or barbecue.  One can also see the 1/2" PVC pipes connecting the Water Pressure Tank (above) and the water displacement tank (below).  We use couplers (top right) and extenders (bottom right)wherever budget permits to make it easy to experiment with and repair the system.)

(Photo: View of the sump (20 gallon plastic trash can with lid) next to the fitting that carries the water from the Water Pressure Tank (1 " PVC pipe with red valve) to the Water Displacement Tank and the fitting that carries displaced water from the WDT to the sump (first passing through a loop at the height of the WDT) so it can be pumped up to the WPT when gas is being produced.)

(Photo: View of the inside of the sump.  A fractional horse power pond pump capable of reaching a height of 12 feet can be seen at the right.  It's on-off switch is controlled by the float switch ( at the left of the photo; $35 at Home Depot).  To make it turn on and off at the right time we had to weight down the cord in two different places (hence the bits of metal tied with metal wire to the float switch cable in the photo  left.  In the Egyptian system we are experimenting with bypassing the sump and pump, replaceing it with a check valve and running the 1/2 " tube all the way up to the top of the water pressure tank and filling it with a column of water.  Experiments are indicating, however, that this may not be working well, possibily inhibiting some of the gas from entering the WDT.  We tried using tubes of different diameter, down to 1/4" and didn't get satisfactory results. Thus we opted to use a pump powered by a rechargeable battery in this configuration.)

(Photo: The spot at the top of the WDT where biogas enters the tank. You can see water underneath and gas above. When the WDT is filled with water you will note vigorous bubbling of the gas up through the water)

(Photo: Frank DiMassa and T.H. Culhane load the digester with horse manure, gathered from the Foothills Regional Park manure bin by the entrance to the horseriding trails.  The digester requires animal manure on THE FIRST DAY ONLY to start the fermenting process. After about 3 weeks when flammable methane begins to be produced, one then starts feeding the digester ground up kitchen waste and water.)

(Photo: Once the digester, loaded on the first day with manure, begins producing flammable methane, we begin to feed it about this much kitchen garbage every day. We run the kitchen garbage through a waste disposal unit (called an "insinkerator") with water so it is ground up small enough for the bacteria to metabolize and so it doesn't clog up the pipes.  Until the first flammable methane is produced we don't feed the digester anything. Overfeeding the digester will cause it to become acidic and one must then add alkali to get to a pH of around 7, or wait until it naturally self-regulates. Then one can resume feeding. About 2 Kg of feedstock creates about 1 cubic meter (275 gallons) of gas on a hot summer day, which is enough to cook on a single burner for about 2 hours.)

The feedstock for our biogas digester is just ordinary organic wastes from the kitchen, ground up into a slurry with water using a typical insinkerator waste disposal unit. At 460 Lucas we are also implementing a compost bin but only for cellulosic and lignocellulosic material (wood chips, leaves, grass clippings), paper, cardboard, newspaper, paper towels, shredded junk mail, tea bags and hard pits of fruit). The compost bin, as we learned from our friends in Africa, uses aerobic microbes to create a nice healthy soil from stuff most people burn or bury in landfills. We are also putting in a composting toilet, which we learned about in rainforest areas in Belize and Brunei and then found could be implemented in urban areas when visiting Johannesburg South Africa.

(Photo:  The outdoor insinkerator waste disposal unit  (right) is used to fill a watering can with food and water slurry which is poured into the digester. In a normal household one could have the insinkerator in the kitchen and plumb the pipes so they automatically fed the digester. Since this is an experimental unit for visitors to see and learn from we keep it outside.  Next to it, on the left, is our compost unit for composting cellulosic material that the digester won't eat.)

Communications and Outreach

(Photo:  The 460 Lucas "Very Green Screen" in our 100% solar powered audio video studio where we also use cool-flo compact fluorescent energy saving studio lights to produce our instructional and training videos about sustainable technologies.)

 (Photo (copyright NGSP): National Geographic's John Livzey took this photo of T.H. Culhane and former South Central L.A.  High School student Al Silva editing a training video on Solar Panel installation.)

To truly make what we have learned around the world and what we are implementing at 460 Lucas stimulate the necessary multplier effect we are building a completely solar powered multi-media audio/video production studio. Complete with a Final Cut Pro and Adobe Creative Suite editing bay and an audio iso booth, the studio boasts Cool-Flo Energy Saving Compact Fluorescent studio lights and a truly "green" green-screen. In the studio we make everything from public-service-announcements to instructional and training videos and industrial films celebrating green products and services. We also will be running workshops and classes.

In these ways we see 460 Lucas being a model for "greening the red white and blue" -- showing the rest of us "average Americans" that yes, indeed we can make a difference, starting right here at home, in our homes.

1 comment:

David J said...

Hi, I am very interested in your "Solar CITIES cold climate digester", nevertheless, not all the pictures are available for some reason (not all of them are shown, although the link is there. I am creating a manual to use Biodigester and Biogas as a estrategy to be included in a home with energy consumption.