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!"

Friday, November 30, 2007

The "Zeitgeist Conspiracy" and how it affects the use of solar energy

What's wrong with this picture?It astonishes us here at Solar CITIES how difficult it is to overcome inertia and lassitude when it comes to moving toward sustainability. We aren't pointing any fingers; We are astonished by ourselves. We also too often take what seems to be the "easy route" and cause long term problems for ourselves. So we need a new way to think about problem solving, or at least a way to make "making an extra effort" somehow seem fun and "worth it".

We'll come back to what's wrong with the picture above in a moment. First, a short diatribe on what we call "The Zeitgeist Conspiracy"

When we went to see Leonard DiCaprio's milestone film "The 11th Hour: 5 minutes to midnight" in Munich (Southern Germany) last week and discovered it was only playing at one theater and only at 10 in the morning, and then discovered, when we tried to take our family members to it this week in Essen (Northern Germany) that it wasn't playing at all, forcing us to drive all the way to Dusseldorf where, again, it is only in one theatre and only at odd hours, we almost gave up. You should have heard the arguments against "wasting our time going all the way there (45 minutes away), wasting gas driving there... oh the cost and inconvenience of it all..." -- yet we DID happily travel all the way there last year to see Tom Cruise in Stephen Spielberg's "War of the Worlds", making a fun "trip day" of it, and that movie has little redeeming to say for it except for Morgan Freeman's delightful narration, reminding us that even the humblest and most maligned of God's creation, large and small, have an important role in the health of the biosphere. But I'm sure that point was lost on most movie goers.

"The 11th hour", on the other hand, is of enormous import, much like Al Gore's brilliant "An Inconvenient Truth", and DiCaprio does a great job of pointing out not only the problems and the urgency of stopping climate change in this 11th hour, but of calling our attention to the marvelous ideas and technologies out there that can be immediately implemented, even at this late hour, to save the day. Much as the simple microorganisms save the day in The War of the Worlds, during this war to save the world, the movie tells us, everything from fungi to bacteria to the rest of us "little people" among the 6.5 billion humans in the world can work with Gaia's ecosystem to bring her back to health. It is a feel good movie when all is said and done.

So why the reluctance to make the effort to see it? And what does that have to do with what's wrong with the picture shown above?

It is something we call "The Zeitgeist Conspiracy". As far as conspiracy theories go, ours is pretty mild and sensible and shies away from pointing the finger at anyone (wouldn't want people who do bad things to think of themselves as "bad people" now would we? Wouldn't be very Christian-like, and we are struggling every day to "love our enemies" and "love our neighbors as ourselves" so that we can cut this Gordian knot of resistance to positive change.)

So what is the Zeitgeist Conspiracy? We define it as a group of people all breathing and co-tainting the same bad air together (in-spiring, re-spiring, CON-spiring) trapped in a fairly rigid if semipermeable bubble called "the spirit of our times" (in German "Zeitgeist"). When you con-spire that spirit, you become part of the con-spirit, see? And thus, you are part of the Zeitgeist "con-spir-acy". Is that too much of a stretch? Too much linguistic leger-de-main?

Let me try to put it differently, drawing on the work of science writer Phillip Ball in his masterful opus "Critical Mass": like typical herd animals, humans conspire to maintain the status quo until enough of them change direction, and a new wind blows. Then they jump aboard the bandwagon. And we haven't reached that critical mass yet, so most of us are stuck. We look around us and say, "if I make that much effort to see DiCaprio's movie (which is not in the interests of the special interests that conspire to keep it from effective mass distribution), will I appear like a hero to my family and friends, or like a granola eating, behrenstock sandal wearing, earthy crunchy fool? Is it sexy enough yet to be the guy who went to all that trouble to be part of a cause that our majority leaders still haven't sanctioned? Is this how I want to, as Irving Goffman put it, make my "presentation of self in every day life?" Is this , as Eric Bern would have put it in "Games People Play" and "What do you Say After you Say Hello", the "T-shirt you would like to wear that tells people who you are?"

For most of us the answer is sadly "no". We are risk averse characters and we mostly follow the pack unless we feel we can get real social recognition for our extra efforts. Until then, unless the few percent of people who have the power to make certain things relatively "effortless" make the transaction costs of doing something new or different painless, only the "early adopters" or "lighthouse customers" (as Everett M. Rogers would call them in his "diffusion of innovations theory") will "cross the chasm" (as Geoffrey Moore would call it in his model). The rest of us will hold back until... until 5... 4... 3... 2... 1 minute to midnight? Until "after midnight", when we "let it all hang down"?

To paraphrase the Eric Clapton song, baby, it ain't gonna be "all peaches and cream" after midnight. No sir. We're going to have to "stimulate some action" NOW, at 5 minutes to midnight and counting, during the 11th hour; Ain't gonna wait for "The Midnight Hour", cause that's when the whole world comes tumbling down. Uh-huh. That's whataymsayn! Word.

But how do we get out of being part of this horrible, time lagging, procrastinating Zeitgeist conspiracy? And what does it have to do with the picture above?

Let's answer the second answer first ("and the last shall be first and the first shall be last...")

The picture above is remarkable because it contains misinformation that radically affects the performance of thermosiphoning solar hot water systems, and it seems nobody thought to test it. The picture is printed in a booklet that the wonderful Hans Seidel Stiftung (a German foundation) publishes and makes available to help people in Egypt learn how to make solar hot water systems. The fact that they have gone to the trouble of not only printing and distributing these great informational booklets but of supporting workshops in the Suez area to train locals how to create home-made domestic solar hot water systems is more than laudable. The Hans Seidel Foundation is one of the best organizations out there, working on everything from solar technology implementation to biogas production from waste.

We applaud everything the Hans Seidel Stiftung does, and their booklets have helped us convince all sorts of stakeholders in the local community to work with us on our Solar CITIES project.

What is a shame (and we have witnessed it all over Egypt with other foundations projects as well, including our own) is that they are all subject to the curse of what UCLA Professor Susanna Hecht used to call "RECEIVED WISDOM" in her development classes.

Instead of relentlessly beta testing ideas locally, and involving local wisdom and experience (what Dr. Hecht called "metis", from the Greek), we almost always apply "techne" (codified "one size fits all" knowledge) and that techne all too often reflects certain historical contingencies and market compromises. It has become "commodified".

There is often, of course, a good reason for this: testing and modifying things locally takes time and energy and money and patience and cultural understanding. It is reasonable to expect that people will try to avoid "reinventing the wheel" if they can, but what is the great shame that reflects the "zeitgeist conspiracy" is how many times we have seen a failing to rethink things that have to do with local solutions for decentralized energy and food production.

Whereas people will obsess with endlessly checking and redesigning entertainment media, for example, incessantly improving every new iteration of a computer program and inviting a host of world-wide "beta testers" to enthusiastically check for bugs and report problems, this same passion for redesign is almost never occurring with renewable energy systems, electric cars, or other examples of "appropriate technology".

How many times have you agreed to "send a report to Microsoft" to help them with the computer errors that crashed the computer program you were working on? You have become part of an army of unpaid testers -- worse, you are paying for the privilege of spending your time and labor helping to improve THEIR products. But at the same time, you would probably consider it absurd to spend hours of your day or night trying to help us all improve the quality of information and product relating to things that, if we put our collective intelligence to work on them, could stop the scourge of global warming and biodiversity loss.

The diagram in the Hans Seidel Stiftung book is a case in point. Egyptians had been telling me for the past several years that "solar energy systems are great in the summer, but they don't work in the winter." My experience with solar hot water in Germany and the U.S. contradicted this complaint, so I didn't take it seriously. I chalked it up to "the ignorance of the locals". And, optimistically, I went ahead and built several solar hot water systems out of local materials with the locals, according to plans like the ones reproduced in the booklet. Of course the systems worked, and to prove a point, I gathered a crowd during the winter and turned on the faucet and showed that, yes, they produce hot water in the winter months.

Case closed?

Hardly. In our western arrogance we forget to consider the usefulness of our technology to fit into the daily consumption patterns of the local people. Sure, we demonstrated that solar hot water systems designed as in the diagram can deliver hot water in the winter. But we never took the time to measure exactly how much or to make it a priority to redesign the system to suit the real on the ground conditions. We relied on received wisdom.

It wasn't until my wife and I actually moved into the slums of Darb El Ahmar into a building recently renovated by the AKTC and built one of our "hand made solar hot water systems" on the roof of our apartment and decided to stay during the cold winter that we learned, by living as a local, what the problems with the design were.

In short, the systems depicted in the diagram, which can easily heat 200 liters of water using a two panel setup (each panel being 180 x 80 cm) during the summer, only heats about 25 liters during some winter days. That was fine for our demonstrations, because we simply turned on the faucet and let people stick their hands in the piping hot water that gathers at the top of the tank (see the diagram) and didn't use more than 25 liters. But when you are actually using it to bathe every day, you quickly run out of hot water.

The locals said, "you see, told you so, solar hot water doesn't work in the winter." And all we could do was hem and haw and talk about reduced consumption patterns in the winter and "yeah maybe solar is just a preheater in the winter... blah blah blah." Internet searches didn't help -- most diagrams show the cold water outlet at the bottom of the tank and hot water inlet at the top and suppose that the water will circulate (see the circular arrows?) until the whole tank is hot. But our field experience showed us that that isn't really going on. Hot water does a terrible job of heating by convection, and most of these diagrams must be based on the use of a circulation pump, because in the winter with the shorter hours of thermosiphoning, circulation doesn't see to be happening at all, particularly not in the vertical tanks we are forced to use for cost reasons in developing countries (note that commercial suppliers of thermosiphoning SHW systems use horizontal tanks and boast about the improved circulation/mixing capacity). So we felt stuck, demonstrating to the locals that in a vertical tank there is a dramatic thermocline in the winter -- water at 50 degrees C at the top of the tank, water at 25 degrees less than 15 cm underneath it, with a sharp difference in the layers that you can feel when you stick your hand in the tank (we use open tanks for demonstrations).
Use up the 25 liters or so of hot water and then you have to grin and bear the 175 or so liters of cold water in the winter. Or so we thought.

Then we remembered our trip to Palestine.

The beauty of traveling around the world to areas where refugees are trying to solve problems without much help and in the face of great adversity is that you begin to pick up bits and pieces of effective local knowledge -- what Dr. Susanna Hecht called "metis" - that can radically affect the globalized "techne" and thus improve its local application.

We had learned from the Palestinians that in households that have no constant water supply one should put a cold water feed-in tank to maintain pressure. We learned this by walking down one of the streets that separates West and East Jerusalem and noticing that you could tell which houses were Israeli and which were Palestinian by looking at the solar collectors on the roofs: Israeli houses tend to have one tank systems (with horizontal tanks) while Palestinian houses tend to have two tank systems (with vertical tanks). Palestinian families whose roofs I climbed onto told me that they need two tanks because they have unreliable water pressure, and often the water is cut. Thus they have a cold water tank feeding into the hot water storage tank connected to the solar hot water system.

We had learned to adopt this system in Darb El Ahmar and Manshiyat Nasser because water pressure is nil to nonexistent during much of the week and water is often cut outright. But it wasn't until we re-examined close up photographs we took of the roofs of Palestinian homes that we realized they had also solved our problem with the winter-time low performance of the vertical tank solar hot water system. We originally thought it was just poor design (weren't they following the diagrams we send them from the West? Was it ignorance?) but came to realize that it was the hard won experience of trial and error that led the Palestinians to place the hot water inlet NEAR THE BOTTOM OF THE TANK, JUST ABOVE THE COLD WATER OUTLET. Our prejudices (not believing the locals could know better than the published diagrams) blinded us from taking the risk that would have solved our problem a long time ago.
But once we started living like the locals, in the slums, and dealt with the problem of taking a hot shower every day in the winter, we suddenly realized we would have to experiment too. Fortunately, we had the Palestinian model to go by, and it was simply a matter of giving it a try.

We went from this:

To this:

It cost time and money, yes, because it meant we had to build another system for comparison with the standard system. But once it was built (on Solar CITIES field coordinator Hanna Fathy's house in the Zabaleen area) its performance exceeded our expectations: 200 liters of hot water on a variably cloudy day that only produced about 20 liters in the system with the hot water inlet placed at the top as in the diagram!

We also made modifications that no system we have ever seen in the world has: we listened to the advice of Plastics recycler Walid Sabry, whose mother and sisters sit in piles of medical waste all day, often pulling needles from used syringes and separating bloody bandages from medical bottles, risking hepatitis infections. Walid had asked, sensibly "why can't we use plastic barrels with loose fitting tops for both the hot and cold water barrels?". When "experts" from development agencies and universities told us the hot water would melt the barrels, we decide to honor Walid's skepticism and that of local Beduoin friends who regularly boil water in used PET plastic bottles over an open flame (because many plastics melting temp is over 140 degrees, and won't melt as long as the container is filled with water -- water can't rise above 100 degrees until all has turned to vapor). In fact, the plastic barrels are great for hot water storage in a solar system (only in gas and electric systems does the heating element get hot enough to melt the plastic). And a whole lot cheaper.

As for the loosly fitting top issue: I came up with my own innovations: I figured out how to use the Magdy Zahran barrel float valve in both tanks, setting them up like toilet bowls so that they automatically stop filling when they are full, and solved that problem. Now that Magdy Zahran, Egypt's premier plumbing inventor, and I are good friends I realize I should have been talking to local inventors all the time, instead of trying so hard to find "foreign experts" to help solve these problems.

A combination of local metis and globalized techne is one of the solutions to our global warming dilemma, and one must be respectful and humble and willing to attempt some real "bricolage" trying to fit the two together to fit the circumstances. That much is sure.

But now, how do we stop participating in the Zeitgeist Conspiracy? Not everybody is an "early adopter" much less an inventor or innovator. Not many people can afford to spend the time, money or energy painstakingly trying to improve things in the real world. It would take a lot of incentive, for example to get most of us to get up off our butts and start tinkering with our automobiles to make them run on alcohol or biogas or electricity (though it really isn't hard to do!) much less go to a third world country and live in the slums and try to design a better heating system.

So how can the majority of us defeat the Zeitgeist conspiracy?

My answer is to start taking the public's willingess to beta test software seriously. Now that computer game engines for video games are open source or cheaply available (such as the Steam Source SDK physics engines for Half Life 2 or the SDK for Elder Scrolls Oblivion) I suggest we follow the lead of the Digital Urban group and start modeling real time physics and engineering problems on our computers in a realistic and fun simulation environment of real ghettoes and rural areas. It doesn't have to be that tough -- already there are huge numbers of gaming fans who enthusiastically spend long hours "modding" their favorite games. Tutorials are readily available. And even Popular Science this month has an article called "The Hard Science of Video Games", explaining how computer game software development kits (SDK's) are among the most important tools for data visualization and experimentation on the market.

Since computer models can now make realistic predictions of the effects of temperature and density and mass and volume on fluids and gases and can use them to model the effects of things like climate change, why not create virtual Darb El Ahmars and Manshiyat Nassers, literally create Digital Urban Slums, replete with rats and open sewers and inadequate plumbing. Why not do it as an Alternate Reality game, and let players build solar hot water systems and other industrial ecology systems on the roofs (as we are trying to do at Solar CITIES) and try out various designs and "play" through them and see which work and which don't? Make it part of the ARG gaming experience, and then report back to those of us in the field who are responsible for building the real things?

What is wrong with reinventing the wheel, or baking a better cake or building a better mousetrap? And now that we have the internet connecting all our virtual and real life experiments and each other, can't we all breath a better air together -- a different sort of Con-Spiracy, in which we connect to form a new "Spirit of the Time"? Now that would be a positive sort of Zeitgeist Conspiracy...

1 comment:

Andy said...

I was discussing the very same issues you bring up in this post with my thesis advisor, Kurt Teichert. I was talking about how erroneous this whole notion of "the rich west helping the poor developing countries" is, because it usually ends up being that the rich learn from the poor, and all the poor really need from the transaction is action to design plans and financial capital. so we were talking about envisioning a new "two-way street" of development, where there the value added to the exchange is the exchange of ideas, culture and wisdom. in fact, that looks like the title of my book:
"The Two Way Street: Rethinking Poverty, Pollution and Prosperity." and the book is really dealing with this whole issue of the zeitgeist..and how do we establish a vision moving forward that links the world's 1 billion rich people iwth the four billion or so that live on 2 dollars a days and primarily live in informal communities? How do we inspire the creative classes to focus their energy on solving problems and making money by "doing good." And how do we get average people, who don't have time to spend on all this, to preferentially invest in those entities that are working on these sorts of things? I think the answer is the establish a framework and a vision, to invite people to dream about the future and what it can look like; that's why I am so excited about your modding and video game ideas. Under the traditional model of development, the wealthy donor country set the rules of the game. But what if we imagine "open-source development, and open-source poverty alleviation." The $100 laptop is one of the tools that can help acheive that, as can a whole host of emerging low-cost connectivity solutions. So we can create a new model in which people can take charge of their own futures; where they can both create the vision and actually build, brick by brick, the beautiful neighbourhood in which they want to live!