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!"

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Ph.D.'s and Ph.-do's

(T.H. Culhane, living at the L.A. Eco-Village in the early days of his UCLA Urban Planning Ph.D., circa 2002, innovating an experimental roof-top solar powered water recycling system out of off-the-shelf parts purchased at hardware stores and aquarium shops for possible third world applications. Description of the whole system below.)

(All Photos of L.A. Ecovillage courtesy of our friend and colleague Marlene Elias, who is writing up her Ph.D. dissertation on African Shea Butter cooperatives )

"The green economy needs Ph.D.'s and Ph.-do's" says Yale Law School Graduate Van Jones, now president of Green for All and executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland that trains low-income workers for new "Green Collar Jobs" like how to weatherize homes and install solar panels.

Quoted in a special section of the New York Times on March 26th, 2008, called "Business of Green", Jones says, "We need people who are highly educated at the theoretic level, and we need people who are highly educated at the level of skilled labor".

As the co-founder with my German wife and Egyptian colleagues of the German-registered Association/Society ("Verein") "Solar CITIES", a green collar job training program that works principally in the slums of Cairo, I couldn't agree more.

But though the New York Times , in the same section, lauds new degree programs at Universities for "Majoring in Renewable Energy", such programs certainly did not exist when I started my Ph.D. in Urban Planning at UCLA in the fall of 2000.

In fact, not only was there no way to get educated at the level of skilled labor, there were no classes at the theoretical level either. Certainly not for people who want to help fight climate change by working with the urban poor on local household level solutions to their water, waste and energy problems. That is why, in order to prepare myself to be both one of those "Ph.D.'s AND Ph.-do's" that the New York Times says we need more of, I had to create my own hand-made program by combining my traditional theoretical studies at UCLA with practical hands on experiments at the Los Angeles Eco-Village, where I moved while trying to figure out how to apply the insights on political ecology I gained from my classes.

The skill development part, which has served me so very well in developing countries, like rural Guatemala (where I started my research) and urban Egypt (where I am completing it), of course took a tremendous investment of time and money, and explains why I am just now completing my dissertation after 8 long years.

8 years to do a Ph.D.?? Perhaps that seems long, but you have to figure that if the standard Ph.D. takes 4 years, the Ph.-do part takes just as long, and so doubles the timeline.

And that is important for others considering a similar path, and for those who design and administer academic programs in this era when we all need to be focussing our best minds on waging a war against climate change, poverty and environmental degradation -- the kind of gentle but disciplined war that provides the real solutions to the intransigent problems that create the conditions for terrorism.

One of the quotes from the literature that haunted me going into this was from "Involving the Community: A Guide to Participatory Development Communication" by Guy Bessette (published by the IDRC in 2004, ISBN 983-9054-41-4) . Bessette says,

"Often researchers and practitioners will adopt a vertical approach: they will identify a problem in a given community and experiment solutions with the collaboration of local people. On the communication side, the trend is to inform people of the many dimensions of that problem and of the solution they should implement and to mobilize them into action. But this way of working has little impact. After the completion of the research or the development project, things tend to return to normal."

That was what haunted me the most, and made it impossible for me to simply get my data and get out and write the dissertation.

The solution to this problem, the IDRC suggests, is to "change your attitude as a researcher and perceive the communities not as beneficiaries but as stakeholders". But in doing so, you become a stakeholder yourself, and the stakes just get higher and higher, as you build deeper and deeper relationships. Pretty soon you realize that you can't simply treat your new friends and colleagues as "research subjects" and that the "data" you are collecting and the conclusions you draw can radically affect their lives. You realize you have responsibilities to more than just yourself and your university.

"You must also be ready to develop partnerships and synergy with other development actors working in the same commuities..." says the theory handbook, "... one must learn to listen to people, to help them express their views and to assist in building consensus for action. For many researchers and development practitioners, this is a new role for which they may not have been prepared. It is a new way of doing research and development." (p.10)

But as the IDRC says in a companion volume called "Health: An Ecosystem Approach", one must "define a vision and common language that subsequently facilitates a conversion of research results into applicable, sustainable action programs. ANYONE SEEKING A QUICK FIX TO SOCIAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS ABSTAIN: the substantial preliminary planning required for an Ecohealth project will test your patience."!

And it will tax your time and your funds. Be prepared to devote your student loans and all your personal money to finding creative ways to help families in need while you "use them" or "mine them" for your data. People in "the third world" are very savvy, and they know that you can walk out of their community with data for a dissertation that will give you even more access to credit and job opportunities, social networks and capital that they can only dream of. So you have to be prepared to give more than a little something back!

To go about training to be a Ph.D. and a Ph.-do, merging theory and practice into successful PRAXIS, as UCLA fortunately encouraged me to do, not only takes a lot longer than the time usually alloted to a conventional Ph.D. but in my case, had to be done at the expense of my college loans, since funding has not been existent for "majoring in renewable energy praxis for third world applications", at least not in my department. And grants you get for on the ground work, like the one we got from US AID, MAY NOT BE SPENT ON YOU. Not one penny. You cannot take consulting fees, can't use a penny for transportation or even to buy materials for your own crazy experiments. You can't even buy a bowl of kushary. All the money you get for your idealistic projects must go to the community itself, and you will have to support yourself through your loans or fellowships or freelance jobs, in the meanwhile. So get used to it. And as there are very few, if any, programs that can teach you what you need to know (I would claim there are actually none) , you are going to have to hunt and gather and scavenge solutions to each problem you will encounter, because there is no "one size fits all" or "textbook" solution to development problems.

But the effort is worth it if you stick with it! After years of trial and error, after plunging myself (and my wife) into almost $100,000 in debt, trying to apply what we've learned from the literature and make it match with what we see on the ground, and trying desperately to create a program that will not fall apart once we leave, we have come up with a successful model. And once the Ph.D. is finally finished, and we devote ourselves to being 100% Ph.Dos, we now know, deep in the core of our being, that we CAN make a difference. So, as a couple that has "been there and done that" and is happy with the results, we are equally happy to encourage others to go down the Ph.D/Ph.Do path!

But along the way, we must caution others who have read the New York Times Green Business section and want to follow in ours and other's difficult footsteps of trying to simultaneously earn a Ph.D and a Ph.Do, here is a definite Ph.Don't:

Don't expect alot of support, not for years (unless you are very lucky) and don't expect it to be easy just because, as Thomas Friedmann reminds us "Green is now the new Red White and Blue". Green may be trendy, but economics and politics still rule both academia and field work. Development is so fraught with failure that very few departments or institutions can be expected to take the risk with you, and inertia will always be there to drag you back to that mainstream temptation to "get in there, get your data, and get out quick". Resist the temptation, but know that there will be MANY tough days ahead.

The consolation? When you get done, you won't just have a bound volume gathering dust on some university library shelf. You will have created something practical in the real world that really helped people.

And when it gets tought, remember the story, now told in this variant in Arabic by teacher's in the slums of Egypt ( like Hanna Fathy's brother Romani) about the little girl on the oil contaminated beach carefully cleaning the feathers of one of thousands of birds trapped in the oil-spill:

A skeptical man approaches and says "Don't you see how useless what you are doing is? There are thousands and thousands of dying birds here. What difference can you possibly make?"

To which the innocent girl replies "it may not make a lot of difference to you mister, but to this one bird it makes a hell of a lot of difference!"

When you earn a Ph.-do in renewable energy end environmental improvement, you will be in the same meaningful position, and through the love of each family you help, you will know the difference you've made in both their and YOUR lives.

First field experiments prior to departing for Guatemala and Egypt, 2002: Creating a solar powered water recycling/purification/heating system for household use.

Step 1: Just before taking a solar heated shower in my apartment on the first floor of the two-story apartment building at the L.A. Eco-Village, I would switch on a 12 Volt DC ShurFlo water pump that used 3 -7 amps of power (roughly the output of the blue 75 watt Astropower solar module on the left side of the futon-stand). This switch could also be activated by simply turning on and off the shower to save a step.

Step 2: The grey water from the shower was pumped up to the roof (via an ordinary garden hose; at this time cheap polypropylene pipe wasn't available) and into an elevated plastic container filled with alternating layers of sand and gravel. The very top layer had soil and was planted with hardy salt-tolerant grasses and weeds from the L.A. coastal area. This soil and sand filter was intended to trap particulate matter, hair and soap suds while growing a "shmutzedeck" , a slow sand filtration technique which many European cities choose as a water treatment method because of its simplicity, reliability, and economy (see Collins, Robin M., T. Taylor Eighmy, James M. Fenstermacher Jr., and Stergios K. Spanos. "Removing Natural Organic Matter by Conventional Slow Sand Filtration." Journal of the American Water Works Association 84.5 (1992): 80-90.)

Step 3: The effluent from the slow-sand filtration and shmutzedecke chamber was then gravity-fed into a second plastic container directly underneath the first that contained oxygenating aquarium plants such as Elodea. This second tank was connected to a third similar container by a piece of aquarium hobbyist equipment called a Venturi driven protein skimmer.

The protein skimmer transferred the water from the second container to the third container after injecting fine air bubbles and creating a vortex of foam froth and water in the bottom of the chamber, greatly increasing the amount of contact time and waste collected. The foam froth (mostly from soap suds) would enter the spill over cup on top of the protein skimmer and be passively piped (small plastic tube) to a collection bucket on the left of container (not visible above). This helped remove much of the soap that was not captured by the plants in the shmutzedecke slow-sand container (elevated tank 1) and by the aquarium plants in the second container.

The resulting grey water, still containing some sodium, sulfates and other salts (which I never figured out how to completely remove) would then circulate all day through two biological filters, one attached to each container. In the third tank a side mounted canister filter containing different biologically active filtration media would circulate the water and pump it back to the second tank via a side mounted supplemental fluidized bed filter connected in series.

(The fluidized bed filter in action! By "fluidizing" or suspending fine grained media in a column of water, the Aquarium Guys say, these devices " increase surface area and contact time for highly efficient biological filtration" )

Step 4: The water volumes in the third container and the second container are connected and the water thus circulates all day through the series connected biological filters (the blue rectangular box to the right of the container is the canister filter which pumps its water back to the second tank through the fluidized bed filter hanging on its side) Thus the action goes on all day. The water that enters the second container after being processed through the filters then recirculates into the third tank via the protein skimmer and this happens over and over until the water is clean enough to re-use in the shower.

Step 5: (photo not available) After a day of cycling through the biological canister filter on tank 3, the fluidized bed filter in tank 2 and the protein skimmer connecting them, the resulting water would be clean enough to then be pumped through a small chamber with an aquarium ozonizer and/or an aquarium UV Sterilizer on its way to the solar hot water tank to be heated for the shower. I experimented with both types of sterilizers: The UV sterilizer needs an expensive (~ $ 50) bulb change every 6-8 months, so was ruled out for third world applications. The ozonizer works on a spark principle (producing ozone -- that fresh rain smell - the same way a spark of lightning does) and so works well in arid environments; we read, but did not experience, that if the air is not dry it will not spark. Fortunately some manufactures also produce models for "humid" environments, so this should not be too much of a problem for our application.

Step 6: The resulting sterile water (though never completely salt free in my experience) was then connected to my solar hot water tank (basically a replumbed recycled 40 gallon originally gas heated water tank) . When I would take a shower, the vacuum created by the water falling to supply my shower would siphon more water into the tank. Water was heated actively, by circ pumping the water from bottom of the tank through a standard cartridge filter and into the copper coils in the absorber box, using a circulation pump ( a less expensive low flow Surflow 12 V pump ideal for circulation only) and back up to the tank.

(A good Friend and fellow Ph.D./Ph.-do, our French-Canadian-Egyptian colleague Marlene Elias, who studies Shea Butter cooperatives in Sierra Leone, was kind enough to visit us at the L.A. Eco-Village and take all these pictures of the system in action. To her left is an old radiator room heater painted black that we also found could be used in the solar heater box. After all these years we would have forgotten all the experiments we ran before heading to Egypt if it hadn't been for our colleague hunting through boxes of old pictures and scanning these and sending them to us. Thanks Marlene!)

My very first solar heater was built upon the advice of a Native American I met on Thanksgiving from an Indian Reservation near Palm Springs, who recommended simply taking a standard copper coil, throwing it in a box with a sheet of metal on the back, painting it black and covering with plexiglass. While not ideal, it eliminated the need to do much brazing (I only brazed the inlet and outlet pipes) and thus reduced the chance for leaks when built by a novice with no welding experience (in fact no brazing at all was really necessary, as one can use a flanging tool to connect the threaded end pieces!) .

The system did suffer two downsides: First, with a copper coil thermosiphoning did not occur (hot water does not "want" to fall down the loops -- we must think of hot water as being like a bubble, always wanting to rise and getting stuck in the top parts of each coil) and so I needed to pump the water. Second, the looping coil made it difficult to get good contact with the metal absorber plate, meaning we lost most conductive heating from the box's surface area.

Plexiglass seemed okay, and had the advantage of being unbreakable, though I was told it would cloud up over time.

The entire water filtration system was solar powered and consumed about 150 watts, easily supplied by the three 75 Watt panels on the futon frame (two Seimens 75s and one Astropower 75) . While the fluidized bed filter remained on all day, the other parts of the system only turned on when I took a shower so they consumed very little energy, leaving the panels to be used for recharging the batteries that powered my apartment the rest of the day. For the solar hot water heater circulation pump I used the small BP 30 shown in the picture (a portable solar panel made by British Petroleum) connected directly to the circulation pump. This 30 Watt panel was ideal as a driver for the circulation pump because it would start the water circulating through the solar hot water absorber when the sun was up and shut off when the sun went down, ensuring no heat loss. So in effect it acted as a passive thermosiphon system would, never requiring my attention.

The idea behind this whole experiment was to discover a way to recycle shower and bath water as many times as possible before having to supplement with a new water source. The target application was urban areas in developing countries that suffer severe drought stress, such as we get in Cairo. Los Angeles was the perfect proving ground.

From this experience we learned a few lessons.

1st was that while it is indeed easier to build a solar hot water collector out of a single coil of copper, as my Native American Indian friend suggested, the cost of PV and water pumps in Egypt, and the availability of qualified welders on every street in our target area makes it more economical to weld copper grids and create standard thermosiphoning systems. The lack of copper coil conductivity because of low contact with the metal plate makes the systems less than ideal for wintertime heating, when people need hot water most.

2nd, the water filtration system worked, but the initial sand-gravel-shmutzedecke container clogs up with organic shmutze after about two weeks and needs to be somehow backflushed to restore flow to the second container. I did not build this capability in and don't yet know how to make cleaning and maintaining this container simple and efficient. For now this is one of the two show-stoppers in the system, because nobody wants to climb up on the roof and clean out the sand and gravel filter twice a month.

3rd, The second show-stopper was the incomplete removal of sulfates from the grey water. Though the water was sterile, and probably didn't need the ozone filter to make it so (the solar hot water heater itself would clean the water due to the heat being over 60 degrees C in the pipes and the anti-bacterial action of copper, which both incapacitate Legionnaires' disease and other pathogens), it didn't "feel" completely "clean" after a week or so, and reminded the author of experiences taking showers in locations that have brackish or salty water. The soap just doesn't seem to sud right!

Nonetheless, with more trial and error this system has to work. After all, as one aquarium shop owner told me pointing to a beatiful large but delicate octopus he had in a tank "we are able to keep that lovely creature alive, sitting in the same water recycled over and over." Certainly recycling bath water, one of the largest water uses in a household, (particularly when one uses a dry composting toilet, as we did), can't be any more difficult. And purifying enough water for drinking (about 5% of household water use) has already proven feasible using a household solar distiller.

These issues we confronted, of course, must be resolved before these systems can be implemented in our development projects, but we made an ambitious start that does, on the surface, seem rather promising. I proved at least that a single person on a limited budget (student loans!) could make bold steps toward solving the water security issue that plagues so much of the world using locally available, off the shelf items and without adding to the carbon load of our atmosphere.

In the future, pending funding, Solar CITIES will follow the same model we followed with our successful solar hot water systems -- we will purchase and install two professional water recycling systems from RSD technologies (our local Egyptian vendor) for training and confidence building, then we will endeavor to create functionally similar systems from local and recycled materials completely using indigenous labor.

For domestic water recycling the professional systems we intend to purchase are "Solar Cubes" such as the one pictured below:

It is our experience as Ph.-dos that once a community's craftspeople get experience with a proven renewable energy or water/waste management technology, and are given the funding and the materials to cover opportunity costs and experiment with in a risk-free setting, their innate creativity and enthusiasm is let loose and they innovate sustainable solutions to their specific local challenges.

This is the mission of Solar CITIES!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This solar powered water recycling/purification/heating system is really cool,I am sure he did put a lot of time on this.