Posted by: righthandblink | February 7, 2009

Solar Power – To Be or Not to Be?

Solar Power – To Be or Not To Be?


Where were you at 4:17 pm on Thursday, August the 14th, 2003? You might think that a crazy question. But you all know where you were at 4:17 pm on Thursday,
August the 14th, 2003. It’s what psychologists call a “Flashbulb Moment.” Ironically, it’s when the lights went out. It should have passed the “Inter Ocular Impact Test” — that means it should have hit you right between the eyes.

Let’s not kid ourselves . . . when Chevron, one of the world’s largest oil refiners, runs a two-page advertisement at the beginning of the September 2005 issue of Scientific American saying. “It took us 125 years to use the first trillion barrels of oil. We’ll use the next trillion in 30 years,” we know the word is definitely out. There are no fuel gauges on oil wells or oil fields. When they’re empty, the oil is all gone.

For years we have been educating people about the benefits of renewable energy even so far as to give our presentation “No More Heating Bills . . . EVER!!!” at trade shows and energy conferences. One of the comments we generally received from members of the audience was that they just couldn’t afford solar heating. But when asked about the costs of solar heating, nobody had any idea!!! Have you noticed that every time gas prices skyrocket there is a surge of interest in renewable energy, but when the prices drop the interest in renewable energy wains!

We’ve been doing solar here in Canada for over 50 years. Every hour, the sun showers the earth with more energy than the world’s entire population consumes in a whole year. A friend of mine, Kurt Sjolund, put a solar thermal system on his house near Greenbank and Baseline here in Ottawa. On January 14, 2009, with the outside temperature -22 deg C, his system was registering an impressive temperature of 41 deg C.


In 2006, we stumbled across a book Gaviotas, A Village to Reinvent the World by Alan Weisman written in 1998. Gaviotas lies about sixteen hours east of Bogota by jeep in the direction of the distant Rio Orinoco, Colombia’s border with Venezuela. In 1966, Paolo Lugari first crossed the mountains and saw the Orinocan Ilanos where he started the project.

Gaviotas is an oasis of the imagination. It started with the nearly barren lands where nothing would grow and made that empty savanna flourish. What is more significant, was that the community they built was completely powered by solar energy. They didn’t use the type of equipment that we are used to seeing. They designed and built their own, from scratch. The new hospital is completely powered by the energy from the sun. A solar engine produces the electricity and a solar kettle provides all their hot water needs. The kettle works under cloudy skies and needs only one minute of direct sunlight to make water start to boil. They even have a solar clothes dryer. The solar refrigerator requires no moving parts.

Just to give you an idea just some of their other inventions, we’ll describe a few:
– Windmills that would pump thousands of gallons per day: a compact unit weighing barely 130 pounds, its blade tips contoured like airplane wings to trap soft equatorial breezes, even under four miles per hour.
– Solar pumps using liquids that dilates in sunlight to make a flexible siphon that would expand and contract to suck water out of streams or aquifers.
– A playground see-saw attached to a sleeve pump: As the children played, they replenished their school’s water tank.
– Spherical water storage tanks to compress the greatest volume into the least space.
– A thermal siphon, through which denser cold water constantly displaces hotter, would recirculate the water through the system with no moving parts, creating a virtually maintenance-free solar panel the designers guarantee for twenty years.

Other inventions include:
– Solar-heated showers, micro-hydro turbines, a cork-screwing manual well-digger, parabolic solar grain dryers, the rotating-drum peanut shellers, the ox-drawn land graders, and the manual baler.
– Hot-water solar panels made from burned-out neon tubes, the pedal-powered cassava grinder that reduced ten hours of work to one, the one-handed sugar cane press.

These people could have become wealthy off their resourceful technologies, but from the beginning, the Gaviotans had refused to patent their innovations, preferring to share them freely. To this day, all the inventions belong to the El Centro Las Gaviotas, their nonprofit foundation.

Gaviotas is not a model, it’s a path. Yet a place like Gaviotas bears witness to the ability to get it right, even under seemingly insurmountable circumstances. And Gaviotas does it all to harmonize with nature, not obliterate it. They have forged a way they believed will prosper long after the last drop of the earth’s petroleum was burned away.

As an engineer I realize that we could probably not use the same equipment in Canada and obtain the same results. They obviously have more sun than we do. However, I do realize that we could re-engineer their designs for our climate. Simply put, maybe all we would have to do is make the collectors larger, with a greater surface area so that it would absorb enough energy for our needs. Doesn’t this make more sense than having giant utilities: Since sunlight falls everywhere, the sole reason to centralize energy production is to keep utility companies in business.

The problem isn’t the technology. As I said previously we have been doing solar in Canada for over 50 years. Paola Lugari said, “There’s no such thing as sustainable technology or economic development without sustainable human development to match.”

In 2004 we visited “The Toronto Healthy House.” The house design was the result of a competition held by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). Each side of this semi-detached house has an area of 1,730 square feet. These three-bedroom houses were build on a small lot right near Bloor and the Don Valley Parkway in what can now be described as downtown Toronto. What is significant about this house is that it is independent of city water, sewer, hydro and doesn’t use any fossil fuels. The owner of the house said that it was operating just as good as when it was designed and built back in 1997. You can pick up this house and put it anywhere and it will still work! We can do it!

According to Louis Lebret, a former French naval captain who taught in Paris at the Institute of Economics and Humanism, “Development means making people happy. Before you spend your money on roads and factories, you should first be sure that those are what your citizens really need.”


Did You Know . . . If we had to purchase the radiant energy from the sun that was constantly falling on the entire surface of the earth at ½ cent per kilowatt hour [we are presently paying over 15 cents], the bill would be the staggering sum of $10,000 billion per day.

– Institute for Research in Construction at the National Research Council


Renewable, Green and Healthy . . . for a Sustainable Tomorrow!
© 2016, Right Hand Blink

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