Thinking about solar in terms of dwellings can go back in time quite a ways, far beyond normal thinking for everyday people on a casual day. Some of the most iconic undertakings were the cliff and cave dwellings in the southwestern USA.
There were over 600 cave dwellings built between 1100 and 1300 AD by the Puebloan people who were native to that area. Almost all of these cave dwellings were facing south to take advantage of the winter sun and had overhangs for reduced sun in the summer. Of course, back then, there weren’t any computer programs to tell them the angles and distances required for best efficiency. They had to use their own brains and experience to maximize efficiency and end results.
Fast forward to the 1970s and the Arab oil embargo of 1973. Dramatic changes were afoot, from favored car sizes to how one could heat without that “blasted Arab oil.” Memories fade over time, for better or worse, and the favored small car of the period gave way to the full-blown SUVs and pickup trucks escorting us into the ’90s, mileage be dammed. The heavy onslaught of solar thermal heating was helped by Jimmy Carter. However, programs supporting solar domestic hot water and solar space heating were rapidly undone by Ronald Reagan, who rescinded the 40% federal ITC during his throne rule from 1981 through 1988. I could go on and on about him and his policies, but I will refrain.
Solar thermal buildings from our jump point (the 1970s and ’80s), be they active or passive, still stand today of course, along with their sometimes-embellished fond memories. Oh, those were the days when people cared about efficiency, the sun, and a clean environment, and a Republican signed into law the Clean Air and Water Act. How far we have ascended. Below are some of the famous solar buildings of the period and a Popular Science article way before that. Popular Science and Scientific American mags were always way ahead of their time. Here’s also a photo of Jimmy Carter introducing solar on the White House back in 1979.
A lot of thermal lessons were learned from those days regarding active and passive solar heating. Solar gain and storage requirements to avoid summer overheating (ditching sloped glass) were sweated out of architectural designs. But one undeniable engineering fact and lure that crept forward over the decades to now was the simplistic appeal of zero moving parts and no plumbing for the PV technology. As the cost of solar dropped from the “NASA only” days to 40 cents a watt and lower, solar PV kept casting a bigger and bigger shadow over traditional electricity generation sources.
Today, solar PV is the gorilla in the room compared to solar thermal. As it keeps improving and expanding its presence, it may in fact become the energy source that is finally truly “too cheap to meter.”
The American Solar Energy Society (ASES), founded in 1954, whose sticker is on my kitchen exterior door window, has been an enthusiastic cheerleader of the solar cause, spotlighting its illumination over the decades.
Many, many organizations have been launched and energized since then, adding to the persistent call and echo for a cleaner world — to just leave fossil fuels in the ground, buried and preserved. One of these more recent groups is “Solar United Neighbors,” which in 2018 teamed up with ASES to add to the popular “National Solar Tour.” The goal of this tour is to bring more attention to solar energy as a normal and mature energy option, available to everyday people, companies, and organizations. Though, the tour focuses on residential solar. If there is one thing that I can say is very true, it is that solar people LOVE to talk about their solar systems! Myself included. I have no trouble taking people through the “I am really interested” phase and on to the “OK, now you are beginning to glaze my eyes over” stage — and then finally to the “I am really asleep now” moment. No, I am just kidding, I think….
Like all undertakings, creativity and innovation ebb and surge over time. Breakthrough inventions, subtle refinements, and knowledge hard earned accompany the process of growth.
When it comes to structures and solar energy, as opposed to standalone meadows of arrays, architecture morphing with squares of silicon can produce some creative and interesting results. From the most common separated racking to BIPV (building-integrated photovoltaics), PV can accent and pronounce a building’s inherent design and presence. Example: India’s first solar-powered village promotes green energy, sustainability and self-reliance.
The scale ranges from giant solar farms to almost unseen elements of our world, like streetlights. The impact of scalable solar energy allows for a very personal experience. Solar can now be built into the design during original construction, or included as an add-on. Either way, it gives our precious life one more reason to smile in an otherwise overwhelming and seemingly out of control world.
The 2023 National Solar Tour is officially scheduled for Friday, October 6th, to Sunday, October 8th, 2023. Covid-19 becoming a welcomed fading memory allows for the continued revival of in-person events, which represent the most enjoyable learning experience for most people. Many, many people sign up to be solar tour hosts, all on their own time and dollar, so as to advance the public’s real understanding of solar energy and its everyday applications and aesthetics.
All ages and types of people attend, from skeptics to devout solar artisans, from hot to fading cold climates and everywhere in between. Most common is to have PV on a structure, but you ca also find free-standing fixed and tracking arrays. My choice of implementation is shown below. These tracking arrays happen to be 36 SunPower 327 W panels on six trackers of six panels each, totaling 11.77 kW of capacity. For 2022, I generated approximately 20.5 MWh (megawatt-hours) of well needed electricity for my full EV driven family of four people. I enjoy doing the tour because I have all types of solar and geothermal energy, a prototype wind turbine as well, and even passive solar low-temp heating and daylighting. Our three EVs driven on sunshine are added dessert for the main course. One of my personal challenges for these tours is how to talk about these matters. I can talk about all types of energy, and since I have been “into” solar from the ’70s, I can seriously glaze eyes over at any level, something I have to always be on the lookout for and try to avoid.
I used to, when I had more free time, present for one week to the 4th grade science class in our school district — providing solar energy information and demonstrations. Below is an old picture of me doing so, bursting into flames a piece of wood soaked and dripping wet with water. There is nothing like the “drama” of fire to lock in memory, especially for kids. This “mirror” is actually a section from a fiberglass sat dish I covered with adhesive solar foil. I melted aluminum cans as well.
Below is another picture of me doing the same thing at one of the early “In The Game” renewable energy festivals down in Kempton, Pennsylvania. I look at those early photos and it almost seems like a dream. The reason I am showing these older photos is to highlight that there have been a lot of people for decades that have been carrying the solar torch and responsibility of illumination — because they believe in solar energy, not just the “talk” but the real-world education of regular everyday people. There are many opportunities to open people’s eyes using whatever technique that works, to drive home the absolutely wonderful way solar energy can provide for us, en masse, without all the horrible outcomes of global warming, pollution, resource protection wars, first nation crimes of people and habitats, species destruction, on and on….
Here is another photo of an unusual installation up in New Hampshire, where the owner got tired of chopping and cutting his FREE wood available on his forested land. He still uses wood, but it is more like “I go out and cut it when I feel like it” as opposed to pre-solar when it really wasn’t a choice. It makes a world of difference, he used to tell me, between “have to” and “maybe I will when I have some time.” His large, raised, evacuated-tube array (240 tubes) with some PV and small-scale hydroelectric that you cannot not see here (via a small year-round stream he had) eliminated most of his wood burning. It takes a lot of work to do a drain-back evac system like that.
The ASES solar tour is an opportunity to see, up close and personal, the work and effort many, many people have put into solar energy over the years, to make it a reality for our planet. ASES invites all possible people to step up and join the tour, and invites everyday people to explore this vision of a solar powered world — for everyone’s benefit and survival.
By William H Fitch III, Owner of We Are Solar
WeAreSolar.com is a multi-decade company in solar and renewable energy consulting and distribution, as well as some direct installations. He is a current ASES member and has various other renewable energy affiliations. He has been “into” solar and renewable energy since the 1970s in the solar thermal area — everything from solar cookers to super-insulated houses to hot air and liquid thermal systems, flat plates, and evacuated tubes. William’s own residence generates around 20 megawatt-hours a year of PV electricity, and it also includes geothermal and solar thermal systems. He and his wife drive all-electric cars and use all-electric yard tools. No gasoline.
Professionally, William spent approximately 40 years in I.T. — from software coding to systems design to full network hardware installations in multiple commercial environments and major corporations.
I don’t like paywalls. You don’t like paywalls. Who likes paywalls? Here at CleanTechnica, we implemented a limited paywall for a while, but it always felt wrong — and it was always tough to decide what we should put behind there. In theory, your most exclusive and best content goes behind a paywall. But then fewer people read it! We just don’t like paywalls, and so we’ve decided to ditch ours.
Unfortunately, the media business is still a tough, cut-throat business with tiny margins. It’s a never-ending Olympic challenge to stay above water or even perhaps — gasp — grow. So …