Renewable Energy

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MOTHER EARTH NEWS featured Chapter 5 of Let It Shine: The 6000-Year Story of Solar Energy ("Winter Gardening throughout the Ages") on its web site in early January of this year, which I will summarize today as part of the series of summations of the chapters of Let It Shine.

The use of solar heat for gardening began in ancient Rome. Once the Romans discovered making clear glass, they began to use it to trap solar heat inside cold frames and greenhouses to grow vegetables out of season or exotics from hotter climates in Rome’s temperate clime. With the decline of the Roman Empire, the use of transparent glass all but disappeared. Glass was not used again to trap solar heat until the wealthy citizens living in northern Europe during the Age of Discovery, like their affluent Roman predecessors, wanted to enjoy oranges and other fruits from exotic areas such as the newly explored and settled regions of Asia and the Americas or, specific to northern Europe, grow vineyards as did their southern European neighbors. They faced their greenhouses south to optimize solar heat collection.

Solar heat trapping for gardening became even more popular with the advent of the Little Ice Age which made it even more urgent in northern Europe to trap solar heat to allow for the successful growing of non-native plants under abnormally cold conditions. In winter, canvas curtains, rolled up above the south-facing windows were pulled down at night to insulate the greenhouse. Solar heat for horticulture was so valued that the best minds of the period studied the best sun angles and the optimum materials to capture as much sun heat as possible during winter and then attached plants to these sloping walls. Sometimes a greenhouse was attached to the south-side of home’s living room or library, transforming the “dull interior” into a “vibrant” and warm space where people would congregate. On sunny winter days the doors separating the greenhouse from the home were opened to allow sun-warmed air to circulate freely into the formerly chilly interior.

Scandinavians led the movement of green roofs to keep the interiors warm during their prolonged winters. They became the rage in London where city folk could find peace and quiet in the florid world above the hustle-and-bustle of the metropolis.


environmental symbolsIt is funny that there is still a disconnect between those people who are “environmentalists” and those who do not think that protecting the environment is important. After all, if we want to keep living on this earth, and keep it the way it is, shouldn’t we all technically be environmentalists?

In recent years, there has been an increased awareness surrounding the need to reduce our carbon footprint, and many more people are now trying to do their part. However, there are still a lot of people who are stuck without knowing exactly what they can do to help. And even more who are struggling against their own desires, versus what is best for the planet. But setting aside your ego, and letting go of your luxuries does not have to be as dramatic as it sounds. Here are a few of the things that you can give up that are hurting the environment.

Driving to Work Every Day

Or simply driving everywhere for that matter. As a society, we have become overly reliant on our cars, and it is not only affecting the environment but also our general health. If you can share a ride with someone else, do it. If you can take public transport instead of driving, do it. If you can walk or cycle somewhere, definitely do it.

Overheating or Supercooling Your House

Far too many of us are overcompensating with our temperature control and we do not even realize that we are doing it. Have you ever glanced at your utility bill and been taken aback by just how high it is? By saving the environment, you could save yourself a lot of money and stress at the same time. All you have to do is to install a smart thermostat that allows you to program it to switch off when you are out of the house all day or sleeping. Some companies like Vivint or ADT allow you to program the utility controls to fit perfectly around your schedule.

Conventional Light Bulbs

You can save an astonishing amount of money by replacing your regular light bulbs with energy efficient alternatives. They do not have to be replaced nearly as often, and they use a fraction of the energy. Buy it for the environment; keep it for the cost benefits.

Exercise Machines

If you want to keep in shape, you might be tempted by the convenience of exercise machines. And while it is important to keep healthy, there are many other, cheaper and more eco-friendly ways to work out. If you cannot go for a walk or run outside — perhaps it is cold or dark — think about other activities you can do without this sort of equipment. Things like dancing, yoga, or even winter sports like skiing or snowboarding are all effective ways to keep in shape.

Fossil Fuels

So all the rest of this list is child’s play. It is easy to give up driving quite so much, or running on a treadmill, but if you really want to have an impact on the environment, you have to go to extremes. The best way to save energy is to generate your own. Solar power was once seen as clunky and expensive, but so many developments have improved the industry, it is now easy, cheap and efficient to install solar power in your home—if you can. Look into options for your property as soon as possible. You might not like how the panels look, but set aside your ego and you will be glad that you made the switch.


It used to be that one needed to be a homeowner and have money to install solar panels to participate in the global shift to solar from coal. Fortunately, that is no longer the case. Thanks to a number of new clean energy crowdfunding websites, anyone can now participate in the solar energy transformation by investing their money in solar projects located in the U.S. and abroad. Some investment platforms even offer returns on investment, making it a smart way for people to earn green by going green. Here are a few companies driving the crowdfunding movement that’s poised to accelerate the growth of solar globally:

Mosaic (US)

Mosaic is disrupting the way solar in the U.S. gets financed. The company’s crowdfunding platform allows both accredited and non-accredited investors to finance small-scale solar projects across America. Through these projects, the Mosaic community has placed solar panels on bee farms, charter schools, convention centers, and military housing across the country. Currently Mosaic’s investments are limited to residents of California or accredited investors who are residents of the United States.

RE-volv (US)

RE-volv has a revolving solar energy fund called the Solar Seed Fund that finances community-based solar energy systems for nonprofits and cooperatives in the U.S. For example, a community center leases solar equipment from RE-volv for 20 years, during which time the cost of the solar installation, plus a small fee, is recouped by RE-volv.  RE-volv continually reinvests this money back into the Solar Seed Fund to serve more communities with solar energy.  This allows RE-volv to finance 3 to 5 additional solar energy projects from the proceeds of every project we finance.  You can contribute to the Solar Seed Fund by donating here.


CollectiveSun (US)

CollectiveSun is a hybrid between Mosaic and RE-volv. It offers secure investments in solar with great returns for investors, but the solar projects it finances help 501©3 nonprofits switch to solar to save on energy expenses, stimulate engagement with members, and support their missions. Check out CollectiveSun’s projects to see all the nonprofits you can help today with a solar investment.

SunFunder (global)

1.3 billion people live without electricity. Life without electricity means they rely on kerosene lamps for lighting at home, which are expensive to refuel and emit toxic fumes when in use.  It means children can’t study or do homework at night because of inadequate lighting. It also means people have to use car batteries or walk miles to a charging station to charge their cellphones. However, solar technology costs have lowered drastically in the last 5 years that it is now affordable for low-income communities in developing countries. On SunFunder, anyone anywhere in the world can invest in a solar project in countries like the Philippines, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia and get repaid in about a year. If you’re looking to help the global poor with solar, investing in a SunFunder project is the right choice.

Bonus: SolarCity (coming soon)

SolarCity offers solar-power systems for homes, businesses and other organizations, designing and installing custom-built arrangements. Last week it just announced a plan that allows individual investors to buy debt investment products similar to bonds to participate in the company’s growth. Instead of being backed by SolarCity, these securities would offer returns backed by solar projects and contracts the company has with customers who have panels installed on their roof. Investors will be able to buy and sell these debt investments on SolarCity’s new investment platform that will be launched later this year.

So what are you waiting for? Let 2014 be the year you participate in the solar revolution around the world!

Photo by Fotolia/Shin 28.


The following post summarizes the author’s selection from his book Let It Shine: The 6,000-Year Story of Solar Energy.

Burning Mirror Solar Concave Mirror

Like an “Indiana Jones” adventure, Chinese archaeologists have recently found the oldest solar device – a bronze concave mirror – capable of almost instantaneously making fire from sunlight. The discoverer called the 3,000-year-old apparatus “a world-class marvel…one of the great inventions of ancient Chinese history.”

Confucius wrote that the eldest son started the noon-day cooking fire by focusing the sun’s rays with such a concave mirror onto kindling. Around the 3rd century BCE, the Greeks independently developed concave mirrors. Both the Chinese and Greeks called them burning mirrors because they concentrate enough solar energy onto a combustible object to burst the object into flames. The Europeans, like the Chinese, used them to kindle wood for cooking.

When natural scientists of the Renaissance learned of these inventions, many envisioned using them as the ultimate weapon: engulfing in solar flames whole armies and ships. Roger Bacon, a thirteenth-century English scholar, believed that with twelve powerfully focused mirrors, Christendom could retake the Holy Land without shedding any Christen blood. Although never used for warfare, they had practical uses.

Practical Uses of Burning Mirrors

Florentine workmen soldered with burning mirrors. Burning mirrors also distilled perfumes. The sketch books of Leonardo da Vinci show that the great Italian hoped to realize his solar ambitions by the use of burning mirrors. He planned to build one with a radius of ½ a mile to heat water for processing wool, Florence’s principal industry, and for heating water for swimming pools.

When early scientists sought fame and glory through spectacle, powerful burning mirrors outclassed just about any other device, thrilling the public from London to Paris, who watched in awe the concentrated rays of the sun melt metals and vitrify glass in seconds.


Energy Flow Diagram from Energy Infomation Agency

My generation is that last to have known and been raised by people who were born in the radio and television. My grandmother was born in 1885 shortly after the invention of the light bulb and telephone.   Grandma taught me that nothing lasts forever. Fossil fuels won’t last forever. If we use them up or they become too expensive to extract before we build an infrastructure and transportation system that does not rely on fossil fuels, we will not have the energy we need to build that infrastructure.

We only have one shot at this. We only get one industrial revolution. If we don’t make the transition to a renewable energy system we will end up living in a preindustrial society. We are about half way through the recoverable resources of oil and coal and production is or has peaked. Within 25 to 50 years we may not have access to fossil fuels.

Let’s Do the Math

The public media has gone gaga over the oil bearing Bakken formation in Montana and North Dakota. The geological estimates of over 4 billion barrels of oil, 25 times more than previously estimated have been touted as some kind of miracle that will help make the USA energy independent. In a country that consumes from 18 – 20 million barrels a day, about 22% of the world’s oil, the 4 billion barrels of oil in the Bakken are a half a year’s supply. This is a really good math exercise for middle school kids to play with to get them used to exponents. (And a refresher for the rest of us)

While environmental groups are worried about convincing the congress and the world that we should do something about climate change by eliminating fossil fuels, I see no appreciation of the gift we have in fossil fuels because they contains the energy we need to build a sustainable future. I see no plans as to when and where what renewable technologies should be employed at what rate to mitigate climate change and prepare for the day when fossil fuels become economically and technically unavailable. I see almost no attention to a budget for replacement of the current energy infrastructure. My estimate is that it will cost upwards of 20 trillion dollars in this country. I will this math and money exercise in another post

The time frame is an even more interesting scenario. Vlacav Smil has studied this problem extensively and details it in his book Energy Transitions, History, Requirements, Prospects. Having learned to control fire we used wood as our energy source. Then began our use of coal and the timeline below details the evolution of fuel sources:

1740 – First Commercial Coal mines in Virginia

1890 - Wood provided half the world’s energy

1900 - Coal began to overtake wood

1900 – 2000 Coal to Oil

1950 - oil surpasses coal
1958 – natural gas surpasses coal
1965 – oil becomes the primary energy supply

2000 – 2??? Fossil Fuels to Renewable Energy

Please take note; the last transition may not be occur. When fossil fuels are exhausted the energy needed to build a renewable energy infrastructure will be gone. There is only one shot to get it right and the Borg appear to be in control. Get involved, teach your children well, but prepare to evacuate if you live in a city.

I believe that last drop of oil burned on this planet is likely to be in a Hummer guarding an oil field in the Middle East but I am definitely, positively sure that:

In the future,
We will sit on our front porches
With family, friends and neighbors,
Singing and playing acoustic music,
Until the stars come out and shine down upon us,
Undimmed by the fires of fossil fuels.


Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, 1002 Area, Petroleum Assessment

3 to 4.3 Billion Barrels of Technically Recoverable Oil Assessed in North Dakota and Montana’s Bakken Formation —25 Times More Than 1995 Estimate

Energy Information Agency: How much oil does the United States consume per year?

Energy Infomration Agency: Energy Flow Diagram


renewable energyIt seems like such an obvious solution: If the conventional methods used to create electricity are the number one source of hazardous air pollutants, then the best thing to do is to find another source of energy. This alternative energy source should be abundant, clean, and renewable, and it should be harnessable using currently existing technology. So, given this criteria, what exactly is holding us back from formally giving coal and fossil fuel dependency the boot? Well, let’s take a look.


Well, first and foremost, the entire energy production industry is absolutely massive. That means that there are a lot of powerful people who make their livings off of the way things are currently done, and would be financially devastated should any drastic changes be made. However, we’re not only talking about heartless robber-baron tycoons who want to bleed the world dry just to line their wallets; we’re also talking about anyone involved in the mining, shipping, pumping, transport, sale, and refinement of coal and fossil fuels.

Add to that the various industries and employees who produce the equipment used in energy production, as well as the myriad other parallel businesses who depend on the current methods of power production, and you’ve got millions of people who are personally invested in the success of conventional power. This makes it a very difficult issue politically. At the same time, a great deal of effort and money would have to be expended in order to change the existing infrastructure to accommodate newer energy sources. Put that all together, and you have a large problem that will take a great deal of time to solve.


With alternative energy still being a relatively new idea, it has yet to be made as cost-effective as existing conventional power production methods. Before any widespread changes can be implemented, a substantial amount of research must be done. Even for tested and reliable technology such as that used in capturing solar power, the cost of production and maintenance when compared to conventional coal-burning makes it a less attractive option. And with the demand for electricity increasing everyday, governments are being forced to choose the less expensive, if also more harmful, form of energy. However, solar power is gaining something of a foothold among private property owners who want to cut back on their electric bills, thanks to certain home automation providers. One such company, Vivint, offers rentable solar panels, so that the homeowner can lease the technology as a way to supplement current power needs. Their CEO Todd Pedersen recently gave an interview talking about the solar industry and how much it is expanding. He even went as far to coll out some of their competitors, and tout Vivint as one of the top solar companies in the world, and where they stood against more well known companies like SolarCity. The competition is definitely heating up, and with AT&T and other companies  starting to break into the solar industry, this technology will be even more accessible and affordable for the general public.

No Pressing Need

Sure, the danger to the environment that is presented by global warming is a dire one, but for most people it’s just not really a pressing issue. After all, even if the polar ice caps are shrinking and temperatures are rising, most of us are still going about our daily lives as though nothing has changed. The climate change problem is simply too big. Sure, we’d like to do something to help if we could, but we’ve got more pressing concerns at the moment.

Thus, if anything more than the slightest effort is required on the part of the average citizen, then most people will decline in favor of the system that is already working. As animals, humanity is rather reactionary, and we prioritize our threats based upon which is more immediate. The sad truth is that unless we can change our attitudes, we probably won’t bother really investing the time, money, and interest into alternative energy until it’s too late. Once the wolf is at the door, so to speak, we may find that our efforts that could have staved off disaster are simply too little, too late.

So, it looks like we might be stuck with coal and fossil fuel for a while longer. However, mankind has done surprising and commendable things in the past. Maybe we will make the jump to alternative energy, but even if we do, it will still take some time to undo the damage that’s been done to the environment.


The following post summarizes the author’s Chapter 2 of Let It Shine: The 6,000-Year Story of Solar Energy.

Solar Energy In Ancient Rome

Rome’s greatest architect Vitruvius saw solar houses while on duty as a military engineer in recently conquered Greece. When writing his great work On Architecture, he emphasized proper solar orientation for buildings and bath houses. From literature of the time it appears many followed Vitruvius’ instructions. As an example, Varro, an agricultural expert writing around the time that Octavian Caesar came to the throne, observed, “Men of our day aim at having their winter rooms facing the falling sun [southwest], because the setting sun renders the area warmer in the evening.”

Baths were especially popular among the Romans but demanded a great amount of heat. From the times of the early empire onward, most faced the afternoon sun in wintertime when they had maximum use. They also had their large windows covered with either transparent stone like mica or clear glass, a Roman invention of the 1st century ACE, one of the great breakthroughs in building and solar technology. Transparent glass, the Romans discovered, acts as a solar heat trap, admitting sunlight into the desired space and holding in the heat so it accumulates inside. Recent experiments show that on a clear winter day in Rome the sun entering a properly oriented, glass-covered bath would keep the temperatures inside above 100 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the day, the desired temperature in the caldarium, the hot bath.

The Romans also used glass-covered receptacles for growing plants from warmer climes in temperate Italy, as well as raising native plants out of season. As wood, their principal fuel source, became scarcer during the later days of the Roman Empire, architectural writers in their building manuals stressed self-sufficiency in which solar building strategies played a major role. Facing structures to the winter sun became so popular in Roman times that sun-right laws were passed, making it a civil offense to block one’s access to the south.

Read John's previous post: "Let It Shine: Solar Design in Ancient Greece."

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