Hands-on Solar Power

What better place to work with renewable energy than on the sunny Mediterranean?
By Michael Plescia
October/November 2007

The beautiful island of Ibiza is just off the eastern coast of Spain.
NIC BREACH
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I grew up in Mentor, Ohio, and went to school in Syracuse, N.Y. When I graduated from college in 2003, like many other 22-year-olds, I had no idea what path I wanted my life to follow. I did know I wanted to travel, so taking a leap of faith — or at least a very long jump — I packed up everything and moved to London.

I also knew I wanted to work with renewable energy. In college, I had majored in mechanical engineering, but it wasn’t until the final semester of my senior year that I was really inspired by my classes. That semester, a course on refrigeration and another class on energy conversion opened my eyes to the way our society produces and consumes energy. I was fascinated.

I’ve always been a bit of a hippie, and the prospect of working with photovoltaics (PV), hydrogen, cogeneration and renewable energy technologies seemed perfect for me. It was exactly the fusion between engineering and nature I wanted. So, with visions of wind turbines spinning in my head, I set off for Europe and got a job … as a bartender.

The city of London, although vibrant and diverse, is far from any offshore wind farms, and it has so few sunny days that it’s not a promising place to pursue solar power either. After about six months, I decided it was time to move on.

HEADING TO SUNNY SPAIN

I had some friends who were living on a farm in northern England, and they got me interested in the Web-based organization known as WWOOF (Worldwide Workers On Organic Farms). WWOOF provides information that helps pair up idealistic wanderers like me with thousands of hosts around the world who provide food, lodging and sometimes a stipend to people willing to work on their farms. The hosts are typically organic farmers, and they often have an interest in renewable energy as well.

The idea was too interesting to pass up, and one host in particular caught my attention. It was an ecological living center called “La Casita Verde” (the little green house) located on the island of Ibiza, which is off the eastern coast of Spain. Ibiza is best known for its intense nightlife, but it also draws visitors because of its crystal clear water and breathtaking natural beauty. To my pale London self, this sunny island sounded perfect.

LIFE AT THE CASITA

The Casita is an old farm of roughly eight acres, and can accommodate up to about 10 volunteers. It became an ecological living center about six years ago. The center is located in a gorgeous valley overlooking the island’s western coast — which has sunsets to make you weep. It’s also completely off the grid; all the electricity comes from a PV array and wind turbine. When I first arrived, some of the projects underway were a permaculture garden, a parabolic solar cooker and experimentation with EM (effective microorganisms).

Most of the volunteers at the Casita live in the original house and a converted barn. During the summer, when it was warm enough, we could also choose to stay in a cane house or a dwelling made of recycled bottles. As our numbers increased, tents sprang up under all the best shade trees.

Every Sunday, the Casita holds an open house, and visitors come to the center to see ecological living in action. Visitors’ donations provide the funds to finance projects, upkeep of the grounds and food for the volunteers. It’s a continual cycle: Six days of work on sustainable living projects provide plenty to interest visitors during the weekly open house, and their donations help fund six more days of sustainable living projects.

WORKING WITH WIND AND SOLAR

One of the main reasons I came to the Casita was because it’s powered by renewable energy. The beauty of the Casita’s system is that it’s mostly recycled components. Keeping this system running also turned out to be quite a challenge for me.

The system is a hodgepodge of PV panels that achieve a full-sun output of between 400 and 450 watts. They range in age from about five to 15 years old. The system also includes a brand new 400-watt wind turbine, a finicky sine wave inverter, old batteries and a gorgeous new solar charge regulator. It is a textbook example of the modular capabilities of solar-electric systems: By building up this system one piece at a time, the Casita proves that solar power doesn’t have to be an up-front $20,000 investment. It also shows you can get the desired results by stringing together recycled parts with the occasional piece of new equipment.

During my stay at the Casita, I rewired the system, replaced the battery pack, built a small personal system by borrowing two solar panels, and fixed the wind turbines and generators whenever the elements proved to be more unforgiving than usual! I also had the task of monitoring winter operation, which included the unlucky job of telling fellow WWOOFers when there was not enough sun to run the computer or juice maker.

Another renewable energy system at the Casita was a 100-liter thermal siphon solar hot water collector. I have always tried to take not-so-hot showers because I feel guilty enjoying the deliciously warm water. Living at the Casita, I could rest easy knowing that all the hot water I used came from the simplest energy conversion technology around: Using the sun to heat water. (Of course, I still tried not to use too much water.)

CONSERVING WATER

I started my life at the Casita by sitting down with a delicious aloe vera juice (made fresh from the farm’s 300 mature aloe vera plants) and contemplating how I felt about using the eco-toilet, an important part of sustainable living at the center.

The idea of a composting toilet takes some getting used to, but in many ways it’s a vast improvement over conventional toilets because it manages human waste without using any water, and water conservation is an important issue in the parched summer landscape of Ibiza.

The eco-toilet at the Casita is a relatively new design, which yields surprisingly odor-free compost in about three months — although it still needs to be cured for one to two years before it’s used. The design includes a large composting chamber divided into two sides. As one side is being filled, the other is composting. After the compost is removed from the storage chamber we put it into an outdoor hold to cure, and after that it’s safe to use — although most people recommend that you not use it on food crops. I touched the composted manure myself and was surprised to find that it was like any other kind of compost and didn’t smell bad at all.

Another significant way we were able to conserve water was by using biologically friendly cleaning products and reusing the shower, dishwashing and cooking water for the ornamental garden.

FOOD AND FRIENDS

Volunteers bring their own interests to the WWOOF projects they work on, and that’s certainly been true at the Casita. The first person I met when I arrived at the farm was Nic, a vegetarian organic chef who made sure that everyone at the Casita got plenty of healthy vegetarian food. As I began to understand how the ecological center worked, I realized this job was also crucial to the Casita’s success. Although the visitors on open house Sundays are always enamored by the views and interested in the solar energy system, I’m convinced that the reason they keep coming back is that they like the food. Visitors make a $5 donation in return for a bursting plate of the most delicious vegetarian cooking around, and those donations provide enough money to keep the center running.

An important new contribution to life at the Casita is coming from an Australian couple, Gavin and Annabelle, who arrived at the farm soon after I did. Gavin is trained in permaculture, and thanks to a new rainwater collection system and a little help from a tractor, the Casita should soon be able to grow all its own organic produce. When that happens it will be another big step forward in sustainability.

FARTHER DOWN THE ROAD

I’m no longer living at the Casita, but  I’m still in Ibiza installing renewable energy systems. Recent Spanish legislation has created a demand for PV panels and solar water heating systems that is keeping me very, very busy! I’m also working on a biodiesel project and taking some time to travel. Last year I spent six months in India, including a month working with a solar kitchen in Anantapur. I plan to continue working with renewable energy and seeking out projects that promote sustainable ways of life.

I’m convinced that, as with solar energy systems, we should think of sustainable living as modular. We aren’t likely to find one single, simple solution that radicalizes the way the world produces and consumes. What we can do is piece together a sustainable way of life that works for each of us, and hope that every day the world will get just a little bit greener.


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