Adventures in the Early Days of Solar Power



Solar panels and battery array. Photo by Aur Beck

Growing up completely off-grid only using low-tech energy sources, including candles and kerosene for lighting with an occasional battery-operated device, such as our shortwave radio, made me desire to figure out how to avoid needing to constantly buy these items. When The Farm, an intentional community near us, had an alternative energy fair in 1990, I was extremely excited to learn about photovoltaic (PV) solar energy and right away started studying and learning about it.

I distinctly remember the magic of seeing a PV module directly powering a fan — and that I could control the speed of the fan by how much light I blocked by causing a shadow. The power of the sun was cooling me off! Note that I interchangeably use solar “module”, the proper tech term, and solar “panel”, a more common name that industry folks consider technically a device for heating hot water or hot air.

Life Powered by Batteries Before Solar

Before discovering this PV magic, I had been powering my shortwave radio using many D batteries and lights by setting up jumper cables to charge an older starter battery on the floor of the passenger side of my truck. When I was driving around, it would charge the battery, which I could then remove from the truck to power 12-volt halogen lights, my CB radio (my early days phone), my shortwave radio for news around the world, and a small, 6-inch, 12-volt fan.

I would have to recharge that battery every couple of days. I somehow was given a little PV panel (either Frank Micheals or Albert Bates made a trade for it); it provided under 5 watts of power. I needed to recharge via my truck less often after I hooked it up, but in retrospect, it probably was doing next to nothing.

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