Learning from Someone Who Gets It

Reader Contribution by Cam Mather
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I always like being around people who “get it.” From time to
time you meet someone who really does something well and understands something
completely. I’ve learned that when you spend time with people like that their
expertise and knowledge can almost “rub off” on you and help you to understand
things too. 

One of the greatest influences in my life over the last 8 or
9 years has been my friend Bill Kemp. He really “gets” the whole
electricity/energy/off-grid thing. He engineers hydroelectric dams and biogas
systems and he lives off-grid, and when I met him he was actually making his
own inverters for his house. What a concept! I met him when I went to his house
to pick up some used batteries from him. I asked him a question about why my
batteries weren’t holding their charge very well. I’d asked this same question
to many “experts” over the years and had never received a satisfactory answer.
When I asked Bill, he drew a graph and explained to me that I hadn’t been
running my generator long enough in order to push the battery charge far enough
up the curve so that they’d hold their charge properly. His description was so
simple and made so much sense that it was like a light bulb clicked on over my
head. A compact fluorescent light bulb, of course.

As I spent more and more time with Bill he continued to
hammer away at me about the difference between power, measured in watts, and
energy, measured in kilowatt-hours. I’d say things like, “My toaster uses too
much energy” and Bill would correct me and explain that it uses a lot of“power” (1200 Watts) while it is on,
but since it’s only on for a few minutes, it doesn’t draw a lot of energy out
of my batteries. Years later I’m finally starting to catch on.

One night as we drove back from doing a renewable energy
talk in Toronto, I mentioned that I had received a shock from my generator. It
had been a humid day and I had stood on the concrete garage floor in my bare
feet while I started up the generator. In hindsight it was probably not
something most rocket scientists would have done. But I didn’t think it should
have shocked me none-the-less.

So at 10 pm we rolled into my driveway, and I opened my
garage door and turned on the lights, which don’t light up the generator very
well. My ONAN generator is a big scary beast with a lot of pipes and wires,
which completely baffle me. Bill pulled off a plate hiding some electronics
and, I kid you not, before I had time to shine a flashlight in there he said
“There’s the problem right there…” and proceeded to fix it within seconds. Who
does this kind of stuff? That anyone could know what the problem was to begin
with is beyond me, but to find it within seconds is just bizarre to me.

Then he started up the generator, spit on the floor and put
something, which I can’t recall (a multimeter? A piece of wire? A magic ostrich
feather?) between the floor and the generator to test that it was grounded
properly. Then suddenly he was gone in the night, like some kind of electricity
super hero, turning down any compensation, just continuing on his mission to
make electricity safe and teach the masses about power and energy. Or something
like that.

For a few years after we published “The Renewable Energy
Handbook” we attended The International Home & Garden Show in Toronto. Bill
was always one of the featured speakers and in fact he was the “Green Street
Ambassador” and provided lots of media interviews explaining some of the
various businesses and displays that were featured in the “Green” section of
the show. I always learned a lot by standing next to Bill at our booth and
listening to him answer questions. One of the other vendors at the show was
selling a “Solar Home Heating System.” It sounded wonderful to me. It used
vacuum tubes to heat your home. It seemed too good to be true. So I dragged
Bill over to take a look at it. He asked the vendor a few questions and then we
left.I asked Bill what he’d
thought of it. Bill’s reply was that it was great as long as you wanted to heat
your home with electricity. I said, “But Bill, it was solar powered!

In fact the system relied on radiant floor heating, which
would circulate the solar-warmed liquid through the concrete slab in the home.
But as Bill pointed out to me, the months when you need to heat your home –
November, December, January and February – have the least amount of sunlight.
Living off-grid I know this firsthand. November and December are a bust for
solar energy. By January we’re getting enough sun to run the electrical loads in
our home, but heating your home is a whole different story.

Bill pointed out that even if you had your whole roof
covered in vacuum tubes, which this system did not include, there would be
minimal solar thermal energy available to you during the winter months. Turns
out that the system included an electric, on-demand hot water heater that would
heat the water for your in-floor radiant system whenever there wasn’t enough
solar energy to do so. Which would be most of the winter. I hadn’t even noticed
the electric water heater, I’d been so dazzled by the “Solar Home Heating
System.” But Bill had noticed.

This is the sort of stuff guys like Bill “get,” and why I’m
glad that I was able to convince him to write “The Renewable Energy Handbook”
so he could share his knowledge with a much broader audience. In the years
since we published this book, we’ve received lots of positive feedback from
readers who really appreciate Bill’s easy-to-understand explanations of energy
efficiency and renewable energy. It’s very gratifying.

Shortly after we published the book my uncle Ian
Micklethwaite organized the “Wind World/Solar World Teaching Seminar” and about
1,000 people paid $90 to come to the Mississauga Living Arts Center to spend
the day learning about renewable energy. There were also dozens of dealers who
set up displays so that their products were available for conference attendees
to check out. After living off-grid for a few years and feeling like I’d been
bellowing at the top of my lungs encouraging other people to install solar
panels, this conference was fantastic. Bill Kemp did the bulk of the
presentations and his presentation loosely follows the Renewable Energy
Handbook. It’s kind of like a video presentation of the book. You don’t get all
of the detail, but for anyone who doesn’t have the time or desire to read the
book, the video is very helpful.

Originally Ian produced the video in VHS format and we
quickly sold out of those. There’s still so much interest in this seminar that
we decided to have the entire thing dubbed on to DVD. It’s a few years old now,
but all the basic elements of these systems haven’t changed. You still need to
follow the basic steps and Bill covers all of the basics in these DVDs. He
gives you the low down on how to approach renewable energy starting with energy
efficiency, then moves on to a discussion of solar, wind, batteries, inverters,
and how to tie it all together. If you’re anything like me, hopefully after
watching it a few times you’ll finally understand the difference between power
and energy!

For more information about Cam Mather and his books and DVDs visit www.aztext.com or www.cammather.com.