By David Spence
Humans have long referred to the sun as “Father” and to the earth as “Mother”. There are a multitude of ways to benefit from this familial relationship. I’d like to share with you the many ways that I’ve been able to harness the sun’s energy in an effort to live a sustainable lifestyle.
Photovoltaic Array (PV)
This method of converting photons directly into electricity is now cost-effective. For a grid-tied system the financial break-even time is 8 to 12 years, depending on rebates/incentives/utility policies. For an “off the grid” system, the initial cost will be higher since battery storage is an essential component, but there are more intangible benefits. Two categories of mounting the PV panels are ground and roof mounted. A great resource for planning a PV system is the (now defunct) magazine “Home Power”. Check your local library for back issues.
First we have the physics: the sun shining at different times and places on our earth creates the winds. Harnessing the wind to generate your own electricity is more site dependent than PV. A wind turbine works best where the prevailing wind is not obstructed by trees or buildings. The optimal hub height might be above what is allowed by city or county regulations. However, if your location is favorable, the wind often blows the strongest when the sun is not shining, making a turbine a nice complement to PV.
Clothes drying line
This is such an obvious a way to reduce gas/electric usage. The break even time for this project is weeks, not years! The clothes smell fresh coming off the line and the time spent at the clothes line is time spent outdoors. If you live under the rule of a homeowners association that has a restrictive covenant, why not use the reality of climate change to urge repeal of such a backward covenant?
Solar food dryer
Google this topic to discover both purchasing and DIY approaches. Fruits and vegetables are cheap to buy in quantity at harvest time. Drying is easier than canning and dried foodstuff can last through the winter. Also, drying meat or fish is a proven method of preservation.
Solar hot water
There are both “off the shelf” and DIY systems to pre-heat water that comes into your gas or electric hot water heater. This will reduce your utility costs while slowing climate change (like the other 9 items in this list) in a way that is satisfying and effective.
Solar attic fan
Purchasing a kit to ventilate your attic space is the best approach. It uses a small (appropriately sized) solar panel to power a D/C fan, so no battery or grid plug-in is needed. Using forced air ventilation of the attic space of your home will cause your summer cooling bill to fall.
Whether you are camping or at home, what could be more satisfying than roasting a chicken or baking bread using just the sun’s rays? A solar oven can be purchased for $200 to $300. It would take decades to break even on this purchase; but the “gee whiz” factor is priceless.
Electric vehicle (car, bicycle, etc)
If you are generating your own electricity, your personal mobility can be both carbon free and cheap. If you are tied to the electric utility grid, there may be a time in the not-to-distant future when the utility will pay you for the juice stored in your electric vehicle when the utility needs the extra reserve capacity; watch for it!
Straw bale building
This topic is using the sun in an indirect but sustainable manner. Rice or wheat straw is sometimes burned after the harvest. If the farmer bales the straw, rather than burning or mulching, the bales can be stacked to build sturdy and well-insulated walls for a home or a barn. Most building codes have special considerations for using straw bales as a structural component. The building process lends itself well to a DIY — with your neighbor’s help — project.
This, too, is using the sun in an indirect but rewarding manner. In latitudes with cold winters and cool spring/fall, a greenhouse will allow 3-season growing of vegetables and flowers (versus just one season). In hotter climates a ventilated greenhouse will allow growth to occur even during the hot summer months.
Are there additional ways in which YOU utilize Father Sun? E-mail your idea/technique to me, David Spence, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Perhaps we can publish an update of ways to utilize the sun in a future edition of the E-pistle.
David Spence is a parishioner and former Junior Warden at Church of the Epiphany, Flagstaff and is a member of the diocesan Creation Care Council.