60 Minutes did a report on how the Bahamas are upgrading their electrical grid to better handle the increasingly violent and increasingly frequent hurricanes hitting their low-lying islands. I was very concerned about Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands installing solar panels, because of my concern about whether the solar panel installations would survive the brutal hurricanes that roll through that region fairly often. Well, hurricane Fiona just provided a data point – and the legacy electrical grid failed spectacularly, while the solar installations seem to have weathered the storm fairly well. I have to admit that I’m a bit surprised. I’ll wait for more information as the years go by, but this is good news for the hurricane-plagued Caribbean region. The non-profit organization Casa Pueblo says that their solar PV installation is helping the residents of Puerto Rico today, as usual, even after a hurricane. Here’s a link to a tiktok video talking about how solar panels are being installed, albeit slowly, in one town in Puerto Rico, and how the businesses who got solar panels installed by a foundation (presumably at no charge to them? Not sure) are charging themselves for the energy produced and re-investing that money into the community, to help residents. That’s good solar news all around! Solar panels are a superior choice even in regions with frequent severe weather. 🙂
This story starts, as so many like it have, with good intentions and high hopes. I picked up my brother on a sunny January day in St. Louis, and he gleefully stated that “it has to be 50 degrees out here!”, which it wasn’t quite that warm, but warmer than the usual January day in St. Louis. We drove southwest on highway 44 out of a bright sunny Saint Louis in our 2016 Nissan Leaf and stopped at the newly installed Chargepointe superchargers in Eureka, Mo. My brother was anxious to get to the office where he needed to sign some paperwork, so when the chargers wouldn’t charge the car, and the customer service person was amazingly slow and unhelpful, wasting 10 minutes of our time, we just drove on without charging, knowing that we had other options after the paperwork was signed in Union, MO. Finished the paperwork, looked at my charging options, and drove about 10 miles north to Washington, MO where a car dealership has 2 Level 2 chargers. Just to be safe, b/c I was down to about 22 miles, I called the dealership and was assured that yes, they had 2 chargers and they were fine. Drove up there, the first charger we tried wasn’t even hooked up to a live electrical line – there’s a button on the front of the Level 2 charger that is lit up green when it’s getting electric, and it was not lit. Nobody in the building could help – one guy said that a lot of construction was going on and that the line was probably down b/c of that. So we drove across the dealers lot to their other Level 2 charger – which also wasn’t live. And where the staff was also uninterested, ignorant, and refused to help. So, I’m at about 16 miles of range on the guess-o-meter (display on the dash that tells me how far I can drive on the charge in the car’s batteries) and have ZERO other charging options in range. I had a couple of choices – look for an unguarded 120 volt plug on the side of some building, call AAA to get towed to a supercharger, or check into a hotel which would allow me to plug in overnight, which would mean spending the night. My brother, who is a talented mechanic, hopped out of the car and tried to plug the Level 1 charge cable into plugs on the wall of a retail establishment and then some other commercial establishment, but both times he couldn’t get the plug to properly seat in the receptacle b/c of the shape of the plug head, so we drove on, searching in the darkening cold, for a plug that we could use just to pick up some driving range; so we could get to a supercharger that would allow us to get home. We were losing range at an alarming rate – 2 miles of range were lost in driving around looking for a plug. We drove by a gas station and my brother saw an ice machine sitting on the side of the parking lot, alone and unloved, plugged into a receptable just above ground level – he tried the plug and it worked!! Hallelujah – salvation! I felt a little guilty for unplugging that ice storage machine, but I justified that by noting that it was below freezing outside at that point, and the ice in that machine wasn’t in much danger. And besides, what’s less popular than an ice machine on a cold night in January in Washington, MO?
We ended up sitting there for 3 hours to amass enough charge to make a run for the supercharger in Eureka, about 23 miles southeast of where we were sitting. Fortunately, my brother was in a great mood, because he had just closed an important deal, so he didn’t attempt to choke the stupid out of me for taking this car on this trip, instead of our 2013 Chevy Volt, which would have run it’s gas backup system when it ran out of charge and which would have required zero recharging on this trip. And during our 3 hour stay at this lovely gas station, my brother got bored enough to read the user’s manual for the car, and we figured out why the supercharger in Eureka hadn’t worked for us – most likely because I had the car turned on while we were trying to start the charging process. Apparently, our car needs to be turned off to start the charging session – after the supercharging session starts, you can turn the car on, run the heating, radio and seat heaters, etc, but the supercharging station (a.k.a. DC Quick Charger) expects the car to be turned off to start the charging session. If we hadn’t been running late and fearful that the office we needed to get to would be closed by the time we got there, if we had gotten a quick and competent ChargePointe customer service rep, if maybe I had bothered to read my car’s user manual, none of this would have happened. Just a series of unfortunate incidents.
We made it back to the supercharger in Eureka, which started charging as soon as we plugged in with the car turned off, picked up 80+ miles of range quickly at a cost of $4.18, all the while running the heating and my seat heater. Getting that charge revived our good spirits, and we got home with no more drama!
I saw a pretty interesting youtube video about a system (hardware and software) being sold in Bangladesh which links multiple solar PV systems together to form a mini-grid for off-grid people. And here’s a link to an article that explains the details of SolShare’s system. According to the youtube video almost 20 million in Bangladesh use solar power now, and Bangladesh has one of the largest number of solar PV systems in the world; I haven’t verified if that’s actually true or not, so don’t quote me. A company named SolShare has developed a piece of hardware and associated software to allow customers to form Peer-to-peer microgrid systems. One of the crucial services provided by SolShare’s system is the ability of people who are sharing electricity with their neighbors to be able to accurately charge their neighbors for electricity that leaves the solar PV owner’s system. It seems like a great idea, and theoretically should work well in Bangladesh – but is there any instance where this would work well in the United States? For this to work, you’d have to have a lot of people who are off-grid living quite close to other people living off-grid. I don’t think that’s common now, but maybe eco-villages might have an interest in this type of technology? Peer-to-peer sharing of energy between households is pretty far off in the United States, but this is an interesting concept.
There are solar thermal hot air boxes (STHABs) videos and write-ups all over youtube (videos) and BuildItSolar.com (pictures& text) that show how to make them yourselves for maybe a couple hundred dollars USD (or even a lot less if you have the right stuff laying around) but I have yet to find one that includes an airtight seal for the inlet/outlet ducts. An airtight duct seal makes the difference between getting free heat in the dead of winter and getting free heat AND unwanted free freezing air conditioning in the dead of winter. The laws of physics are pretty reliable, and they work the same way during a sunny day and a dark freezing night – air temperature is changed by what the exterior environment is doing to the inside of the the solar thermal hot air box. On a sunny day, the sun sends photons through the glazed front of the solar thermal hot air box, which hits something that changes the sunlight into heat, and thereby heats the air being moved through the STHAB (solar thermal hot air box). In the middle of a freezing cold winter night, the ambient temperature will chill the interior of the STHAB and thereby chill any air that passes through it. You would wipe out any benefits from the daytime heating if you don’t have an air-tight seal covering the exit duct during long winter nights. You might not care about that if the STHAB is just being used to provide heat during the day to a place that won’t be negatively impacted by severely cold weather – for instance, if this is attached to an unheated shed/garage with no plumbing or items that will be damaged by freezing temperatures. This also doesn’t apply to STHABs that are entirely inside a conditioned space – in that case, the cold doesn’t get to it, and it doesn’t become a cold generation machine.
The STHAB shown in my picture is a commercially made box, from Northern Comfort / Sunsiaray, but I think the guy who made them retired in 2018?
I also made one myself, which my brother sort of remade, but that is not as good looking, and probably not as productive, though I haven’t been able to test that carefully. I used two old window sashes that I got for free as the front glazing, which has the benefit of being able to easily withstand the heat generated inside the box on a sunny day, though putting a sheet of Lexan over those window sashes would trap more heat inside the box, and thereby make it more productive. If you do a really good job of building one of these boxes and then put an acrylic or polycarbonate sheet on the front of it, instead of a glass sheet (window sashes, screen door, etc), you run the risk of that potentially expensive sheet melting. I was able to measure temperatures of over 200 degrees Fahrenheit coming out of my homemade STHAB on a sunny day when no fan was running, and how long would polycarbonate or acrylic stand up to that?
This is really great and durable technology, and I encourage you to give it a try, but remember to make sure you have an airtight seal on the ducts when the sun is not shining on it!