GoSol.org’s work in Mexico
Modern environmental crises of global resources often threaten both human health as well as biodiversity. Many of these concerns have consistently escaped remediation by public health institutions and mainstream environmental organizations. The compounding severity of these threats requires solutions that are cheap, local, scalable, easily replicated and immediately beneficial to local populations and wildlife.
Resource substitution efforts designed to replace traditional highly-polluting combustion of biomass for cooking heat-based industrial processing and indoor heating may satisfy the requirements necessary to provide long-lasting, truly sustainable techniques. Mongabay recently had the opportunity to discuss these topics with simple solar thermal expert Lorin Symington of GoSol.org.
AN INTERVIEW WITH LORIN SYMINGTON
Mongabay: Please describe “energy poverty” and introduce us to the scale and severity of the issue.
Lorin Symington:Energy poverty affects nearly 2 billion people around the world. Living in energy poverty means struggling to meet the basic human energetic needs like lighting and heating. According to Dr. Chris Sansom of Cranfield University the basic human needs are 0.1MWh of electricity and 1MWh of heat per year. Not having access to or not having the capital to obtain sufficient energy has drastic consequences on quality of life and economic mobility. Practically speaking it means not being able to keep the lights on (whether electric lights, kerosene lamps, candles etc.) preventing productive industry and studying at night, it means not being able to boil and purify contaminated water, it means cooking food to the bare minimum and not taking full advantage of potential nutrients, it means not being able to preserve food through refrigeration or dehydration. Energy poverty is recognized as one of the core obstacles to sustainable international development.
Mongabay: What are some of the applications and limits of concentrated solar thermal / simple solar thermal?
Lorin Symington:Solar thermal is limited firstly by the availability of sunlight, secondly by useable surface area upon which to place solar concentrators and lastly by the imagination. The sun provides many thousands of times more energy than human industrialized civilization consumes and thermal energy can be converted into mechanical and electrical energy, meaning that any process currently being performed can be powered by solar thermal. Energy storage has been a factor at the small solar thermal system scale but improvements in energy storage technologies are making stored heat more economical and more accessible. The upfront investment cost of simple solar thermal could be seen as a limitation in some contexts, but from a holistic perspective the lifetime energy and carbon savings more than compensate.
Mongabay: What are the foremost health benefits gained by switching from biomass burning to GoSol.org’s solar concentrators passive solar systems?
Lorin Symington:Smoke from burning biomass indoors for cooking and heating is responsible for more than 4 million deaths per year, and untold millions of cases of pneumonia, chronic respiratory conditions and cataracts. Women and children are disproportionately affected since they spend the most time near the hearth and so would benefit the most from the switch to solar. Additionally, air quality outside the home (see the Asian Brown Cloud) could be significantly improved in many sunny regions where biomass, coal or fossil fuels are burned industrially.
Mongabay: Small-scale, low-tech (is there a better term for this?), networked projects are beginning to gain popularity among some of the most traditionally high-tech academic institutions (MIT’s collective climate co-lab) and within the Maker movement. What sort of developmental framework could you suggest that satisfies the demands for globally-scalable resource substitution projects?
Lorin Symington:The required developmental framework is already in place and spreading rapidly around the world: internet access. In particular for low-tech projects which can be implemented by end users and local builders, open access to information and designs permits people in different regions with different needs to select and nurture projects appropriate to their context. Institutionally driven developmental frameworks are important mechanisms but for institutions to scale a project on the same order of magnitude as distributed spontaneous participation at the grassroots is extremely resource intensive and runs the risk of imposing or being heavy handed. Crowdfunding is an important aspect of the rollout of such projects because of the organic nature of the supply and demand for crowdfunded initiatives.
Preparing to bake pizzas in the solar cooker.
Mongabay: What global regions and economies have seen the most benefit from these approaches? Do you feel that they will catch and take hold in wealthy countries and regions?
Lorin Symington:We’re seeing open access projects taking off around the world in sectors as varied as agriculture, finance, housing and manufacturing. Open source has been a significant driver of innovation in IT and we’re now seeing the open hardware movement bringing concepts like 3D printers, micro controllers and CNC machinery into everyday life.
Mongabay: How do you see these sorts of technologies spreading at the grass roots? What are the hurdles preventing their spread?
Lorin Symington:Through a combination of success stories, good documentation and access to the information required to build solar concentrators. By building GoSol.org solar technology, small business owners can save money, have increased access to energy and economic opportunities and be examples of environmental sustainability. Our technology is simple enough that it can spread at the grassroots and we’re currently crowdfunding to make this a reality. Through our #FreeTheSun crowdfunding campaign (gosol.org/FreeTheSun) we are raising the money to publish free construction guides, initiate projects with our partners to showcase the many applications of solar thermal, create an online Hub for makers, builders and enthusiasts to collaboratively develop these technologies and much more. If you believe in the potential of a distributed solar economy we encourage you to contribute and claim one of our great perks.
The main hurdle preventing their spread is lack of awareness. People simply don’t know that solar thermal is an accessible option for them, and we’re trying to change that.
GoSol.org in Haiti
Mongabay: What’s the potential impact of these technologies spreading at the grassroots around the world?
Lorin Symington: Energy access, population, climate change and social justice are linked. The biosphere and climate can’t support using fossil fuels to power international development so if we want everyone on earth to have a high standard of living implementing clean energy is a necessity. A decentralized solar thermal economy would provide clean water, food and energy security, economic opportunities, healthier families, reduced toil and less environmental damage. Think of all the impacts that fossil fuel powered development has had on concentrations of wealth and power, self-sufficiency, the biosphere and our health; substituting a fossil fuel driven economy for a solar energy economy will enable us to reverse these trends.
The success of our crowdfunding campaign depends on people spreading the word and taking action, and I hope that you’re inspired to join us in our mission to make solar energy accessible to everyone, everywhere. Please visit GoSol.org/FreeTheSun to see, support and share this campaign.