In the News

Just a few notes on solar in the news. Click in the parentheses for the links, since I can’t seem to make them show up in some browsers.

A really biased (headline) blames California power outages on climate change. The actual cause of PG&E outages is PG&E pulling the plug when it gets breezy! Proper powerline maintenance, line stabilizers and right-of-way maintenance to reduce fuel would go a long way to prevent fires from powerline sources. Better forest management wouldn’t hurt, either. Of course, they famously turned off the power to millions and there were fires, anyway. Today it was reported that they turned the power back on and a line fell from one of their newer towers (47 years old), starting another fire. The positive thing coming out is people and businesses are scrambling to find solar and battery solutions to keep their power on and their businesses open. They could learn a lot from John’s customers in Haiti.

Next up is recycling. Solar power has changed so fast that facilities are changing out the panels they installed a few years ago, going for the higher output of today’s panels in the footprint of the old ones. That leaves truckloads of perfectly good panels looking for a new home. That’s just one way John brings cheap panels to Sun Electronics customers. That’s why you can buy a 70 watt panel, single piece, for $12, or as low as $7 in quantity. Or a 300-ish watt panel for a hundred. Another source is insurance claims. It seems that if a half dozen panels get popped in a hailstorm, they’ll go ahead and replace the other hundred thousand, just so they’ll all match. More bargains. You and I putting those surplus panels to work is the best form of recycling. Then there are those that are well and truly smashed. As John has pointed out in his blog, there’s no good way of recycling them, yet. The growing pile is prompting lots of new research on ( recycling and reclaiming. ) Of course, there are new surplus modules, too. Companies go bankrupt or get into some sort of bind and there’s another container load of them.

Finally, something fun. Are you wanting to try your hand at solar power? Is your kid looking for a science fair project. Check out the American Solar Energy Society’s ( Tiny Watts) program. Program members build their tiny watt phone chargers, battery chargers, portable lights and all sorts of things. I guess the solar toys John used to have would qualify. I put a solar powered spider on the table in Mom’s sun porch and it would drive her cat nuts! Inspired by Solar George, down in the Keys, I found a couple of 6″ panels from a yard light and will turn them into USB chargers. I figure you can use them directly to charge a phone, but I will go one better and let it charge one of those USB battery boxes. The battery box, using 18650 cells reclaimed from my pile of old laptops, can then charge two phones any time of the day or night. What kind of Tiny Watt project can you make? Check the link, above, for ideas.

–Neal

Little Solar Projects

My first solar project was to put 4 tiny 6 volt solar panels on the top of the instrument panel of my old Piper TriPacer.  The panels were little more than experimenter toys made from solar cell scraps in a plastic frame.  40 years ago you took what you could get in solar.  Old airplanes have tiny batteries, crappy starters and high displacement engines. Add in flying them only on the weekends and you can end up having to change out the very expensive tiny battery every year, or starting it the old fashion way by flinging the prop by hand and hoping the plane doesn’t run off without you. That installation involved about 1/8 amp of current, if that much, and until the panels shook apart I didn’t have to buy a new battery or hand start the plane. Just a little trickle charge is all it takes to keep a vehicle battery ready to go and extend its life.

Those panels probably cost $80/watt way back then.  Adding in a diode to prevent back flow, a fuse to make the feds happy and a Form 337 to make it legal and I was in business.  If the plane had had a cigarette lighter plug I could have avoided the paperwork by making it portable.

Since then, panels have gotten a bit cheaper, but the installation is pretty much the same, as is the benefit.  Nowadays, though, I usually do it on a tractor or help a neighbor put a solar charger on a 4-wheeler, tractor or motor home.  Baby Brother has an old pickup he doesn’t use much, but it always starts, thanks to a pair of 5 watt modules mounted on a frame in the truck bed.   Using a small module, like 5-10 watts, you don’t really need a charge controller, as long as you are using a so-called 12 volt panel.  FYI, a 12 volt panel will usually put out about 18-20 volts without a load.  If you want to mount a 300 watt, 24 volt panel on your truck’s tonneau cover, then you definitely will need a charge controller, with MPPT to get the voltages compatible.  Sun Electronics often has some of these small panels for small projects.

After my airplane phase, there came a tractor phase and a lot of them followed me home.  That’s a lot of tires and batteries to keep up with if you want to keep them going.  Some of them go and some of them went.  On one of my old Rooskie tractors I put a stainless steel marine panel on the fender.  They claimed it was flexible and if you tighten the screws enough it actually bends.  And still works!  I know the old beast looks pretty rough, but the decade-old battery will start it right up!  Yeah, I know the back tires are on backwards.  It helps me get out of trouble easier than getting into it. 

Old tractor keeps a hot battery with solar power.

The installation involves only a surplus panel, some screws and an inline fuse holder. Connections are made directly to the battery, red to + and black to -. A blocking diode is built into the module. My newest tractor, only 21 years old, is about to get a similar mod to keep its 5 year old battery going for a long time.

If you have this setup on the end of the tractor hanging out the back of a shed, you can easily connect an overhead light, using a 12v LED bulb, using a plug or big gator clips. These Belarus tractors came with a socket just for plugging into a light. Very handy.

A little project like this can be a great confidence builder for the solar beginner and produce some immediate benefits, like not having to buy so many batteries or break out the jumper cables as often. Too bad solar can’t fix tires!   –Neal