FROM THE CREW: Simplicity is Effective

Costa Rica PV workshop attendees with a simple home PV array.

Think About It...

“In character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity.”

—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I’ve just returned from another satisfying trip to the not-so-developed world of rural Costa Rica. My workshop group installed small solar-electric systems at the homes of four rural families. These simple systems will provide electricity for four to five LED lights and a USB port for cell-phone charging. I mentioned these systems to a North American solar colleague, and she said, “Small, like 1 kW?” No, a 1,000-watt rated PV system would be enormous compared to the 30- and 60-watt systems we installed last month.

A single PV module, a low-cost charge controller, some breakers, a USB converter, a 90 Wh battery, and a battery state-of-charge monitor, plus some wire, switches and a few lights can make a dramatic difference in the lives of people who live simply. No longer do they need to use candles or kerosene—or go without light—and at a cost of only several hundred dollars.

In the same week, our group donated four modern rocket stoves (see “REview: ACE 1, Ultra-Clean Biomass Cookstove” in HP182) to community facilities and homes in the area. These modestly priced but sophisticated devices burn small pieces of wood, corncobs, palm nuts, and other materials efficiently and with little particulate pollution. They replace cooking on open fires, which contribute to poor indoor air quality conditions in homes and deforestation.

Two things make these simple solutions work. One is the low energy needs of the families. Big-screen TVs, electric coffee makers, and trash compactors are not “essentials” in their homes. Gaining a bit of light, charging a cell phone, and cooking cleanly and efficiently are high priorities.

We used lights that draw 1 and 3 W in three of the systems, and 5 W lights in a system for an ecotourism farm. These small loads can be powered with a very small PV system. The rocket stoves we donated use about one-tenth of the wood required for open-fire cooking. They waste less heat, burn cleanly, and use waste wood.

I delight in the fact that my North American students get to see how these small and efficient technologies can improve lives in different cultural and socioeconomic schemes. I’ve watched many of them question their own lifestyles and consumption habits, and apply some of the principles we learned to their lives back home.

We can also use these and other technologies in our own “first-world” homes and lives. A 3 W LED light provides enough illumination for navigation and mood lighting, or even for reading if well-placed. My own off-grid home relies on a few dozen 5 or 6 W bulbs, and some 3-watters, to provide abundant light. The rocket stove we used in Costa Rica can be used as a camp stove (I was introduced to it while camping in Oregon); at home, we use it instead of our gas grill. This not only displaces fossil fuel usage, but uses up wood scraps from around the homestead, and is an educational eye-opener for city visitors on what efficient technology can do.

These are just two examples that might spark you to review your energy needs. Simplifying and reducing consumption make it easier and more cost-effective to use cleaner sources.

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