If you’ve flipped through my previous posts here, you’ve probably seen that I am a bit of a renewable energy buff. I like messing with solar power, for a variety of reasons. I like the idea of not blatantly stabbing the environment and contributing to global climate change*, but I also like the idea of making your own power and being independent – electricity is something most people in this country are addicted to without realizing it. There’s the idea of a quiet, easy source of portable power for fun and for emergencies, and then there’s just the fact that it’s cool.
(*Note: Please don’t start a holy war in the comments over the climate change thing. There are plenty of places on the Internet you can go to debate/argue/flame for and against this, and so it does not need to happen here.)
Now, some time ago I came upon a magazine called Home Power – I think I may have been in middle school. This magazine is a journal dedicated to small scale renewable energy, mostly residential. Its founders purchased land off the grid in the 70s, and turned to solar as a way to not have to run a lawn mower engine to power the car tail light bulbs they used for light. Because the small-scale renewable energy (RE) industry (responsible for the sale and production of photovoltaic panels, wind generators, control electronics, etc.) was in its infancy when they started publishing the magazine (late 80s), a lot of the articles focused on DIY. Sure, small operations started creeping up where people offered installation and consultation for RE, but nothing like what you can find now. A fair amount of progress was made by people playing around with the equipment on their own, sometimes even building their own. And the Home Power articles often reflected this.
I thought this period in the magazine’s history was awesome. I loved learning about the various problems these early pioneers had, and how they went about solving them. I liked seeing what some people did with small systems, and the big systems others built. It was awesome to see these people working toward solutions to some of the problems faced in the world (and which we still face).
Sometime in the early 2000s the magazine’s tone changed, however. It was focusing less on the DIY aspect, and more on the ‘turn-key’ aspect – more and more of the systems showcased were belonging to people who didn’t fully understand the technology nor have the desire to. Rather, due to factors such the cost (and reliability) of electricity in their area, environmental benefits, and maybe the presence of tax incentives, they paid a professional to design and install a system on their homes. (Note that the last factor I mentioned may also provoke flames; see my climate change note above.) Not much of a DIY aspect is present anymore. In fact, it seems that quite a few articles in recent issues are not written by the system owners themselves, but by the system installers/designers, or even third parties.
Now, the truth is that I don’t have anything against people who simply want to make use of RE and don’t want to worry about designing and wiring their system, hoisting panels onto their roof, etc. Honestly, it would be hypocritical of me. I mean, I’m a Linux user, and even use Gentoo on my desktop. And yet I also love Ubuntu for the fact that it presents GNU/Linux as an alternative for normal computer users who don’t care about recompiling their kernel. (I’m actually typing this on an Ubuntu laptop right now.) I guess I just miss the old format of the magazine, the one I kind of, well, grew up with.
Now, Home Power is still a good magazine; it’s not like you won’t learn about renewable energy from reading it. In fact, it’s usually pretty descriptive even if it doesn’t discuss all sorts of homebrew solutions. You’ll learn about solar power, and if you don’t get as in depth as you’d like you’ll have a good jump-off point for learning more. They’ll respond to your letters if you have questions, too. And, their magazine is just well-produced: it’s easy to read, no advertisements in the middle of articles, etc.
What I do encourage you to do, however, is go the extra step. Yes, you don’t need to be an electrical engineer to use renewable energy, or do anything with electricity. But there is value in going the extra step and being aware of what is going on with your renewable energy system, or anything. And guess what: most of the information is out there. If you’re curious, just go Google-crazy. Buy some parts or system components, and experiment. You never know what you might learn.