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Takin It to the People

Scott Ely and future renewable energy supporters check out the E-Station.

enewables are catching on! Everywhere we look there are signs of renewable energy (RE) becoming a mainstream technology. But believe it or not, there are still people out there who are totally unaware of renewable technologies. Perhaps they have been living in a cave, work in the fossil fuel business, or simply are not interested. Whatever the reason, RE education continues to present challenges for the industry and the public at large.

Owning an RE business immediately opened my eyes to the importance of education. Or perhaps my father, a professor, passed on the teaching gene to his son. Whatever the reason, it is clear to me that people who are well informed can better identify their needs, and develop a common sense game plan to address those needs. And if practiced throughout a population, education rewards people with a happier, healthier environment in which to grow and prosper.

I began to realize the importance of RE education back in 1990 while traversing the western slope of Colorado seeking out potential customers for my fledgling solar electric business, Sunsense. It seemed as though the opportunities were there, but the knowledge and familiarity with renewables was lacking.

So I tried to include some kind of RE display or demonstration in every business (and personal) activity. The Sunsense office was retrofitted with a solar electric system. I designed and built a small "power box" for providing electricity at the job site, using solar power to install solar power. We could also use the power box at various other functions for

E-Station's vented battery box holds four Trojan T-105 lead-acid batteries.

E-Station's vented battery box holds four Trojan T-105 lead-acid batteries.

The E-Station's control board slides out to become an indoor display in winter.

powering blenders, music, lighting, etc.

Then it hit me. Wouldn't it be nice if I could take renewable energy technology to the people rather than asking them to come to me? Fairs, festivals, workshops, seminars—any event could serve as a platform for the further education of the public about renewable technologies. Enter the idea for the mobile renewable energy education demonstration trailer—the Education Station, or E-Station. From PV and wind power to solar cooking, AC compact fluorescents, and even a solar powered bubble machine for the kids, the Education Station has been providing the public with a working demonstration of renewables for almost five years.

The current E-Station and its "offspring" are the result of an evolutionary process. From a simple, sales-driven RE demonstration to a sleek, stand-alone showpiece, the E-Station continues to evolve and expand. The original idea has blossomed into a new challenge—to design and build a fleet of portable

RE education trailers, one for every region of the country.

Phase One—From Mind to Matter

The original intent of the Education Station was primarily as a marketing tool. In the early years (1990-93) of Sunsense, I would visit a potential client armed with a couple of different solar panels, a charge controller, an inverter, and even a battery or two. I wanted people to see the equipment, touch it, and get an idea of how it goes together. I also brought photos of completed installations. This approach was very effective, but the people being enlightened to the wonders of solar electricity and renewables were the people who already had an application in mind, and consequently had a genuine interest in the technology. I needed to figure out how to reach the average person.

Investing in a demonstration system seemed like a good idea. I had experimented with various displays and demos at energy fairs and festivals in the past—portable power box systems, water pumping displays, even a Sun Frost freezer loaded with Ben & Jerry's Brownie Bars! All were fun learning tools and helped to get solar and renewables in front of people. The best, however, had yet to be built.

The first E-Station was born in 1994, and was designed to look like a house. The building sat on a utility trailer and had a sturdy floor, cedar siding, 2 x 6 rafters, and a metal roof. The entire structure was designed to be removable in order to utilize the trailer for other functions. Forklift access was designed into the floor system for easy loading and unloading. Two swing-out doors exposed the control board and battery box. Another access door on one side allowed the control board to slide in and out.

The control board featured a Trace 4 KW sine wave inverter and the corresponding APT power center. Four Solarex PV panels were roof-mounted and designed to charge eight Trojan golf cart batteries. All this on a five by eight foot (1.5 x 2.4 m) trailer rated at one ton (907 kg). What a load!

That first version of the E-Station made many stops around western Colorado, including visits to energy fairs, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, our own Carbondale Mountain Fair, and numerous Solar Energy International classes. We could power up sound systems, tools, kitchen appliances, and security lighting. Perhaps the most fun was driving down the highway and having people pass the rig with thumbs up and heads bobbing spirited approval.

The initial success of the E-Station was just the beginning. With new RE products and concepts being introduced almost monthly, it was time to expand! The 1995 edition featured the addition of an AIR 303 wind turbine, an upgraded APT power center, and some new signage.

As the road show continued, I really felt that I was reaching people. The entire trailer made folks curious. Most people had either seen solar panels in high-profile applications (highway construction warning lights, billboard lighting, roadside weather stations, etc.) or they knew someone who had installed a system on a cabin or RV. They wanted to know more about how solar panels produce power and what other applications exist.

We helped people with everything from the correct pronunciation of "photovoltaics" to identifying the various components in a typical system. We helped to clarify concepts such as the flow of electrons from solar panels through controls to the batteries and the subsequent transformation of DC to AC power through the inverter to the AC loads.

The wind turbine was another big draw. People noticed the turbine spinning away and wanted to know how much power it was producing and the associated cost. Metering inside the E-Station showed the current being generated by either the solar panels or the wind turbine or both! We handed out product literature and made recommendations on local contractors proficient in renewables.

With all this interest in solar and renewables, I felt we needed to expand yet again. There were questions regarding other RE technologies and applications such as water pumping, microhydro, and solar cooking. We also wanted to include some fun things for the kids.

The problem with this expansion was the inherent weight of the E-Station. With a solid structural framework and a typical RE system design (a fairly large solar array, battery bank, and 4,000 watt inverter), the E-Station was simply too heavy! How could we add more systems and get the weight under control?

Phase Two—A Lean, Mean Learning Machine

Those early years helped me realize that while the first version of the Education Station was effective, it was embryonic compared to its potential. A new E-Station needed to be built with the focus on education, instead of sales. The first order of business was a form of "lumber liposuction." We had to trim the fat in order to add more systems.

This second edition of the E-Station incorporated many of the original ideas. With design and building assistance from Mark Wolfe Webber of Wolfe Brand Construction in Carbondale, we created a lighter building with numerous attachments for various system displays.

The floor was still structurally sound. We kept the access slots for forklifting. Mark was able to locate some scrap cedar siding which we recycled into the building. The rafters and wall studs were downsized to two by fours, recycled where possible. The new access door was a lift-up section, providing shade and shelter from the weather. The overall dimensions decreased and the power system sizing was adjusted. All the components could be stored inside the structure for easier transport and the overall weight was still less than the original!

The PV system for this reincarnated E-Station included two Solarex panels (again roof-mounted), four Trojan golf cart batteries, the Trace 2.5 KW sine wave inverter and corresponding APT power center, and the AIR 303 wind turbine. One Siemens SP75 panel was top-of-pole mounted opposite the wind turbine to operate a water pumping demo.

Peripheral displays included a Burns-Milwaukee Sun Oven for solar cooking, and at some events the solar-powered bubble machine (special thanks to Ed Eaton at SEI). In addition, we had weathertight AC and DC receptacles available on the outside of the structure. Inside, we featured a comparative display of incandescent versus compact fluorescent lighting.

Armed with this high-performance mobile education unit, we again hit the road in the Summer of '96. The upgraded E-Station could now demonstrate more technologies to an ever-expanding group of people. The finely crafted structure was attractive by itself, but with the wind turbine cruising, water flowing from the solar pumping system, and the smell of fresh-baked cookies in the air, you can imagine the response!

Many of the people would stop for the same reasons as before—curiosity, basic information, even some RE techies with problems to solve. Some of the same people would return to report on their own system progress or to get updated information. And the kids loved it! They would watch and smell the cookies baking (usually standing directly in front of the oven) and chase the solar bubbles.

Some kids would even listen in on the conversations with their parents regarding renewables and the local political/social views on the subject. And perhaps the best part of it all was the genuine "Thank you!" we received from nearly every patron. The E-Station was pulling its weight!

Phase Three—Stand-Alone Mania!

The following year (1997) the Education Station continued to perform, energizing many of the same functions as in years past. In addition to these events, we added a natural homebuilding workshop and our Carbondale Fourth of July "Solar Potluck." All were great fun and the public interest continued to grow. I found myself working from sunup to sundown answering questions and demonstrating system operation. People would start asking questions before the entire display was even together!

Demonstrations included showing people the volt and amp meters as the solar panels and wind turbine would charge the batteries. We would shade the solar panel supplying power directly to the water pump and watch cation Station

Two Solarex PV panels

Southwest Windpower Air 303 wind generator

Two Solarex PV panels

Southwest Windpower Air 303 wind generator

the water stream slow down, then speed up again when unshaded. We could watch the meters with a load turned on and see the power draw, or we could show the difference in power consumption between the compact fluorescent and incandescent lights. We would also show people the basics of programming a Trace sine wave inverter. Great stuff, but exhausting!

Phase three has changed the E-Station in a number of ways. The two Solarex modules remain on the roof connected to the four Trojan T-105s. The APT power center has been replaced by a Pulse Energy Systems PSC series power center, and the Trace SW inverter has given way to the lighter and more compact Trace DR3624. The AIR 303 still assists with the charging and the comparative lighting board still exists. The single Siemens SP75 now charges a 12 volt gel cell battery and demonstrates a straight 12 VDC system. In sticking with the original theme, we can now show people roof mount vs pole mount, polycrystalline vs single crystal panels, flooded vs gel cell batteries, and 12 and 24 VDC vs 120 VAC power. A lot of information in a relatively small package!

Growing Wings

In addition to these basic system changes, documentation has been upgraded. The Education Station has grown "wings." These wings are wooden placards displaying information on the E-Station itself along with basic PV information and photos of actual installations.

The "information wing" includes a system schematic for the E-Station; an explanation of system operation, components, and concepts; and a Q&A section. The "photo wing" contains a photo display of various strategies for PV mounting, battery boxes, controls, inverters, and complete system layout. The idea, of course, is to allow people to look at the information and the components without any pressure.

Most folks (myself included) tend to drift away from displays where someone is ready to jump into a long-winded explanation or sales pitch. The wings provide a user-friendly approach where people can relax and take in as much as they want. Should questions arise, they can read through some of the information and look at the photos until someone is free to speak with them.

The other major upgrade to the current E-Station is the addition of stand-alone satellite displays. Still in the development stage, these displays are designed to provide additional information on other RE technologies and applications.

Each stand-alone display has a base structure on which system components are mounted. Again, we have employed the "wing" strategy to display information. The wings are attached to the sides and fold up for storage and transport. Speaking of transport, some parts of these satellite displays can fit inside the storage area of the E-Station, while the rest of the parts must ride in the back of the truck that is towing the trailer. Each peripheral display is reassembled on site and stands close to the E-Station.

People can work their way around each display and the E-Station at their leisure. We have developed one display each for solar cooking (rotating base, storage, and info wings), solar water pumping (support structure, acrylic tube, sub pump, panels on tracker, and info wings), and microhydro (turbine, "dummy" batteries, diversion load, penstock, and info wings). These peripheral displays allow the entire package to be spread out so that more people can participate.

What Price Education?

The Education Station has been through many changes, and changes often cost money. New, upgraded components and expanding system demonstrations have increased design, installation, and presentation costs over the years. So how much for one of these beauties?

The cost of the first version of the E-Station was about US$8,500. Today, with the peripheral displays, etc., the cost is closer to US$12,000. These figures are for the materials and equipment; not included are the countless hours of design and construction. But don't be deceived by the price tag. Much of the design and installation of these systems has been accomplished through class projects at Solar Energy International. So the Education Station begins educating right from the get-go.

The trailer, still in use today, doubles as a snowmobile trailer in the winter when the E-Station is in hibernation. The trailer is also available for helping deliver equipment to job sites for Sunsense. The slide-in control board comes out in the winter and serves as a nice indoor display at the Sunsense showroom. The forklift access allows us to lift the entire structure off the trailer and set it on pallets for the winter.

In addition, each system upgrade or expansion frees up the old equipment for use in other demonstration projects, or it becomes available for sale. Since we use standard rather than custom equipment, resale is not a problem. These multipurpose tasks and recycling of system components make for a very cost-effective package.

Someone once said, "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance." Spending little or no money on RE education fosters the apathetic mindset which has the potential to slowly erode the planet. Remember that this system—this teaching tool—is an investment. The longer we wait to spread the word about renewables and resource efficiency, the harder our recovery from the consequences.

E-Station—The Next Generation

As the renewable energy and sustainable technology markets heat up, the need for reliable information and education is reaching a critical stage. I've seen the Education Station through its metamorphosis. Now I feel the need to progress even further in educating and interacting with the public regarding renewables and other resource efficient technologies.

The Education Station and its satellite systems will carry on the mission of public education. With this in mind, we are investigating the formation of a non-profit educational branch of Sunsense. This non-profit entity would devote its time, money, and energy to continuing this effort. The Education Station would become the flagship for delivering the resource efficiency message.

The precedent has been set and the future looks bright. We encourage teachers, administrators, city/county/ state officials, and others to get involved in the design and building of their own renewable energy demonstrations using any and all resources. The industry and the public are listening!

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Author: Scott Ely, Sunsense, PO Box 301, Carbondale,

CO 81623 • 970-928-9272 • Fax: 970-928-9696 [email protected]

Solar Energy International, PO Box 715, Carbondale, CO 81623 • 970-963-8855 • Fax: 970-963-8866 [email protected]www.solarenergy.org

Mark Wolfe Webber, Wolfe Brand Construction, PO Box 986, Carbondale, CO 81623 • 970-963-1302 Fax: 970-963-6163 • [email protected] |

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