Tuesday, April 27, 2010

How to Design and Install Grid-Tied Solar Systems

To complement the off-grid course I took last month, I spent all of last week in an intensive 40-hour solar photovoltaic design and installation workshop, focused primarily on how to design and install residential and commercial grid-connected solar pv systems. The course was designed to prepare students to sit for the NABCEP (North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners) Entry Level Exam, which I took on the final day of the course. Through in-class demonstration and hands-on practice, I was able to learn the basics of pv system sizing and wiring; racking and mounting techniques; installing/connecting inverters, charge controllers, meters, and safety disconnects; ground fault protection; and battery sizing. It was great to finally learn some tech talk and get my hands dirty with an actual rooftop solar installation!

Like the off-grid course, the highlight of the week was getting to know the 28 individuals who traveled from across the country and world to do the workshop:

Manuel from Aruba, who plans to start a small solar business on his island community; Mario from Miami, who wants to add solar installation services to his clean tech company and expand its presence across the country; Oliver from Ecuador, who hopes to bring solar electricity to a local indigenous group; and finally Justin and Brian, two brothers from Oregon who are the first men in their family to defect from the logging industry to follow a new career path.

p.s. For my technically-inclined friends, the other highlight of the workshop was undoubtedly when I was the first in the class to calculate the AC power output of a polycrystalline solar module by multiplying STC wattage x irradiance factor x derate factors... all with a Grade 11 math education! If I could do it, anyone can.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Monday, April 12, 2010

Magruder Ranch

We've just entered into the little-known rainy season in Northern California, so we bundled up and went on a field trip to Magruder Ranch -- a 5th generation family ranch that raises 100% grass-fed beef and lamb and acorn-finished pastured pork. The ranch supplies a number of restaurants in the Bay Area that pioneered the sustainable food movement, including Alice Waters' famous Chez Panisse in Berkeley.

Located on a gorgeous 2400-acre property in Potter Valley, the Magruders are slowly converting their ranch into a retreat destination for rural weekend getaways and workshops on sustainable farming and cooking. We look forward to helping them transform their gorgeous property into a one-stop-shop for sustainable meats and retreats!

Please visit their facebook page to learn more about their vision and farming practices.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Children's Education

Roasting marshmallows over a parabolic solar cooker...

Learning about different solar ovens...

Making cob bricks out of clay, straw, and gravel...

Throwing food scraps in the compost bin...

Playing with solar panels...

We kicked off spring field trip season last week by hosting our first children's tour on site -- with 70 Grade 3 students from a local public school. We had the kids rotating through seven stations to get their hands dirty in a number of areas related to renewable energy and sustainable living: solar cooking, natural building, composting, chickens, solar electricity, gardening, and a ride on our solar-powered carousel. I had the great privilege of teaching the kids how to cook with a solar oven, demonstrating the power of the sun by roasting marshmallows over a parabolic (curved concentrating) solar cooker. Needless to say, it was the most rewarding experience I've had in awhile.

p.s. For those friends who have expressed concern over the lack of variety in my wardrobe lately, I assure you that I don't wear overalls every day -- just on days when I happen to be photographed.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

How to Design and Install Off-Grid Solar Systems

I started solar training this week with a two-day workshop on how to design and install an off-grid solar photovoltaic system. The highlight of the workshop was getting to know the 18 displaced and unemployed individuals participating in the Solar for All California program, which I wrote about a few postings back. During the breaks, I was able to chat with them to get a better sense of who they are and why they're participating in the program. Here are a few of my favourite stories:

Verne was born and raised on a local aboriginal reservation. He's been driving trucks his whole life, delivering heavy goods along the I-5 from the Bay Area to Los Angeles, but recently had an accident on the road that's preventing him from continuing in this line of work. The combination of this accident and the arrival of his twin children provided the perfect opportunity to find a new job that will allow him to stay closer to home.

Carlos was born and raised in Jalisco, Mexico, but moved to California in his twenties to build a better life. For the last 16 years, he's been working at a rehabilitation centre for troubled youth, until funding dried up recently and he was laid off. He found out about the program through a local employment service centre, and thought it was a great opportunity to learn a new trade and make a difference in the world.

Manny was born and raised in rural Nigeria, where most of his neighbours are not connected to the electricity grid. Those who are connected have sporadic service due to the inefficiency of the country's large state-owned electrical monopoly, which Manny says is corrupt and unreliable. He looks forward to taking the knowledge he acquires in this workshop back to Nigeria, where he hopes to start a small solar business to light up his community and improve the quality of life of his fellow citizens.

A good friend of mine who works in the solar industry has asked for more tech talk in my blog postings, so I've included a photo of my notes from the in-class portion of the workshop. I am proud to say that I now understand the difference between a volt, amp, and watt; that I can confidently distinguish between poly/mono crystalline and thin-film solar modules; and that I know how to wire a solar panel in parallel or series configuration.