Monday, June 20, 2011

MicroSolar Defined

MicroSolar is an approach to solar energy that is geared to the scale of individual and family needs. It is the other end of the spectrum from the growing push to create large scale multi-megawatt solar fields in the desert. It means new ways of meeting traditional needs -- the light, the cookstove, the message.

The Basic Principle

The basic principle is: More with Less. In one sense, it's about that simple.

Replacing fossil fuels with solar energy is necessarily a shift from consuming materials to transforming natural flows -- from burning up irreplaceable solids (coal), liquids (oil) and gases (natural gas) to re-learning how to use perpetual water flow (hydroelectric), air flow (wind generators, kiteships) and solar radiation (photovoltaics). It also means creating new artifacts to deliver the services that are built into modern civilization -- getting rid of internal combustion engines (~ 20-30% efficient) by substituting electric motors (~ 90% efficient), eliminating incandescent light bulbs (~ 10% efficient, which at only 65 watts will burn through a barrel of oil equivalent per year of steady operation) by installing solar tubes (delivering natural light into windowless areas) and LED lights (~ 40% efficient).

Integrated Supply and Demand Innovation

The critically important conceptual shift is to integrate innovations in solar generation ("supply") with innovations in ultra-efficient consumption ("demand"). It is absurd to connect a MicroSolar system to a "Macro" fancy modern refrigerator (which typically consumes at least the equivalent of a barrel of oil per year) -- or an incandescent light bulb.

It is equally absurd to use solar energy to produce a liquid fuel to be wasted in an inefficient internal combustion engine in the same profligate way that petroleum has been wasted for a century. MicroSolar principles enable us to embrace altogether new forms of transportation. Our forebears were liberated from designing within the limitations of the horse. (Imagine a parking lot at the Mall, filled with unattended horses and buggies!) Now urban design can be liberated from the limitations of the automobile.

Integrating Solar into Building Design

As people become more concerned about the environment, they may ask their architect to add a solar energy system to their new building -- to make it more "green". But if the building orientation has already been decided by the layout of the street or the view, or the architect has specified a lot of cute gingerbread for the roofline, it can be quite difficult and costly to integrate solar features. The sun appears in the sky in a well-understood arc which we are not going to change, so our buildings must be oriented to that arc. It's not hard: Windows South  (in the northern hemisphere), roof ridge-lines running east-west, and so forth. Furthermore, the heat from solar energy captured by windows in the wintertime -- or shaded from entering windows in the summertime -- is as important as solar panels on the roof.


Even though the benefits of MicroSolar are profound, it can be very difficult for people to adapt to new ways of thinking and acting. New methodologies are also needed. 

One such methodology is very straightforward: youth doing exploratory design science.

It is easy to see the consequences of consuming fossil fuels: when the tank is empty, it has to be refilled. But it is hard to see air flowing and you can't use a bucket to quantify solar radiation. Electricity is invisible, so these MicroSolar energy flows require a metering tool, an energy awareness engine.

With such tools, a group of students, from Middle School level to University level, can take on the challenge of structuring a Solar Nations Initiative to find appropriate solutions.

  • identify a need, 
  • specify minimal requirements,
  • investigate marketplace solutions,
  • identify good designs and product prospects,
  • test and compare product performance,
  • recommend solutions,
  • conduct a pilot project,
  • develop a training campaign,
  • guide implementation on a large scale. 
As an example, consider the cookstove:

  • identify a need: to cook without biomass or fossil fuels under varying sun conditions (sunny/cloudy, day/night)
  • specify minimal requirements: temperature, volume, heat storage, time to completion
  • investigate marketplace solutions: locate various vendors and/or invent new products
  • identify good designs and product prospects: acquire samples from numerous vendors
  • test and compare product performance: test under rigorous conditions and determine best solutions
  • recommend solutions: recommend product(s) to stakeholders
  • conduct a pilot project: test in real conditions with numerous families to verify performance
  • develop a training campaign: bring teams together from numerous communities to learn new techniques
  • guide implementation on a large scale: marketing and sales on a large scale.   
Key Elements of MicroSolar ("Legs of the Stool")

MicroSolar principles (more with less) can be applied in all domains of living. In each of these domains, a research project can be established to identify, test and then implement MicroSolar solutions. 

Agriculture / Food Processing / Cooking
  • Solar water pumping
  • Solar tractors
  • Food drying
  • Solar box cooker
  • Solar concentrating lens for high temperature cooking (invented by Prof Guasumba of Ecuador)
  • Solar bakery at the village scale
  • Complete solar kitchens


Please refer to the section on Methodology, above. 

Health Care

  • Solar powered refrigeration for medicines
  • High temperature solar equipment sanitization
  • Solar electric for remote clinics 
  • Telemedicine (internet access to medical information and remote healthcare consulting)
Energy Generation and Energy Efficiency

  • MicroSolar devices
  • MicroAppliances
  • MicroGrids. Once individual solutions are in place, microgrids can be established in a village or neighborhood. Each microgrid is semi-autonomous and can function independently of larger systems.  
  • MiniGrids. Once MicroGrids are in place, they in turn can be linked together into larger scale minigrid units, which in turn can also function independently as necessary.
  • Electrical Distribution Systems
  • Global Electricity Grid
Shelter, Bioclimatic Design

  • Energy audits with small sensors
  • Bake off between model solar home and regular home (based on the Solar Decathlon)

Community Infrastructure

  • Waste management

  • Remote telecenters
  • Wireless networks
  • Upgrading cell phones
  • Downsizing microcomputers

Solar solutions have now become sufficiently sophisticated that the consumer can purchase very small devices, or modular components that can be expanded at will, working within family budgets. In cases where solar devices offset other costs over time, microloans can be created.


In the world of electricity, the concept of MicroSolar has not yet been applied on a national scale to serve 100% of a country's population. This elegant use of solar energy is only now truly available, as robust solar systems and reliable components are finally reaching the marketplace. Rather than being seen as "underdeveloped" or handicapped, the rural nation that employs MicroSolar principles will leap ahead of those other countries which are trying to modernize by mimicking industrialized countries with fragile transmission lines and overbuilt, high-energy-consuming appliances. The MicroSolar nation may even leap ahead of those industrialized nations which have become excessively dependent upon complex unstable energy infrastructure. With their unwieldy long supply lines, these industrialized nations are more vulnerable to economic chaos as their access to fossil fuels inevitably goes into decline.

For developing countries with large deep rural populations, MicroSolar is a first step towards modernization that does not require centralized power management which inevitably has to deal with transmission line failures that leave everyone on the line stranded without basic services. MicroSolar offers the most resiliency and equity -- if there is a component failure in one household, help is next door where a neighbor's system is still functioning. Basic energy services can be priced within the means of rural people -- first with small affordable devices, and then expanded in a modular, brick-by-brick fashion, to add more solar equipment each year, always within a family's budget.

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