Electrical System Guide for DIY Van Conversion

“The electrical system was without a doubt the most daunting task of our DIY camper van conversion. Our goal was to design and build an off-the-grid electrical system that’s safe, reliable, simple, and intuitive (yet no compromises on functionality). After over 4 years of full-time VanLife, we’re happy to report that our system is working flawlessly, nice!”

“Designing and building an electrical system isn’t really straightforward, there are so many concepts to grasp: solar power, alternator charging, shore power, 12 volts, 120 volts, inverter, battery bank, etc. But with our background as engineers and full-time vanlifers, we’re in a good position to make this intimidating task within your reach and help you put the pieces together with the following guide!”

Read more: Electrical System Guide for DIY Van Conversion.

Untangling the Mystery of the World’s First Rooftop Solar Panel

“In 1909, inventor George Cove posed in front of an early rooftop solar panel of his own design for a photograph. One hundred and ten years later, the resulting image was reprinted in the official journal of the US’ most prestigious research institute – but Cove was nowhere to be seen.

Using a range of sources such as newspaper archives and historic city maps, Bellingcat sought to establish the seeming mystery of Cove’s ‘disappearance’ from the photograph. This analysis of archival material from the pioneering days of solar energy tells a cautionary tale about the ease of misattributing historic photos.”

Read more: Untangling the Mystery of the World’s First Rooftop Solar Panel. Foeke Postma, Bellingcat, August 2023. Image by Bellingcat.

The poor woman’s energy: Low-modernist solar technologies and international development

“Solar energy often appears a technology without a history, perpetually new and oriented towards the future. This sense of perennial novelty has gone unchallenged by historians, who have generally neglected renewable energy outside the rich world and all but ignored solar energy everywhere. Left to industry professionals, solar history is typically narrated as a triumphalist tale of technical innovation centered in the global North. Such accounts often conflate solar energy with solar photovoltaics (PV) for direct electricity generation… It is tempting to draw a straight line from this innovation to the huge solar PV installations of the twenty-first century; India’s largest, Rajasthan’s US$1.4 billion Bhadla Solar
Park, sprawls across an area the size of Manhattan.”

“Rejecting the eschatology of climate change, such huge mega-projects have reignited the high-modernist idea of progress. They fuse an optimism about the possibilities of science, technology, and human innovation to deliver sustained improvements in economic production and the satisfaction of human needs. In this bright new age, endless rows of solar panels promise to square the circle of economic growth and environmental preservation by providing virtually infinite amounts of clean power for all—and empowerment for women to boot. These utopian ideas, the environmental humanists Imre Szeman and Darin Barney suggest, are coalescing into ‘one of the sharpest and most powerful of ideologies’ today…” [Read more…]

Solar Desalination Skylight

“You hand pump seawater or polluted water into a bowl. Throughout the day the energy from the sun heats up this water and, instead of evaporating into the atmosphere, it gets trapped in the top section. All the fresh water will then trickle down into this bottom basin and all the impurities of the salt and polluted water stay behind. You’re going to have a left-over salt brine which is going to be a waste resource, but instead of throwing it away, this salt brine goes into the series of seawater batteries around the perimeter that can light a LED strip during the night. At night you can turn on the light and you get an energy source through the salt batteries. And during the day, this is like a skylight, bringing natural light to the interiors.”

“The power of the sun is amazing, and I was trying to copy this hydrological cycle. It can kill 99% of dangerous pathogens, remove salt brine and reduce the need of having to boil your water. I am not necessarily reinventing the wheel; solar distillers have been around for a long time, but a lot of these systems are heavy, expensive to make and with very complicated designs. I wanted to think about one which could potentially be portable and simple to construct, made out of local materials and able to Achieve a higher yield of water.”

“This new design was exactly the same but at a large scale. We created a recipe book that is a step-by-step guide on how you can create this same design using bamboo and local work. It could be flat packed into a bag and deployed very simply and quickly and then attached to a bamboo structure which allows structural rigidity but also a community shaded spot, where you can produce around 18 liters of purified water everyday.”

Read more: Low-Tech Solutions for Complex Demands: An Interview with Architect Henry Glogau, ArchDaily. Image by Henry Glogau. Hat tip to Michael.

Off-grid solar e-waste in the Global South

“There has been a boom in the sale of small-scale off-grid solar products across the Global South over the past decade. A substantial portion of this boom has been driven by international investment in off-grid solar start-up companies, and a formalized off-grid solar sector has been established, with the Global Off-Grid Lighting Association acting as a key representative body.”

“Although this boom has aided in extending electricity access to many energy-poor households and businesses, an emerging concern is the short (three to four years) working life that these off-grid solar products typically have. This has led to a growing issue of solar e-waste. Here we examine how the structure of the off-grid solar sector results in substantial barriers to addressing solar e-waste in the Global South. We consider how practices of repair might contribute to addressing the issue, and set out a research agenda to facilitate new approaches to the issues of solar e-waste.”

Read more: Munro, Paul G., et al. “Towards a repair research agenda for off-grid solar e-waste in the Global South.” Nature Energy (2022): 1-6.

Solar Metal Smelter

Jelle Seegers set out to design a production line that drastically lowers our footprint, using nothing but the sun, wind, or muscle power as its energy source. The ‘Solar Metal Smelter’ is his pièce the résistance: this huge magnifying glass creates a powerful focal point that, on a sunny day, makes metal melt. Cast in a sand mould, the hot substance is transformed into machine parts for a foot-driven grinder in an off-grid practice.