September 4, 2007
Did you know Maine has more sunlight in the winter than the rest of the Northeast?
That fact comes from the Maine State Energy Program
along with the opinion that our state has "enormous potential for widespread adoption of solar energy technologies." The state hopes to boost solar power with its Solar Energy Rebate Program, which offers financial aid for solar electric and thermal energy systems.
As I contemplate replacing my 25-year-old water heater, my first question was whether there's enough sunshine to make it feasible. I've been delighted to find that not only is it feasible, but there are plenty of people who are relying on solar power. I'm hoping to meet some of them from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m, on Saturday, Oct. 6, during the Maine Solar Tour. Many of the homes featured use solar power for far more than heating water.
"This year we will have the biggest Maine Solar Tour yet, with over 50 homes in seven separate tours," writes Richard Komp, president Maine Solar Energy Association (http://ellsworthme.org/MESEA/
I'm hoping this energy crunch finally makes solar power is a big part of all our futures. Because for me, it's also a fondly remembered part of the past. But like soccer, solar energy has been on the verge of catching hold in the United States for as long as I can remember. Each time, a cheaper form of energy has pushed it aside.
Even during the Industrial Revolution, people were worried about becoming dependent on fossil fuels. Auguste Mouchout, a French mathematics instructor, was granted the first patent for a motor running on solar power in 1861. Others used solar energy to heat water by painting a metal water tank black and putting it in the sun to absorb heat, writes John Perlin, author of From Space to Earth: The Story of Solar Electricity. Even on clear, hot days, though, it took until afternoon to get water hot and then it cooled when the sun set.
Lots of scientists and inventors tried to harness solar power, but Clarence Kemp of Baltimore is credited with building the first commercial solar water heater in 1891. Mounted on a roof, the "Climax" was an insulated box around a metal tank with a glass top, which allowed sunlight in but kept heat from getting out. He first marketed it, Perlin writes, to "gentlemen whose wives had gone off with their domestic staffs for the summer, advertising that it would make housekeeping easier."
For $25, it was a great deal in Southern California, where fuel was expensive and sunshine wasn't. By 1897, Perlin writes, a third of the residences in Pasadena were heating water with Kemp's devices.
The next innovation in solar water heating also caught on in California. William Bailey invented and marketed the first thermosiphon system - tank on the roof and the collector below - in early 19th century. They worked so well, Perlin writes, that "when a salesman in Palo Alto set up a heater with a faucet on the sidewalk, people occasionally scalded their hands with it." Then natural gas was discovered in Southern California and the solar water heating industry collapsed. In 1923, Bailey's patents were traded to a company in Florida, another state without hard freezes, for an Oldsmobile.
And this is where my life intersects with the history of solar power. Floridians bought more than 100,000 thermosiphon water heaters between the 1930s and the mid 1950s, when electricity became so cheap that sunshine again stopped being a bargain. One of them ended up in a lovely house in Miami Shores that my husband and I rented in from 1978 to 1980.
It was called an "old Florida" house because it had no air conditioning, yet was cool enough to support life comfortably. We worked in air-conditioned buildings - I at the Miami Herald and George at the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale - but it was so nice to come home and breathe unprocessed air. We also enjoyed a "Florida room," screened in, shaded by trees, with a deliciously cold tiled floor. We even had a fireplace for the occasional cool nights, but George always talked me out of using it on the grounds that 50 years worth of debris was probably blocking the chimney.
We never lacked hot water since an electric "booster" system heated our water on cloudy days. Best of all was the cost - or lack thereof. Our electricity bill averaged $18 a month. It was a pleasure to pay it. I'd love to have that nice warm feeling again - especially during a long, cold Maine winter.