Tools For A Solarpunk Future

Tales From The Dork Web #28

It’s been a few months since I published. I needed a break from writing and to recharge. I have some more issues to publish once a month. Think of this as Season 2 of Tales From The Dork Web.

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If this is your first time reading Tales From The Dork Web this might help with the sheer volume of links and videos. Most people pick it up, put it down and come back to it several times. These links are your playground. They’ll be there when you next visit.

This issue is about the tools we can build together to create a Solarpunk future. You don’t need anyone’s permission. You don’t need a company to sell you a product. These are tools we can build together to improve lives. You could turn some of these tools into products that could make a difference. Or you can build these things without them becoming products. Or you can try your own riffs on the ideas. The future is yours to build.

This issue’s music is by the always mesmerising Ólafur Arnalds and Josin. The Bottom Line is a beautiful, uplifting piece, I’ve been meaning to use it for ages. You’re going to want to listen to this. This issue’s art comes from the incredible Rita Fei.

Her rich and detailed worlds and the characters within them really touched me. From the Fanciest Pigeon to The Confrontation, her work is mesmerising and magical in equal measure. I’m focusing on a Solarpunk piece Rita created a while back. Rita graciously gave me permission to use the drawings she used to build up to the finished piece. If you like Rita's art more is available from her print shop.

We can carry on as we are, poison the seas, the air, the soil and boil the planet. Or we can change. A Solarpunk future is possible, but we have to build it ourselves. Before we can build it we need to describe it. It’s ok to live in the life you have now. Nobody is demanding perfection. But the power is in us to make much larger changes than we might think.

A key Solarpunk principle is a focus on action rather than asking permission. Solarpunk tools need to be small enough for communities and small groups to build. They need to be inexpensive, because they need to be affordable. Large infrastructure projects are often beyond the reach of such communities. Governments can build molten salt reactors, transport networks and large project. Communities need to focus on basic needs. How might a Solarpunk community ensure free water access for all?

Atmospheric Water Generation

As the Earth boils we lose access to fresh water. In parts the Earth is becoming more arid. In others it’s becoming more humid. Desalination plants are expensive and often rely on dirty power sources. Most people don’t know we could pull out all the water we need with passive solutions. You can build some of these in your own backyard.

Martial Borschel shows improvised water capture with cling film/saran wrap. Water is best captured in the early morning when condensing vapour reaches the dew point. Martial’s video achieves this in the Negev desert. Humid environments can do even better by capturing humidity from morning fog.

Fog capture has provided rural communities with fresh water from Peru to Morocco. Rivers and wells are the usual water supply sources. Wells dry up. Rivers become contaminated by human and industrial waste. Fog is different. It's caused by the water cycle and mostly purified by the Sun's UV radiation.

From Chile through Peru the Humboldt's cold waters run up the west-coast of South America. Between the latitudes of 5° to 30° South the current cools the air above the desert coast. This creates large amounts of humidity and a temperature inversion effect. A dense fog rises up the mountain coast called the Garúa (or Camanchaca in Chile). The water droplets in the fog are too fine to form rain, so the land remains a desert.

Fog capture sites have brought fresh water to rural Peru since the mid-80s. Unlike desalination plants fog capture systems are inexpensive and passive. They don’t need complex filters or moving parts.

This Durham University video discusses practical fog harvesting design considerations. It’s a little dry (no pun intended) but it's worth it for the biomemetic Namib desert beetle references alone.

Plastic meshes used in fog capture seem wasteful. The properties of several plastics are highly sought after. Kathleen Chelling tried recycled polyethelyne plastic bags to create rope for the mesh. Her results were just as good. Fog harvesting could bring freshwater to rural communities using ocean-harvested recycled plastics.

This two-panel harvester in Nepal provides 500 litres of drinking water a day. Under the right conditions fog harvesting can yield incredible results at little cost.

While nets are simple, easy to produce and maintain other designs are also available. Jonathan Boreyko studied ways to make fog harvesters more efficient and built a fog harp (Paper on Sci-Hub). I found a blog showing how to make your own fog mesh, but I’d quite like to try a mesh/harp hybrid using recycled plastic bags.

Desalination plants cost millions but fog meshes are cheap and scale well. Fog harvesting companies like Infinite Cooling and organizations like FogQuest exist already. It’s hard to build a saleable product out of fog harvesting. It looks like there’s an opportunity to bring fog harvesting to the mainstream over the next decade. But what about places with intermittent rain as well as fog?

Warka Water is a project to build different types of water harvesting tower. The canopy underneath reduces captured water evaporation and provides a sheltered community space. My main concerns with Warka Water surround the complexity involved. The creator said designs would be open sourced. I couldn't find anything when I looked.

Small-scale rainwater harvesting is commonplace. My partner uses a water butt to harvest rainwater for the garden. We prefer growing food with rainwater than drinking water. Brad Lancaster wrote two books on rainwater harvesting in dry areas. Great Escape Farms made a video guide to building a rainwater harvesting system.

With air-based water capture systems, UV exposure should make the water drinkable. Open source low-tech shows how to build a cheap water filter. We can sterilise water by boiling it but often uses fossil fuels and is an incredible waste of energy. What if a Solarpunk community could harness energy more efficiently?

Power Generation And Energy Management

Some might like being being closer to nature but we're all used to some creature comforts. We need some control over lighting, heating and to do all the things we want to do. In Take What You Need And Compost The Rest, Margaret Killjoy introduces post-civilization theory. Even in this rejection of modern civilization, she still manages to write:

Someone is going to wire up his Super Nintendo to a solar panel array, and folks from all walks of life are going to come over to play Street Fighter, or just to watch.

Energy budgets optimise for consumption rather than efficiency. Someone may wire up a Super Nintendo to a solar panel. In our future, energy storage and security are more important than raw power output. Large solar arrays, fusion plants and dyson swarms are too large for us to build. A sustainable Solarpunk community cannot run entirely on Solar panels alone. They're too dependent upon rare-earth conflict minerals shipped around the globe.

One of the most fascinating electrical phenomena I’ve read about in the past year is the Seebeck effect. The Seebeck effect is the back-action counterpart to the Peltier effect. The Peltier effect uses electricity to create a temperature gradient. This cools or heats a conductor's opposite ends. Fridges, air-conditioning systems and other heat pumps use this.

The Seebeck effect takes a temperature gradient and turns that into electricity. If this all sounds a little theoretical, naked scientists break it down below:

The Seebeck effect lets us build Thermo-Electric Generators (TEGs). Deep space probes such as the Voyager probes use TEGs. Unlike Voyager most of us lack access to decaying radioactive isotopes. Still, all we need is something hot and something cold to use the effect.

DIY Perks has a simple DIY Seebeck generator project. RAM Projects’ build looks cool (and hot). I’ve linked to Andrew Lewis’ Seebeck generator tutorial before but it’s worth another look. Most DIY examples use candles for heat sources. Power generation is dependent upon consistent hot and cold sources. We could harvest excess steam passing through pipes into snow. Fast running streamwater passing under a sheet of sunlit metal could work. Anything with a hot and cold side will do.

Solar subsidies and feed-in tariffs pay residents in some countries to support national grids. As electric vehicles become more popular, electricity demand will only increase. National grids weren't planned with this demand in mind. Building new power stations to cope will take decades. That demand has to be satisfied from elsewhere. Personal power generation unviable 5 years ago may become more of an option over the next 5 years.

If you have lots of sunlight and little cloud cover then solar power makes a lot of sense. The ecological cost isn’t limited to the power generation but the entire supply chain. It’s not easy to figure out where the trade-off lies. SunZilla is a portable DIY Solar-Powered Generator. Will Prowse's YouTube channel is full of solar power tutorials.

What else is there for those uncomfortable with photovoltaic solar's ecological costs? There's more than one way to do it.

Open Source Ecologie France built a real-world Open Hardware Solar concentrator based on a Linear Fresnel Reflector. Everything is on Github and this Instructable brings it all together. The video above demonstrates how fresnel reflectors work for an unrelated corporate project. OSE France’s version is more or less the same thing. The Sun’s rays focus onto a collector where water is pumped in. The water produces steam. This can generate electricity, heat environments or do other work. We could optimise the process using harvesting techniques such as the Seebeck effect.

Of course the most efficient solar energy production in nature comes from photosynthesis. Could we take a leaf out of nature’s book and produce fuel from use artificial photosynthesis? Yes, but with some explosive constraints. If this concept is new but sounds interesting the talk above might blow your mind.

The video is fairly dense, drawing on micro-wire arrays, nanotech and composites. This might be out of the range of our community. But we can still experiment with small scale artificial photosynthesis as shown below.

The experiment above isn’t perfect but you can try it at home without blowing anything up. If your preference is for a less explosive power source there are other options on the table.

I’ve always loved Daniel Connell’s work. This $50 water turbine is still a work in progress. His $30 Wind Turbine design below is ready to build. While the water turbine produces less peak power, it does so day and night regardless of wind.

Solarpunk Energy Efficiency

Greater electrification and technology is the modern world’s default solution. Optimising for energy efficiency is a good first step. But adding more energy or technology doesn’t necessarily result in optimal solutions for our problems.

Nebraskan winters can be too cold for snow (kinda). Throughout that winter Nebraska is usually sunny. Russ Finch uses clever designs to grow figs, grapes and oranges in the Nebraskan winter, above. Russ’ work resembles the Walapini, used to grow Pineapples in Victorian Britain. Walapinis use pits to hold cold air and sneaky techniques to get the most out of low winter sun.

If Rob’s greenhouses were higher up he'd use heating in the winter. By tapping into retained ground heat, Rob doesn't need active heating. This highlights the disconnect between optimal energy use versus addition. Technology is a means to an end, not the end itself.

Going Further

Our community has freshwater, energy and food covered. To build housing we need serious tools. Marcin Jakubowski’s Open Source Ecology project builds open designs for all the tools a village needs.

But what of communications? As well as traditional HF and VHF radio, we can use LoRaWAN and traditional 2.4Ghz Wifi for data links. Without sustained pressure to upload your life a continuous online presence isn't needed. Secure Scuttlebutt is the last Social Network in which I actively participate. It doesn’t need a permanent online presence. It takes some adjusting to, but I check in once every few weeks.

Only governments and corporations can deliver us a future filled with bullshit jobs, an unreachable dream of home ownership and income-based healthcare. We can trust them to do the right thing after exhausting every other option.

No sane human being would ever design or wish for a future filled with plastic, dead oceans and toxic air. This world is a product of the choices made by us and others. We can keep making the same mistakes, we can demand better or we can roll up our sleeves. You don’t need to be or even like Greta Thunberg to build the future you want.

If some of what I’ve shown you looks interesting, dig deeper and try some of these things out for yourself. It beats trying to eke out an exit building the next Uber for X phone app.

Things You May Have Missed

3D Printing changes small scale production so much, but uses a lot of plastic. Filamentive sell filament made from recycled plastic. Sadly COVID halted production of their 100% recycled filament, but you can still obtain heavily recycled material for 3D printing projects and prototypes.

Bren Smith was part of the climate problem, ripping up ocean habitats with trawlers. He set up Greenwave in 2014 and founded Thimble Island Ocean Farm to teach sustainable oyster, clam and kelp farming. His Bioneer talk above is informing, uplifting and entertaining in equal measure. His farming process needs no freshwater, fertilizer or feed and could feed the world with an area the size of Washington state. A recent update discussed the business aspects throughout COVID and it's impact on the project’s climate goals. Bren also talks about progress on his work with indigenous cultures worldwide.

I’d love to see an end to harmful pesticides but we share the world with people who don’t hold that view. COtL (Conditions Over the Landscape) built ‘mesonets’ to track thermal inversions and pesticide spray drift across parts of South Australia.

Jacob Geller uses Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 to talk about the planet’s dominant species: the car.

A Group at the National University of Singapore have developed a Hygrogel and self-contained farming system. While it’s designed with space agriculture in mind there’s scope for moisture harvesting in regular vertical farming, something I’ll write about in a later issue. The paper can be found by searching a friendly Sci-Hub mirror for doi:10.1002/adma.202002936.

BloodKnife’s “Everyone is Beautiful and No-one is Horny” tears apart body fetishism and the desexualization of cinema.

If you work in tech and would rather help bring about real change than sling code for a SaaS, GoodJobs might be the job board for you.

I’ll leave you with this quote from Peter Reich’s A Book of Dreams, a strange book about a boy’s relationship with his father that inspired Kate Bush’s song Cloudbusting.

I loved my dreams more than reality.

Never stop dreaming. I’ll be back with more Tales From The Dork Web next month. If you’d like it in your inbox, you can sign up below.