Solar Living and More
One evening over dinner our family was discussing solar energy. Coming back from Germany this June, where I noticed lots and lots of solar panels on roofs, I was wondering, why we here in California, where the sun shines much more often than in Germany, only have a very few. Ideas were tossed around: too expensive, can't store the energy well, to complicated to install and so forth. Until my husband suggested to spend one of our last vacation days and just drive up to Hopland and visit the Real Goods Solar Living Center, basically the mecca for solar energy here in California.
No sooner said than done. We even booked a tour and were on our way the next day. I was a bit apprehensive. Although I really like the idea of solar energy, to listen to the mathematical equations and physical formulas involved with it didn't much appeal to me. But my worries were for nothing.....
After strolling for a bit through the Real Goods store, we were greeted by our guide, Brittany.
And although we of course talked about solar energy, Brittany showed and explained us so much more....
The Solar Living Institute is located in Hopland, right on Hwy 101. As Real Goods with founder John Schaeffer acquired the 12 acre parcel that is now the Solar Living Institute it was just a "ratty patch of ground". Now I would rather call it a green oasis.
Brittany started the tour off at the Intern Village, Real Goods offers an extensive 7 month Intern program that runs from April to October. The Interns live in Cobs, little houses made out of straw and clay, like this one:
Or in tepees, a "tiny house" and yurts.
Next we got to the huge array of solar panels that we had already spotted from the highway
Notice the flags on top of the solar panels? Brittany explained to us, that since they installed the flags a few years ago, they noticed a significant decrease in the efficiency of the panels. She then demonstrated this on a single solar panel which powers a little fountain. If in full sun the fountain would spurt high, but if we just would put our hand over it, the shade of the hand significantly lowered the fountain. That made us think...is foggy Half Moon Bay the right place for solar? If one just could make energy out of fog......
Then we went by some of the "living structures", two of them I really liked: the Agave Cooling Tower:
...and the memorial car grove. How did the tree get in the car?
When they took over the property, there were all these old cars, so they needed to get creative and planted trees inside the wrecks and then just cut the cars wider open as the trees grew. Now it is a perfect symbol for nature taking over again.
Then we strolled through the various gardens and along beautiful ponds, learning about permaculture and sheet mulching. With the help of the interns these gardens produce enough to feed all the interns and keep the farm stand filled.
Here a garden to be, showing the sheet mulching
here the lush, ready to harvest edition
Another interesting stop was the site of the straw-bale house building workshop.
Brittany is explaining how it works...
An amazing idea, not only have the rice straw-bales a great insulation factor, they also are a so far unused byproduct of rice farming. "Currently over one million tons of carbon dioxide and particulate pollution blacken California skies annually. Instead, two hundred thousand homes could be built with the rice straw that is burned each year. " (1)
The Real Goods store itself is built out of 600 rice straw-bales covered with soil cement.
This main building that houses the store is designed so clever and with nature in mind, that it does not need either heating nor cooling.
The big window front towards the south with deciduous trees planted in front, spends light in summer but with the correct angle and the leaves spending shade it never gets hot in the store. And Hopland deals with three digit temperatures quite often during the summer. In winter though, when the sun comes in at a lower angle and the leaves are dropped, the sun warms the building.
As our tour was coming to an end we had not only learned about solar technology but also about renewable energy, green building and permaculture, in short, about the whole spectrum of sustainable living. Truly to their mission statement " to promote sustainable living through inspirational environmental education" we not only got our initial questions answered but now have a lot of new ideas and concepts to think about.
Thank you Brittany for the lively and knowledgeable tour!
We ended our stay with a visit to the oasis, the central point of the Center and admired the flow of the water and the solar calendar.
A highly recommended visit to the
Solar Living Center
13771 S Highway 101
Hopland, CA 94559
(1) A Place in the Sun by John Schaeffer
Real Goods: Solar Living Source Book
Gaia's Garden, A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway