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I have been a DK lurker for a looong time, this is my first diary in about 8 years. I joined DK, under a different username ages ago. I normally just read all of the wonderful diaries here, I'll start posting more soon.

It's been a while, forgive me if I do this diary wrong.

Today is "Giving Tuesday", similar to "Black Friday" except it is all about giving to nonprofits. I want to tell you about Zenman Energy, my (pending) 501(c)3. I created this nonprofit about a year ago to design a low cost, open source solar steam engine. Our goal is to reduce the cost of solar power generation. Our approach is to take decades old ideas in the concentrated solar power field and re-engineer them with cheaper materials and a design that ANYONE with the desire could construct. Once we have completed the scientific and engineering research, my organization will work similar to Habitat for Humanity. We will construct these low cost solar power plants with the help of volunteers. The income produced will be spent to further research, make more power plants, and help other non-profits. I know this is kind of a crazy statement, but I'm not trying to make a single solar power plant. I'm trying to make a million solar plants.

We are still a solid year away from having a completed prototype, but I want to share my progress with the Daily Kos community and a few prototype pictures. I wasn't planning on posting this until the IRS said I am an official 501c3, but since today is "Giving Tuesday" I felt I should jump the gun and ask, beg and plead for your help. Follow me past the solar sun flare.

I'm trying something new with my life. I studied electrical engineering almost 20 years ago at the University of Virginia. At that time in my life, it wasn't for me. The Internet was just getting started so I jumped ship from the EE field and switched to computers. I did fairly well with computers. I started a multi-million dollar dotcom during the internet boom then proceeded to lose said multi-million dollar dotcom during the bust. A decade and a half later I burned out on computer work. After my second kid was born I decided to go back into the EE field. It took me a couple decades to realize that electrical engineering still isn't for me, it's for my children.

We've all read the countless articles here on DailyKos about climate change. It's a problem. A big one. So what's the answer? I doubt there is a person in the DK community that isn't a model citizen of green living. We probably all drive less than the average American and bike more. I bet most of us have insulated our homes and wear sweaters instead of turning up the heat. But even though we're becoming more efficient with our energy usage, we're still drawing electricity from coal plants, nuclear plants and gas fired plants.

A green lifestyle will help, but it is not the answer to climate change. Even with all the efficiency improvements we can dream up, we'll still use more energy tomorrow than we use today. The solution to climate change is to replace ALL of the coal, nuclear and gas plants with cleaner alternatives like solar. At the very least, that's where we should start.

I'm willing to bet there are quite a few people here in the DK community with solar panels on their rooftops. Why don't we ALL have them? If we're really committed to solving the climate crisis, why haven't we climbed up onto our collective rooftop and bolted down some silicon?

The reason why doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand.

I know, this is hardly news to anyone. Of course the solar industry makes a valid argument that solar equipment will pay for itself over time. Which is true. But the time it takes to return the investment matters. Current solar systems take too long to pay for themselves. For solar to become ubiquitous it MUST be cheaper.

What if solar power were so cheap that instead of a payback of 20 years, it only took 10 years? Would that convince you? Probably not. What if it were a 5 year pay back? Maybe. What if it were 2 years?

What if solar wasn't only going to save humanity from nearly certain doom? What if it were a GOOD investment? If investing in solar power were as good of an investment as trading stocks, would investors spend their money on low risk solar collectors? ABSOLUTELY.

Would businesses install solar collectors ABSOLUTELY.

Let's take Home Depot as an example. They have roughly 2200 stores in the US. Each store is around 100,000 square feet (10,000 square meters). They have roughly 22,000,000 square meters of rooftop.

Let's say each of those square meters gets the average sunshine as if they are in the state of Alaska at 4 kWh/day/square meter, then cut it in half just for fun, nah that's not fun, let's cut it in half again and settle on 1 kWh/square meter/day.

That's 22 MILLLLLLION kWh per DAY!

That's 8 BILLLLLION kWh per year!

The average retail cost of electricity in America is 12 cents/kWh, let's cut that in half at 6 cents.

That means Home Depot is sitting underneath $500 Million worth of electricity. Give or take.

So why don't they want to add another $500,000,000 to their bottom line? Simple. At the current cost of solar, it would take them 20 years to get that back. So they invest their money elsewhere. This is a bad thing. We have to make solar cheaper!

This is the same story with every Big Box store out there. With every warehouse with a flat roof. This is the same story with YOUR roof.

If solar is a good investment, people will invest in it. It's that simple.

So that's where my non-profit comes in. A few years ago I got together with a handful of my engineer friends and started brainstorming ways to reduce the cost of solar power generation. We studied existing designs for countless hours and compared the costs, then we searched for ways to achieve the same results with different materials and sometimes fewer materials. We tried some simple experiments and demonstrated some of our ideas worked, others didn't. But each attempt has brought us closer to the finish line of creating an ultra low cost solar steam engine.

A year ago, I decided solving this problem was more important than making money. Instead of making a normal for-profit corporation. I formed a Virginia non-stock corporation. Then spent an obscene amount of time filling out IRS paperwork to form a 501(c)3. I proceeded to wait 13 months for the IRS to respond with ANOTHER 41 questions. Now I'm waiting for them to review those answers. I spoke with Mr. Steele at the IRS earlier today. He was certainly a nice guy to speak with and said if they approved my latest answers it'll only be a few more weeks. For anyone interested, I've learned that if you want to form a for-profit corporation in the United States that clubs baby seals for money it only takes a week or two, but if you want to form a scientific organization that is attempting to save all of humanity you have to wait more than a year! Go figure.

I formed this non-profit to perform the science and engineering necessary to create an open source, low cost, solar steam engine. Most of the internet is run using software that is "open source". We'll copy that model and bring it into the solar arena. In a nutshell everything we develop for this solar steam engine, we'll publish on the internet, license free to anyone that wants to build it or improve on it.

What I'm trying to build is not exactly new science. The physics and math is taught in high schools. Any 5 year old with a magnifying glass and an unsuspecting ant has performed this science. Sunlight is diffuse but if you take a large surface area of sunlight and concentrate it down to a small surface area it gets VERY hot.

That's the basis of a solar steam engine. Concentrate large amounts of sunlight onto an insulated steam pipe. The water inside the pipe heats up, boils, then pressurizes. Once that steam has pressurized it can turn a steam engine, which can turn an electric motor, which can produce grid tied electricity. Simple, right?

This concept has been around for decades. So how can we make this cheaper? How about using less expensive materials? Fewer materials? Less installation time? Free labor (habitat for humanity model). There are so many ways to reduce the cost of solar power but not enough people are trying to. We are.

I'll write more diaries as I progress through this project over the coming months and years, but I want to show you a few pictures of the prototype we're working on. Understand this is a prototype, it has flaws, it is unfinished. If you have questions and ideas I want to hear them!

Here is one of our reflectors with the latest design. I have gone through 18 different designs and finally found one that doesn't require an expensive substrate. It's almost 3 square meters of sunlight (it's 2' by 8'). It costs $10 and takes less than 1 minute to install. It's not very efficient, but it is the equivalent surface area of a $1000 photovoltaic. Cost matters.

This is a coupling I designed and machined on a lathe. It supports the weight of the steam pipes, creates a vacuum seal for the evacuated glass insulator pipe and provides a pivot mechanism for the reflectors to move from. It's about $6 worth of aluminum and can be easily mass produced.

This is from the Norfolk Maker Faire last month (ignore the date stamp, my father took these) Each of the reflectors are 2' wide and 8' across.

A little onsite engineering. When we set it up for the first time, the cross braces got caught in the focal point for about 1 minute. PVC softens at 80C. It started melting! Oops. Some corners can't be cut. We'll switch that to metal.

Here is a new (turns out to be a little cheaper! yay!) cross brace to solves that pesky melting plastic problem. We're working on a pneumatic piston that will track the sun without computers or motors. It uses freon (r134a) to create a heat differential between each side of the piston. It is an idea from the 1970s.

This little guy is the reason I'm doing this project. That's my boy Miles. My girl, Zoe is shy and didn't want her picture taken. I'm doing this for my two kids. I'm doing this project for YOUR kids. Let's face it, if all we do is hope someone else will solve the climate crisis, the next generation is screwed.

I need your help. Please.... Please donate to my non-profit. I can fund some of these projects myself, but not all of them. I know you have limited funds, I know you're tired of fund raisers, but please help me help the world. Dig into your couch cushions and donate $10, $20, $100 or more. Seriously, any amount will help. It adds up quick. While you're at it, like my Facebook page so you can watch the progress with pictures and videos.

If you want to read more, check out:

I frequently post updates on Facebook

Here's a link to a donation form:

Please, ask questions!

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Comment Preferences

  •  Raising money (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    One of the most common suggestions I get is "Why not do a Kickstarter project?" I DO plan on making this a Kickstarter project. But I don't want to use Kickstarter to raise a few thousand dollars to build a simple prototype. My hope is to get the prototype working with individual donations then use Kickstarter to fund a megawatt scale plant.

    If anyone here has much experience with Kickstarter and/or fundraising, I would certainly love to chat.

  •  Why Not Make & Sell Home-Sized Generators? (3+ / 0-)

    I earn a bit below median income but I work at home during the day running machines and such; a solar generator that I could finance in a year or two instead of a decade as at present, would be extremely interesting.

    Looks like these could be offered in kit form too.

    I don't see any figures for efficiency but I was just scanning this diary and your site quickly. What kind of output could a home user get from a small garage-roof sized array?

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Tue Nov 27, 2012 at 11:57:25 AM PST

    •  efficiency... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      DRo, Odysseus

      Honestly, I don't know yet! That's part of the experiment that I'm trying to answer. I still have quite a few pieces to design before I can even measure that number.

      Efficiency is a number thrown around in the solar industry all the time, but it's not that useful of a number. For example... if solar collector A is 10% efficient and solar collector B is 30% efficient. Which one is better? It depends on the cost of each collector. If collector A costs $100 and collector B costs $1000, then the added efficiency of collector B is not that important. You could buy 10 of the cheaper collectors for the same price as 1 of the expensive ones and ultimately produce more energy for the same cost with the less efficient collector.

      What is more important is cost per watt. That is also a number I don't know! haha. This whole project has produced more questions than answers. But I'm getting close to having numbers. For example, I've gotten the cost of each reflector down to roughly $3 per square meter. At 100% efficiency a square meter is ~1 KW. So that's $0.03/watt. It can be a very low efficiency and still be better than what's currently exists. Don't read this wrong, I'm just saying this system is $0.03/watt! I'm simply saying the reflectors are VERY VERY cheap.

    •  kits (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Turning these into kits is definitely doable. We're trying to design most of the parts using off the shelf parts from home improvement stores. Some of the custom parts we'll publish drawings to make them yourselves and also have them mass produced so they can be purchased.

      If we can make solar cheap enough that it becomes a good investment people will build power plants en masse.

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