(originally posted fall 2003)
On Friday, September 19, 2003, the Corvallis Gazette Times published a guest editorial, "Guilt Free Electricity," by world-renowned scientist Jack Dymond. The article explained how a member of our community used a combination of energy conservation and solar technology to make his home into an energy factory rather than an energy drain. Dymond challenged the rest of us to make similar changes.
In a tragic twist of fate, Jack Dymond drowned in the Rogue River the day the article was published. His death was a tremendous loss to his family, his friends, his colleagues, and the community. But it has also inspired many of those who knew Jack to carry on his work in moving toward a culture based on long-term sustainability rather than short-term profits.
Jack Dymond was famous for his work at the bottom of Crater Lake and the Pacific Ocean. But since his retirement from OSU's School of Oceanography, Dymond focused on studying the impact of human activity on the future of our home planet. His work made it crystal clear that our addiction to fossil fuels is threatening the habitat of future generations of humans and other species. But Jack didn't just talk gloom and doom. He took on practical projects that could help create a more sustainable way of life--a comfortable lifestyle that could be lived for generations without mortgaging the future.
One of Jack's last projects was to work to a solar energy system to the new Corvallis High School building. Working with his son Christopher, solar engineer for Oregon's Department of Energy, Jack developed a plan that could drastically reduce the energy consumption--and long-term cost--of the school. The solar-powered CHS they envisioned could offer a wealth of educational opportunities for students and serve as an example for future construction projects in Corvallis and elsewhere. The two Dymonds saw CHS as the first of many projects involving energy-conscious construction.
Since Jack's death, Christopher has carried on the work under the name Solar Creek--Clean Renewable Energy for Everybody's Kids. In this May 2004 interview, Christopher describes the educational value and vision at the heart of Solar Creek.
Can you articulate what is the educational value of this project, and what is your vision for it?
There are two different types of educational value that I see. One is the basic science of electricity, sunlight, and energy. There are lots of different curricula available for teachers to use that use solar as a teaching tool. So that’s one element--simply the actual teaching of these things.
The other type of educational value is more the big picture, the vision, that involves: “What’s our impact on the planet by using energy in terms of both climate and natural resources?”
But I think the biggest value of it all is just simply that we’re concerned enough about the future that we are investing right now in a technology that will meet a portion of our energy needs--not just simply because it’s the lowest cost, but because it will provide jobs, it will provide clean air, and help secure our energy independence in the world. It’s that whole understanding of why renewable energy is more valuable than burning fossil fuels and the extraction industries.
And you can’t say these things and not DO them. We can’t say do what we say and not what we do with children; it doesn’t work. So this is do what we say because we are doing it ourselves. I don’t see any way that we can’t acknowledge that value. That’s the biggest value to me. You know, we could buy little batteries for kids and let them play with electricity; we could do something much simpler for the educational side of it, but to integrate that with this other broader message is really valuable. So that’s what I see as the two parts of the educational value of this.
Can you articulate your vision, the ways in which you have been inspired to want to create the future instead of sitting back passively? You seem to have a drive to create that which isn’t there yet. I’m referring to the quotes in your slide show presentation: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” And, “No flying machine will ever fly from New York to Paris .” And, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” Also could you talk about Aachen, Germany--why that town caught your attention and why you see Corvallis in this light?
Wow. Big question. I guess what motivates me at the core, is that we are now living on a planet with an atmosphere is as different, in terms of greenhouse gasses--the ability of the planet to hold heat around itself like a thermal blanket--it’s as different today, as when there was a mile of ice up where Chicago would be during the last ice age. In otherwords, we have as much in common with that ice age period as we do with the period between 10,000 years ago and the 1850’s. Things have changed that much. And it’s going to take many decades for that impact to translate into a different climate The oceans today have huge amounts of thermal mass, so what we’ve done is started the ball rolling, and we haven’t seen it yet go anywhere; it’s just rolling. But it’s going to start changing everything. And the rate at which we are changing is accelerating. It’s not only that we have changed the atmosphere, but we are going to continue to change it over the next many decades. And then when we finally decide to turn this big ship around, it’s going to take several more decades to do this. And every decade that we wait will make it that much harder to reverse the trend. So it’s going to take ten times, a hundred times longer to stop, just to return to where we are now, depending on how long we wait. The ozone layer doesn’t repair itself nearly at the rate that it is lost. Depending on how long wait, it could be three hundred years before the ozone in the atmosphere that we have lost returns just to where it is now. It’s a slow process. So that’s sort of at the core of the issue for me. This seems like a radical experiment we are doing on our life-support system.
What caught my attention about solar electric power is that it is so uniquely simple and elegant that I like it for that simple reason. It’s just sand and labor. And it can be put on homes in a distributed network. It doesn’t have to be a central power plant; it really is a completely different way of looking at energy systems. I think it’s a kin to what some people call a disruptive technology. The internet was a disruptive technology: it changed our way of thinking about commerce. You don’t have to have a store, a brick and mortar store to sell something? That was just completely foreign 15 years ago. Five years ago it was a radical new idea. And now it’s reality.
So, it’s very difficult for existing big companies, like the quote from IBM's CEO that there might be a market in the world for five computers. You have no idea what the future holds when you’re in one paradigm and you're thinking of the world in that context. So I actually see, at some point, we turn a corner and suddenly everyone says, “You know what I want? I want a roof that’s made of solar power, “ or, “I want a house that has the ability to be powered by the sun. And it’s just because I want it. It’s an investment. It’s what I want.” And at that moment, everything shifts in the solar industry.
Solar will never be more than 10-20% of our energy base, but it will be something that everybody can own a piece of. And some people might do all their home with it, and some people who live in the trees won’t. And that’s fine. That’s reality. People aren’t going to chop all of their trees down for more sun. That’s a poor choice in my opinion.
So there’s a unique shift. How this occurs is somewhat unknown. But then, suddenly looking at what happened in Germany, in Aachen, Germany, with one individual talking to his city council and motivating them to, as a community, buy a piece of this technology, and how that went from one city to another to another to another to anothe r, to within three or four years all of Germany decided, “Let’s just DO this.” And Germany went from, basically, last place in the solar industry to second only to Japan.
Last year Japan did 53K- 55K systems. We get pretty excited in the United States because we did 2-3K. This was a huge increase in the United States. In Oregon we went from 30 to somewhere around 80, so it was a huge increase in Oregon. But it’s a drop in the bucket.
You could say that, ah, this is only 3,000 watts and 3,000 killowatts a year; it’s just noise. Why are we wasting our time saving the school district a couple hundred bucks a year, and it’s a completely legitimate thing to say, and it’s totally true. It’s a drop in the bucket. But that’s where it starts. You don’t start by saying, let’s do tens of thousands of these things.
How did you learn about Aachen?
I work really closely with the building scientist for the state of Washington, Washington State University, and he now runs the Northwest Solar Energy Center and has been working closely with utilities. A year and a half ago, he, on his own dime, bought a ticket to Germany and went and met Jon Schumacher, the first guy in Aachen that did all this because he’d heard of this guy and just said, I’ve got to go do this. So it wasn’t my discovery; it was his. And he figured out all of these bits and pieces. So frequently, when we’re working on projects, we’re trying to get people do energy efficiency or renewables, I think we forget about the story and look more at the technology. And that’s because we’re energy nerds and are into the technology. But Mike Nelson, he understood that people are interested in the story.