Mark Chalom

In late May I was fortunate to attend the 39th American Solar Energy Society’s (ASES) national conference in Phoenix. It was at the downtown conference center where the “Greenbuild” conference/expo had been held. At 3,000 attendees vs. 30,000, the feeling was much different. It was not a big marketing show; it was more technical and specialized, centered on solar energy’s place in the emerging sustainable society.

Though that may sound like a narrow focus, the session topics and papers demonstrated that was not the case. As there were up to 7 simultaneous tracks, it was hard to choose which session to attend. Sometimes we had to run from one to another. There was something for everyone. As a passive solar architect, I was attracted to the sessions dealing with vernacular architecture, passive cool tower design, carbon neutral design, day-lighting design, efficient building systems, kinetic building skins and more. I stayed with a friend in Phoenix, a mechanical engineer who works on major buildings. His interests are primarily related to utilizing high temperature solar energy to make air conditioning for convention center-scale buildings. Both of us were pleased to find the information and education we sought.

The opening plenary set the pace for the rest of the conference. Ray Sanchez from the PBS News Hour moderated this panel, which included Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, Denis Hayes, former director of National Renewable Energy Laboratory and founder of Earth Day, Cathy Zol, assistant secretary of the Department of Energy, and Brad Albert, general manager and strategic planner from Arizona Power Service. The discussion was engaging and thought provoking. The consensus was positive but guarded: opportunities ahead are plentiful and diverse. The best quote was from Amory Lovins who said of the future, “Everything will work out in the end. If things are not working out now, we are not at the end.” We have no choice but to think positively and keep moving on.

“Cool Towers: Integrated Passive Cooling for Buildings and Spaces” was the best technical session I attended. I have designed and utilized cool towers before but here I got a full education on the science and mathematical design of cool towers based on actual tested towers. I now know everything needed to design a successful tower, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity. The concept is simple: Build a tower to catch wind or just open air, spray or moisten this air, which evaporates moisture and makes air cooler and heaver. Let this cool air fall down into your building or space. These work so well, they are used to air condition outdoor spaces, as demonstrated at the Zion National Park visitor center.

“Solar Energy for the Other 80%” was the most meaningful presentation of the week for me. It did not deal with BTU’s or efficiencies or watts/$. It was about improving the quality of life and saving the lives of people in poverty around the world. This is where solar is bringing up the bottom; not adding to the wealth of the top. Laurie Stone, of Solar Energy International (Colorado) lead the session. She dedicated it to Walt Ratterman, a solar hero whose life’s work was to bring appropriate technologies to under-privileged communities around the world. Walt died in the Haitian earthquake. He was also honored at the evening awards ceremony. This was the only secession where the majority of presenters were women, including Louise Meyer, co-founder of Solar Household Energy, which developed simple solar ovens, and promotes solar cooking around the world. This simple invention saves some women hours every day collecting firewood. It allows them to pursue child development, self-education and income-producing crafts. I’m going to buy one of their ovens. Laura Stachel, founder of We Care Solar, explained how she, a gynecologist, brought a solar panel and rechargeable batteries in her suitcase to a hospital in Uganda where very sick people are turned away because there are no lights to do any emergency surgery at night. Woman die during childbirth. Laura’s batteries lit LED headlamps so doctors could work and save lives. Debbie Tewa, a former engineer with Sandia labs, and now Tribal Energy Coordinator with the Arizona Energy Office, spoke of the many opportunities and projects on native lands.

New Mexico was very well represented. The NM Solar Energy Association (NMSEA) had an educational booth staffed by volunteers Monte Ogdahl (NMSEA President), Vice President Gary Vaughn, Secretary Jim Barrera, board member R.P Bohannan, and office manager Ragan Matteson. They shared many of the educational outreach programs they have developed, and showed off the long history of New Mexico’s involvement in solar energy; from the Anasazi to the upsurge in the early 70’s, to high-tech development now being done at Sandia Labs.

Greeting attendees in their colorful Hawaiian shirts, the NMSEA stood out from a distance. Instead of cheap, colorful, useless, plastic crap, they handed out small adobe bricks, made the way they have been for 6,000 years: earth, water and sun. It was explained how these blocks are part of New Mexico’s solar history and future. Many people had never seen an adobe, and they added a welcome dimension to the event. NMSEA was one of four chosen from thirty-three nationwide chapters asked to speak. They explained how their Solar Fiesta has grown. A NMSEA threesome presented a colorful, lively schetch of the organization’s history of evolving education programs that have culminated in today’s annual Solar Fiesta, and it’s future goals. Helen Beauchamp of Zomeworks Corp., Albuquerque, presented an important paper on the Double Play Buildings in that city. Zomeworks was also represented on the tradeshow floor, standing proud with the big corporate solar players.

Karlis Viceps, solar designer/builder and former president of NMSEA, received the Rebecca Vories Award. He was recognized for his efforts in helping organize the ASES conferences. He was heralded as “That Rare Volunteer with the willingness to do what it takes, and the motivation to go above and beyond.” Charles Andraka from Sandia Labs was given the Hoyt Clarke Hottel Award for his lifelong work in the concentrating solar power industry.

Alfred von Bachmayr was one of three presenters from the “Emerging Architecture” evening session. This is a highlight of the conference that attendees try not to miss. Alfred’s presentation covered the work he has done as founder and director of the World Hands Project. They design and build low-cost housing in the Third World, and at remote Native American sites, as well as at a school in Haiti. His body of work was extensive and well received.

Professor Steven Dent from the UNM School of Architecture presented a case study of a successful project he had designed. Many employees from Sandia Labs, being session chairs, were there presenting papers and adding to the research shared at the high-tech level. Marlene Brown, former president of NMSEA and an honored ASES “Fellow” was busy teaching workshops, presenting papers, being a session chair, attending sessions, and being a major organizer of the “Women in Solar” group that hosts a luncheon dealing with that very issue.

I also had the honor of speaking at this conference. Doug Balcolmb, another past NMSEA president, is one of the most highly honored persons in the solar world for his work in passive solar analysis. Doug is an ASES Fellow and former director of the Los Alamos Solar Division. He was the first director of the National Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI), now the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). He led a session on the state of the art of Passive Solar Design. Passive has dropped out of style lately, and is not promoted as well as it should be. Doug asked me to speak about my work and the patterns I see evolving. I presented some of the observations I described in the December Green Fire Times. I showed some of my work and other new homes being built in the Santa Fe area as a result of the new codes, and talked about the disconnect I see. My paper was very well received, and I found many others from around the country who agree with me on these issues. I also had the chance to talk to Craig Cristensen, the principal engineer for residential buildings at NREL. He agreed that HERS is limited, and more testing of existing buildings needs to be done. I was glad to have met and shared ideas with him.

The first solar conference was held in Phoenix in 1955, a few miles from where we were. An evening presentation was given about that historic time and what was presented. I heard names I’ve read about in my solar history books. We were shown a back-up Vanguard satellite covered with solar cells, and the first solar powered transistor radio.

I’ve attended many ASES conferences since 1975, and this was one of the best. Most of the others I spoke with also felt that ASES has done an exceptional job in keeping a very diverse set of people and applications held together by the common fascination with the potential of the Sun’s energy. We were all quite satisfied that we had gathered again to share and learn from each other. We have come a long way since PV panels were $1,500 a watt.

The conference ended with a special reception and dinner at Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s School of Architecture and Foundation. Don Aitken and his wife Barbara Harwood hosted the event. Don has been director of ASES for many years. He and Barbara, are professors, and have run the FLW School of Architecture for over 30 years. The Sonoran Desert was green and in bloom. The sun was setting as we had drinks and appetizers on the deck overlooking Phoenix. We were given a special tour of the school and facility with guides and students everywhere to answer questions and engage in conversation. Dinner was shared with comrades from around the country on the patio as the stars appeared and the air cooled. This was surely the moment Frank wanted me to have; a perfect way to end another successful ASES Conference.