It is not often that one comes across a couple as committed to radical social, economic and technological change as Vallecitos, New Mexico-based Julie and Bob Dunsmore. Although they are pushing 70, it is apparent by the challenging alternative-energy projects they direct and freely share, that they are still very much in the prime of their lives and in the midst of realizing their dreams.
Fluent in Portuguese and Spanish in addition to their native English, the couple has spent the better part of their lives working in 20 countries, mainly in the developing world, where they have shared their expertise in appropriate technologies with communities of limited resources. They got their start in the often-frigid San Luis Valley of Colorado, where they learned to build low-cost, do-it-yourself solar collectors in the 1970s.
In El Salvador, where a particular outdoor toilet design resulted in the proliferation of infectious diseases and contamination of an unusually high water table, the Dunsmores developed an alternative design that incorporated a shallow receptacle for the waste and the ability to move the unit to other sites. In other countries, where the people had nearly depleted available wood supplies for their cooking needs, the Dunsmores helped convert an abandoned machine into an instrument that pressed discarded sugar cane fibers into burnable logs. This device is now in use worldwide, where a similar need and similar resources exist. In places where high altitudes make for a short growing season and where fresh vegetables were always in short supply, the Dunsmores worked to help people extend the growing season by building relatively inexpensive greenhouses.
In northern New Mexico, a part of the country that has much in common with the developing world (including a history of colonialism), the couple recently led a daylong community workshop on the use of solar energy. They outfitted the trailer house of Julie and Frutoso Martínez, residents of Española, with a solar-collector panel that will allow them to fully heat their home without utility bills. About 40 people participated in the pleasant and lively hands-on workshop. The Dunsmores have long dreamed of helping to inspire a popular movement in the use of renewable-energy technologies, and so they were happy to see that, in the few weeks since the workshop, many of the participants have proceeded to assist others by organizing comparable workshops, thereby building local grassroots capacity.
Although they believe that it is important to work on the adoption of government policy on all levels that would favor the use of generally free, clean and renewable sources of energy, food and water, the Dunsmores also believe that it is just as important to effect change in this direction through the implementation of these technologies in our own homes and communities at whatever level possible. To that end, they have demonstrated this by building their own comfortable and inviting passive-solar straw-bale home for just under $40,000. The home’s energy is collected by a solar panel, converted into wattage and stored in batteries that drive all of their electrical appliances.
Indeed, in northern New Mexico and the Southwest, the application of the relatively simple and inexpensive technologies that the Dunsmores have explored is in line with the region’s historical self-reliance in harnessing existing resources to meet its needs.
“It turns out,” Bob Dunsmore says, “that the ancient dwellers of places such as Mesa Verde were employing the same principles we are pioneering, such as the heating of south-facing surfaces during the wintertime. It is much more efficient and gratifying to partner with the sun in winter than to attempt to heat entire living spaces with fires or furnaces. In the summer, both the residents of Mesa Verde, whose homes were built beneath the overhang of a cliff, and the modern dweller of a passive solar house, are able to avoid the direct rays of the sun and stay cool.”
Echoing their 17-year-old friend, Malaya Peixinho, who says “We’ve got to do something to assure a clean and healthy world for the generations to come,” the Dunsmores insist that human beings need not be in the ecological predicament in which we currently find ourselves. Steam, solar and electric alternatives to the conventional gasoline automobile engine have existed for a long time, and so have trombe walls and solar panels that store the sun’s energy and generate electricity and heat.
“It is now a question,” Bob Dunsmore says, “of whether or not as human beings we choose to exercise our collective will and widely apply our knowledge of these technologies to provide for growing human needs, or we continue to practice inefficient and ecologically damaging technologies to our own detriment and possible demise.”
Dunsmore is optimistic that we might be able to make these adaptations in time. “Already,” he states, “142 coal-driven power plants in the United States are being decommissioned, and plans for building 200 nuclear power plants that were slated for California have been nixed. The reason for this is that a whole lot of people, including many at the top, have recognized that solar and wind energy are much more efficient and, of course, far safer.”
“Another promising sign is that entire villages and regions of Africa and India are completely bypassing electrical power lines and, instead, are fully embracing solar and wind energy alternatives for meeting most of their needs,” he continued. “Not just that, people of these regions are discovering different applications of these technologies than the people of the West might expect. For example, cell-phone technology is aiding the remote village dweller to relay both visual and spoken information about a patient to doctors at a distance, who are then able to prescribe a medicine or a procedure without ever seeing the patient. This and other ingenious adaptations of these sophisticated, relatively inexpensive technologies by the common person tells me that we may be on the verge of a whole new world, and a much better world at that.”
The Dunsmores are in the process of designing a series of workshops at their Vallecitos home that have to do with low-cost, do-it-yourself greenhouse construction, trombe wall construction and the refurbishing of existing older solar-collector panels for installation on roofs throughout northern New Mexico. For more information or to support their efforts, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Alejandro López is a native New Mexican writer and photographer.