Rob Parsons

The Energy Doctor

Dr. Steve Blake offers a renewable energy prescription

By Rob Parsons
Published in Maui Time Weekly
August 28, 2008

Dr. Steve Blake's got the green
cure for the petroleum blues.
photo: Catherine Blake.

"I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don't have to wait `til oil and coal run out before we tackle that."

-Thomas Edison

Down lush, winding Honopou Road on the ocean side of Hana Highway on Maui's north shore, residents live beyond the reach of utility and water lines. These adventuresome jungle dwellers have engineered their own systems for living off the grid, with water catchment, solar and windpower to produce electricity, and other inventive ways to utilize available resources.

It's not a lifestyle that suits everyone. Even the narrow, bumpy road is a bit challenging to shock absorbers and nerves. Yet it encourages patience and courtesy as one vehicle pulls over to allow another to pass.

On a sunny Saturday morning, a half dozen cars pull into the driveway of Dr. Steve Blake, gathering for his monthly workshop titled How to Build Solar and Wind Power Systems. Blake is a Doctor of Holistic Health and prolific author, not an electrical engineer. Nevertheless, he has such a broad understanding of renewable energy systems that friends encouraged him to share his knowledge with them.

Blake and his wife Catherine live cozily underneath towering mango trees on a ridge overlooking meandering Honopou Stream, in an area that once served as a rock quarry. A federally funded Reclamation Project in the 1930s under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) helped provide materials for road base to improve the Hana Highway.

Steve and "Cat" invite their guests to a small, screened dwelling they call "The Library." There, they hook up a PowerPoint projector-which gets its juice from an array of solar panels-for the classroom portion of the workshop.

Those gathered include: A carpenter neighbor who lives on 100 percent solar power; a couple that lives off the grid eight miles toward Hana and is looking forward to hearing about the, "newest, latest, and greatest"; a lifelong sailor and self-described minimalist who lives without a refrigerator; a Lahaina realtor planning to build her "smart house" in an agricultural subdivision; a twenty-something Haiku resident interested in designing his own wind power system; and yours truly.

Blake also has sailing in his blood and has designed and built a 45-foot boat. He also constructed a wind generator on their Honopou property, assembled with materials "available at Home Depot" and acquired for less than $200. He describes that his background includes studies in math and physics, in addition to years of studying health and nutrition. His latest book, Vitamins and Minerals Demystified, is published by McGraw-Hill.

Blake leads his group through the basics of solar and wind power systems. He covers solar cells, roof and ground mounting systems, charge controllers, battery storage, inverters, wind designs, backup generators and energy conservation.

The average American household consumes 28 kilowatt hours daily, he says, though he generally gets by on a fraction of that, less than 2 kWh a day. Thus, he advocates energy efficiency, understanding what appliances are energy hogs, eliminating ghost loads and converting to power strips and energy efficient bulbs. Compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) can reduce energy use by 75 percent, he says, and also produce much less heat than incandescent bulbs.

The tiny amount of mercury in CFLs shouldn't be cause for concern, says Blake, and notes it is less dangerous than amounts found in swordfish or tuna. CFLs can be properly recycled, and are likely to last for years before that becomes necessary. Maui Electric Company just announced $1 and $3 rebates on CFLs at selected stores, much like Hawaiian Electric has offered on Oahu for the past few years.

Blake's enthusiasm for sharing conservation strategies brought about the creation of his new business, Power Efficiency Professionals. He now offers services for home and business energy audits, helping ratepayers formulate a plan to lower their electric bills. Armed with specific tools, a "Kill-a-Watt" meter and amperage clamp, he is able to pinpoint power usage and compute the potential savings that simple changes can bring.

Regarding solar panels, Blake notes that many installers position them at a 22-degree angle, corresponding with Hawaii's latitude above the equator. He says he placed his own at 44 degrees, however, to maximize output in the winter months, when days are shorter and there is sometimes more cloud cover.

In the afternoon, Blake leads the group past a couple garden plots to his solar hot water panel. He invites everyone to carefully touch the copper pipe connected to the water tank to see how hot it gets. Beyond that is his array of photovoltaic panels, all of them recycled from other systems, acquired for a fraction of their original cost and patched together to form an effective electrical power source. Two of his largest panels are well over twenty years old and still work well. Other than periodic maintenance, he notes, his power bill equals zero.

Asolar photovoltaic system large enough to provide 18kWh would likely cost around $28,000 installed and perhaps $21,000 after tax credits and rebates, says Blake. After the initial investment, it could take eight years to reach the break-even point given current rates of around 40 cents per kilowatt-hour.

But Blake doesn't think solar and wind systems should cost nearly so much. He directs the group to a 1996 book, Who Owns the Sun?, that relates how large utilities-along with petrochemical, coal, nuclear, banking and transportation industries-have conspired to block solar industry development, dating back to the Jimmy Carter era in the 1970s. Even now, 12 years after the book was published, solar tax credits and research are still political footballs and appear to be under the thumb of big oil interests and the politicians beholden to them.

Different solar cell technologies were covered, from the more expensive monocrystaline to polycrystalline, now being manufactured in great quantity by China. The US demand for solar panels is so great that they are temporarily out of stock in some locations.

Blake also touches on solar Parabolic Trough Reflectors, which capture the sun's heat and focus it on black steel pipes holding liquid salts. Superheated to as high as 400-600 degrees Fahrenheit, the molten salts stored in insulated tanks produce steam to run a turbine, providing continuous, firm power. Blake says that a 100-megawatt facility in Andalusia, Spain is enough to power 100,000 Spanish households.

This would be an excellent energy solution for Maui, Blake believes. "All you need is the political will to set this up," he says, "and what a good investment!"

A solar parabolic system could also produce hydrogen. "Someday," says Blake, "we can use an alternative energy system like this to power all kinds of engines-our cars, mowers, weed-eaters, everything-all on hydrogen, with water vapor as the emissions."

He says it makes no sense to manufacture hydrogen by using petrochemicals and cautions against using food for fuel.

Blake is excited by the myriad of designs available for wind power systems. He discussed pros and cons of several types including vertical axis turbines, which spin at slower revolutions per minute and are thus quieter. He cautioned that in most cases it's necessary to have a structural engineer inspect a wind turbine tower as well as rooftop mountings.

One obvious difference between wind and solar power is that solar has no moving parts. Thus, wind systems must be designed with the understanding that some parts may corrode or deteriorate with years of use. Extremely high winds may also be problematic, such as the tropical storms and hurricanes that sometimes visit Hawaii.

But otherwise, wind power capacity increases greatly at higher wind speeds. Doubling the wind speed from 10mph to 20mph can actually produce eight times as much power. Blake's encyclopedic knowledge of the topics he addresses keeps the class interesting and upbeat. He has already scheduled the next workshop for Saturday, September 20, from 10am-4pm. Presumably, attendees will visit their Primary Election polling places first and exercise another renewable resource-political power