solar living center

An Internship at The Solar Living Institute

A place of abundance and prosperity, learning and cultivating, friendships, networks and self-improvement.

It was in November 2016 when I decided to enrol into the Solar Living Institute (SLI) internship programme. At the time I was working on a few projects in Thailand, building plastic recycling devices, learning about solar PV in rural settings as well as assisting in strategic planning for various foundations in Chiang Mai province. It was at this point that I was guided to the SLI by a well connected friend of mine whom understood my intention, thank you Hiro-san.

I’d like to outline some of the topics which were covered and experiences which were had at the SLI during my three months. The deepest gratitude goes out to every soul who made this experience possible

Permaculture and Sustainable Living principles

  • Care for the Earth – Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply, this is the first principle because without a healthy earth, humans will not be able to flourish
  • Care For the people – Provision for people to access the necessary resources for our existence
  • Fair share – Each person should only take what they need before reinvesting the surplus

Food growing

It felt good to know where the produce we consumed at the institute came from… I’m sure many people will agree that food and water plays an important role in our existence and in my opinion, knowing how to grow food is probably one of the most important skills to learn. We learned the following from permaculture experts such as Max Meyers from NorCal Aquaponics:

  • Planting procedures and methods, growing seasons, companion planting.
  • Optimum Growing methods – Hügel-culture and lasagne beds, Aquaponics, geodesic greenhouse
  • The importance of building healthy soil, creating compost and making worm tea
  • Geodesic Greenhouse construction
  • Waste management through self composting toilets and ‘humanure production’
geodesic dome
Inside the Geodesic dome we created at the SLI

Renewable Energy Solar Passive Design and Improved efficiencies

In todays day and age, many people want to have less reliance on ‘the system’ for many reasons; to save money, for autonomy, for healthier personal and environmental factors and more. There are always ways to improve our efficiency and negate our impact on the environment. We learned the following:

Extensive Solar PV Design and Installation training to obtain the NABCEP certification

We had some of the most knowledgable industry professionals to teach us about Solar PV. Te first thing to do when ‘sizing a system’ for a client is to find out their energy requirements and before sizing a system to the current energy usage, a solar consultant will first look to see where improvements in efficiency, such as installing timers on water heaters, pumps and lights, can be made by the client. Improving efficiencies will bring down the size and cost of the system.

There are a few types of options for a person wanting to install solar. There are also varying motivational factors for wanting to use solar, be it for cost saving on energy bills, the desire to do something good for the environment, the need for electricity in remote areas or for autonomy and freedom from the clutches of the government.

Why do you want to go solar?

It is usually a good idea to understand the reason why someone wants to install solar as this will influence the type of system to be designed for the client. E.g. If the client has extra money to spend, is already connected to the electricity grid and merely wants to do something good for the environment, purchasing a solar system may not always be the most environmentally friendly thing they could do. In fact it would be just the opposite as they would be increasing their consumption of energy intensive natural resources required to make the solar products.

Should I completely disconnect myself from the grid and go ‘off-grid’?

This is not always advised due to the costs involved in storing enough energy in batteries to run your home, especially if you are already connected to the grid. In this case, I would advise speaking to your solar guy about setting up a ‘grid tied’ system which essentially allows you to produce and use your own power during the day when the sun is shining and use the power from the grid during the evenings when the sun is down. One could then have an emergency backup power supply in the form of a battery bank or generator.

In some parts of the world, such as California, the government allows solar producers to feed their excess electricity  back into the grid in order to take the load off of the government, if you produce more than you use, you may be credited for the excess or simply reach a net zero energy bill.

When should I go ‘off-grid’?

At this point I wouldn’t advise people to remove themselves from the grid and I would only recommend ‘off-grid’ connections to people who live in areas where there is simply no other choice or where the cost of bringing a power line to the property wouldn’t make economic sense.

Passive solar design and innovative alternative energy solutions

Passive solar design can be seen as an intelligent way of designing your home, designing your home in accordance with the natural environment you are living in. A home or space designed with passive solar principles will be the most energy efficient home one could design as the natural environment is used wherever possible to assist in heating and cooling the space minimizing the extra inputs from other sources. An example would be the allignment of your house with the pathway of the sun throughout the year. Placing eves and overhangs at certain distances according to the angle of the sun at the winter and summer solstices. In order to succesfully design a house using passive solar principles, one must know the land and the surroundings. There are many more considerations which need to be taken into account but now you have the general understanding of what it is all about. For a more in depth understanding of PSD, click here.

Use of solar ovens and cookers and bicycle powered blenders.

These types of technology are becoming more and more popular, especially by people who are moving onto land where there is no electricity connection and need to keep their electricity consumption to a minimum in order to save cost on the size of a solar system. Solar or PV systems can be upgraded and added on to at any stage and therefore it is fine to start off with a small system within your range of affordability.

Solar cookers work well, but only when the sun is shining. We baked bread and cooked beans in our solar oven on more than one occasion. It is a method of saving energy. Innovative companies such as rockthebike are creating ways for people to power devices using pedal power from their bicycles, it is genius.

 

rocket stove
The rocket stove we built at Laytonville Eco Village
glynraven intentional community, solar bowl
The ‘Solar Bowl’ functional art project at GlynRaven intentional community

Natural building

natural building involves a range of building systems and materials that place major emphasis on sustainability. Ways of achieving sustainability through natural building focus on durability and the use of minimally processed, plentiful or renewable resources, as well as those that, while recycled or salvaged, produce healthy living environments and maintain indoor air quality. Natural building tends to rely on human labor, more than technology. As Michael G. Smith observes, it depends on “local ecology, geology and climate; on the character of the particular building site, and on the needs and personalities of the builders and users.”[1]

The main types of materials and methods of natural building are listed below

Cob construction

One of my natural building teachers, Miguel Elliot aka Sir Cobalot showed me that Cob is a mixture of clay, sand, straw and water and is usually mixed by foot on top of a tarp. We got our hands dirty on numerous occasions while working at the SLI as we used cob on repair work, on the paletable cobin, as well as to build a one of a kind rocket stove at the LaytonVille eco village.

Cob has been used by civilizations for thousands of years and some of the oldest cob structures have been standing for hundreds of years and can be seen from England to Mexico. See here

Light straw

Light straw-clay or Slipstraw is a method we use to build infill walls in a post and beam structure or interior walls within a building. We start by constructing a form in between two structural elements or studs (16” or 400mm spacing) at about 3’ or 1m height. Anchors must be placed into the studs or structural elements in order to support and ‘anchor’ the slipstraw wall to the posts. The anchors come in the form of long screws or pegs (min 3” into the slipstraw on each side). The forms must well supported by screws holding the forms together and must be movable in order for the wall to progress.

To make the slipstraw, clay and water are mixed in a large mixing pan to a watery consistency and then large handfulls of straw are added into the pan to coat the straw with the watery clay mixture. It is important that the straw is properly coated with the watery clay. The slipstraw is then placed into the forms and compcated with a hand tamper which fits into the forms. Once the form is full of compacted slipstraw, the form is removed and moved up and the process continues until the wall is complete.

Strawbale

We attended a weekend workshop on strawbale construction where we learned the principles of this construction method. It is a simple method of construction which offers great insulation against heat and cold as well as excellent acoustic insulation. Important is that the walls are kept dry by building above ground level in order to prevent rot.

Palletable cobin

This was a first of its kind built by a Cob master himself, ‘Sir Cobalot’. This structure was erected at the SLI as part of a demonstration to the public that one could build low cost, comfortable living structures using upcycled and natural materials.

Transport pallets were modified and placed between the structures posts and then packed with straw. Once the pallets were all stacked and packed with all the windows in place, we plastered it with an earthen (cob) plaster.

Miguel, Sir Cobalot, added his artistic touches with beautiful colored glass lit up with strip LED’s along the top perimeter of the cobin, he then added a living roof onto the structure where herbs and vegetables were planted.

Cobin
Friends building the Palletable Cobin, made of Pallets, straw and Cobb
Miguel aka Sir Cobalot in his element on the palletable cobin
Palletable cobin
The Palletable Cobin at the SLI

Sandbag/Superadobe

We attended a workshop at the Laytonville ecovillage where we learned the method of Superadobe (sandbag) construction. Super-adobe is a form of earth bag architecture developed by architect and CalEarth founder Nader Khalili. Using long sandbags (“SuperAdobe Bags”), barbed wire, on-site earth and a few tools, Khalili devised a revolutionary building system that integrates traditional earth architecture with contemporary global safety requirements, and passes severe earthquake code tests in California. visit (http://www.calearth.org/intro-superadobe/) to learn more.

Hempcrete or Hemplime

Hemp is a lightweight insulating material ideal for most climates as it combines insulation and thermal mass, it can be used to build infill walls as well as rendering and plasters on all types of existing surfaces in order to regulate the humidity and absorb CO2 improves the air quality within a home.  Hempcrete is a mixture of hemp hurds (chopped up inner woody part of stem) and lime (possibly including natural hydraulic lime, sand, pozzolans). 

When hempcrete is made using hydrated lime, it absorbs CO2 throughout its life, theoretically 165 kg of carbon can be absorbed and locked up by 1 m3 of hempcrete wall during manufacture.

 The same method as described in the Slipstraw description can be used when building with Hemp.visit www.hempecosystems.com to learn more.

Friendships and Community

“The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” – Steve Jobs

The beautiful people of California are what make the place special, and because the iconic Real Goods store and Solar Living Institute are located on Highway 101, the premises attracts over 100 000 people per year. I met thousands of people during my 4 months stay at the SLI and everyone was unique in one way or another.

Northern California attracts the type of people who are different from the norm, the crazy’s, the change makers, the innovators the people who are looking for and creating alternatives to what the current main stream offers.

I met people from all walks of life: a guy cycling across america with his dog named Jesus; a group of Vegans, road tripping from the East coast, living the bus life and volunteering along the way in return for a place to park their bus; artists and performers; entrepreneurs and inventors; spiritual gurus; hillbilly cannabis farmers; silicon valley millionaires; imagineers and naturalists, each with their own strange but beautiful characteristics.

Dinner time at GlynRaven intentional community
Celebrating Sir Cobalot’s Birthday at his home

The sense of community is very strong in many of the areas we visited, and upon further inspection, it’s quite clear why.

The hills of Northern California was the place where most of the rebellious hippies from the 60’s and 70’s moved, in order to build their homes in nature away from the mainstream chaos of San Francisco. It is those people whom pioneered movements, such as Solar power, and Intentional communities, which are becoming mainstream today.

Intentional Communities

Intentional communities are communities designed around a set of values and principles and one of the oldest standing ones in California is Monans Rill (47 years). There are many ways to run an intentional community and that is usually decided by the founders and then adapted as the years go by, as long as the community decisions are based on the values and principles set forth by the founders.

aquaponics
Ready to plant the delicious PokChoi in the aquaponics spiral at the SLI

Cannabis Medicine

Emerald Pharms

Emerald Pharms is a solar powered cannabis dispensary on site and in order to make a purchase, one must possess a permit. Emerald pharms has a highly skilled team of pharmacists that can administer the right dose of cannabis for any ailment. Cannabis is legal to smoke and grow in the state of California and the US government is able to generate large amounts of revenue through the taxing of this miracle medicine.

CannaCraft

Cannacraft is a cannabis product manufacturing facility where they extract oils from the plant using CO2 at its supercritical point.

cannacraft
The cannacraft lab where cannabis medicine is made 

 

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