Wednesday 15 December 2021

60W panels on Amazon

For anyone in the UK looking for some cheap-but-decent solar panels that will do USB, Amazon has some 60W Eco-Worthy fold-out panels for a bit over £50 currently, which is about as decent as it gets at the moment. They're not full-on waterproof, but come with a controller for bigger batteries. A comment says you don't need a battery to charge USB devices through the controller, so in theory charging USB batteries should work OK too.  

Caveat emptor though - I haven't tested them, so can't vouch for the accuracy of this. They look similar to my 60W set at least, which I'm really pleased with.

Discovered them after investigating PV supply chain ethics and transparency (my notes here) last week, when I noted they were on for anywhere between £70-100.


Wednesday 17 November 2021

Log 2021-11-17: Visceral Resilience


Three sets of solar panels arranged in the garden

A full array today, set out quickly to catch the pale autumnal light - cold today, for a change! The overnight dew makes the worms' piles of soil glisten around the garden.

After 6 months, I decided to revert laptop use back to the mains grid. About the same time, my renewable (or REGO-based) energy provider went under, and the subsequent shake-out meant we're now with Shell, which is something of a step down for me.

At the heart of a lot of energy-focused efforts is resilience. Resilience to what though? I don't have many terrorists in my area, but I'm aware of panels being visible to passers-by, and being fairly nickable. And at the other end of the scale, I'm aware that global governments can withhold gas to gain leverage in huge contracts worth billions of pounds. In between, national markets veer and flutter, and even when one can switch easily, there are still times when the choice still boils down to "the market".

"Resilience" is a mix of two things: Exposure, or how much one's own situation is affected when another part of the system changes. And flexibility, or how much one can switch to an alternative - either an alternative route to achieve the same aims, or alternative aims and needs altogether. Who gets to decide where the goalposts are?

For instance, I was happy running my self-hosting Raspberry Pi server under a 100% renewable energy provider. Now that the underlying provision has changed to a less renewable source, that affects things. My flexibility choices are: 1. to switch provider again (an alternative route, same ends). 2. to shut down my server (a more drastic change in aims). 3. to move the services being run to a different server (same ultimate aims, but a reconfigured stack), 4. physically move the server to somewhere powered more greenly.

At this point, the question is more important than the answer. What the options above are intended to show is that we achieve an aim through a supply chain, and by mapping out that chain, we can lay out more "decoupled" options for action - or identify the "points of interjection", which are a key element when considering how to make efficient changes

Will update more in due course.

I've been considering roof-mounted solar panels recently, and chatting with people who have them already. (Spoiler: The time isn't right for us right now, but the price was feasible under part of a local community-purchase scheme.)

All of which has made me more keenly aware about a sense of scale as I put my tiny micro-panels out into the sunshine. Why bother with device-scale solar, when roof-scale generation feels like just a more "sensible" level up? What's the point of trekking up and down the grass just to save a few watt-hours?

And I keep coming back to the portability and the immediacy of micro-solar. Sometimes it almost hits me as a "visceral" approach, a direct relationship between me and the Sun. A ritual that demands attention, makes things more real, like feeding a pet. And with that - I hope? - a kind of respect and mutual relationship that develops, between me and .. what, the universe? Or whatever it is powering the cosmos. We're here, borrowing energy, leasing life from the great reservoir.

And with that immediacy comes a sense of ... existing within the system, a positioning, a sense of belonging even. It is, I'm aware, a geek version of gardening and growing your own food - that energy is circling, is captured and converted, and siphoned into a million forms of life - to the point where we can't distinguish between "being alive" and "energy being channeled".


Tuesday 21 September 2021

A Summer and a Half

Holy cow, it's September? Well.. that was a bit of a summer. I'm sorry for neglecting you, blog. 

I have my reasons. It's been a long and strange few months, in many ways. I ended my gainful employment at the end of May, which meant I was busy finding a replacement and getting ready to leave, followed by a month or two of just downtime and taking a bit of a break. And to find my next passion, and all the admin that goes along with it. And to look after the children and build a shed and all that.

I watched the heat dome build through news stories, and the bindweed grow in the garden like it was on timelapse. I was so busy that I admit I had to give up on much of my veg this year, but the potatoes did well. I think my first (and only) head of corn is ready for picking now.

And I also managed the feat of running my laptop off solar power only, pretty much from the 1st of April to the 1st of September. There's still sun left in the sky though. I plugged into the mains a few times when I needed to backup some photos, and otherwise 3D gaming is a large draw on the system, which I got back into recently (I wanted to try out Phasmophobia.)

I'm a bit torn between solar power and gaming. As Phil tweeted, there isn't a big "solarpunk/gaming" community that I've found (maybe I should look harder, or start one...), and it's easy to get pulled into just assuming that GPUs and desktops and latest-greatest-hardware is the default. I don't want that. It's why I like the old GameBoys so much - they're effectively running off air, as this chart shows:

(Here's my source data for console energy usage.)

I believe it's possible to entertain oneself with limited energy - with the right mindset, a simple pack of cards - or a pen and paper - can keep you occupied for weeks. I'm not a fan at all of the unabated relentlessness of needing to stay up-to-date. That's a social multiplier that's killing us.

I'm pleasantly surprised on how painless running the laptop from solar has been. One of the fiddlier bits has been that I often want to work inside, but the battery needs to be outside to charge up, so I just have to make sure I have enough battery in the laptop to then catch the sunshine at the right time. There's a gentle balance between "productivity" and "replenishment" there, although there's obviously the phone and other devices which act as a broader network for getting things done.

To cope with that "multiple devices, multiple batteries" setup, I'm using several ways to pass around content, such as:

  • syncthing to keep text files synced - this is useful for blog post drafts, notes, and things which then get published online. Lots of things, really.
  • wallabag to save stuff for reading or processing later, including links I've been reading
  • Firefox's tab-sending to put web content onto the most appropriate device for dealing with it
  • and just emails and Signal messages to myself, if necessary

The most unexpected thing has been the weather - as it turned out, August was so warm that there were heavy clouds for a lot of the time. I was also going out a lot, so if the weather was mixed, I wasn't able to get back to rescue the panel and battery from any sudden downpours of rain, and so didn't risk leaving them out.

May and September are the "new summers" where I live, I think. The temperature now is warm and sunny, but importantly things are predictable. Back in August, you couldn't trust the forecast or the cloud build-up. 

That unpredictability fascinates me at one level, but will also prove to be a barrier for anyone trying to model their energy from renewable sources, I think. (I write this as the UK goes into some pretty major energy problems, and the term "perfect storm" is being used increasingly.) It has important knock-on effects for energy pricing, siting of panels and turbines, and planning for contingency energy generation.

And, honestly? I don't think we've got our head round any of that, as a society. We're so used to energy just being there for us, and we're so abstracted from the world it comes from that sensible democratic discourse is sooo hard. Transparency and in-depth engagement (eg citizen's assemblies) could do wonders for this, but in the meantime major price shocks will likely be the most influential factor, sadly.

Anyway, it's a full moon today, and the equinox tomorrow. I'll be doing stuff with my Beamspun newsletter at the weekend, so head over and subscribe to find out whatever it is.

And otherwise, tread lightly.

Wednesday 14 April 2021

Solar van

Nice use of all-round solar panels spotted on this go-anywhere camper van.

(Number plate fuzzed out cos privacy.)

Wednesday 7 April 2021

2 Years On: What Have I Learned

The start of April marked 2 years running fully on solar panels for my kit - neat! It's become fairly routine now, although the routine (and the garden) has been helped a lot by being at home every day 😐 and being able to quickly adjust angles, or not worry so much about rain.

I thought I'd celebrate by getting in some new solar panels - more on this to come, but after some browsing (and noticing that panels seem to have short production runs, and seem to be a bit pricier?) I've gone for some slightly generic 60W MathRose panels, as my last 60W set have been so influential. The new aim is to try running a laptop from the extra set and the big battery that's sitting around. Also, those MathRose ones are cheap.

What have I learnt in those 2 years then? Was it worth it? Here's some quick thoughts on it all.

  1. I've learned a lot about electrics and battery life, of course. Once you dig a little into measuring anything, you rapidly work out what all the symbols like V, A and Wh mean. With a bit more digging (not too much), you figure out how they relate to each other, and then what you can say based on the numbers you have. It's like learning a new foreign language.

    For instance, I can 'comprehend' all batteries much more easily now - the difference between capacity and oomph, for want of a better (read 'scientifically emotional') word. When you're browsing what to get and you're just looking at price, you have no idea what that price means. Now it takes me days to try to figure out what rechargeable AAs to get...

  2. I'm more savvy about what I want to use my phone for. I'm more protective about the apps and data on it. I'm constantly checking battery level and there's a continual voice at the back of my head that questions if I really need to do that thing. Apps get one, maybe two goes at preserving battery but they're straight out if they're too hungry. I mean, I still use my phone probably more than I want to ultimately, but I have 3-4 apps I use regularly, a few background apps to get data on/off, and various apps I either need for life, or which are utility for those handy times I can just get something done quickly. But I know why I want those apps there.

  3. I actually really enjoy setting up the panels and batteries, and taking them down again. It gets me out into the fresh air, even if just for a few moments, and connects me to the birdsong in the morning, and the moon and stars at night. Sometimes I kick myself for forgetting to taken them in, but I also love walking out in the dark.

  4. Snail trails are really bad for panel surfaces. 😧

  5. Harvesting energy, and storing it locally, is a feasible way of running tech. The energy demands of a single device aren't huge, and things like file storage and local networking are pretty feasible. Projects like Low Tech's solar-powered site and the Solar Protocol distributed nodes project keep me hooked on this idea that tech is made to be incredibly efficient, ad-hoc, and opportunistic - based on energy available, rather than making energy to keep things running constantly. We don't need things on all the time - we just started taking it all for granted because it was easier

And probably lots more too. And not enough. I'll try to follow up with what I didn't learn that I would still like to. And get on the case with details about the MathRose panels. (Spoiler: Early results are good.)


Two sets of small solar panels alongside each other


Saturday 27 February 2021

Journal 2021-02-27: Spring returns to the garden

My shadow being cast onto a green lawn

Spring is bursting through right now - snowdrops and daffodils are enjoying the new blue skies, fresh air kicks into the cold mornings, and the old brown branches are trying out their new shoots for the coming summer.

I've been getting back into garden mode. I'm not a "keen" gardener in the way that many people are - I don't hit up the garden centre every weekend and can't name most of the plants and weeds that surround me. But I'm learning to appreciate a green space more with each seasonal cycle. Reading up on permaculture has given me the confidence to not worry about having to grow things and name things either - the space can thrive by itself, and my relationship with it is no longer one of control, but of borrowing; the land is leasing its energy to me, while I am here, and it is in an overall interest to return it once I'm done.

So I've been chopping back weeds and tufts of growth, and leaving the less woody parts to naturally compost back into the soil. Some of the waste from our guinea pig has been making its way to the waiting veg patch as a form of compost and mulch. And the old tree parts, rescued from one chopped down last year, have been changed from fairy table seats to a layer to block out light on a patch I want to rewild.


Wooden rings cut from a tree lying by a fence

Meanwhile, the batteries are looking fairly full all round and I've been able to charge up most of my kit: the old Kindle and Nexus for reading, and the GBA to continue my Zelda foray, all without much worry about running out.

Little white battery didn't charge up recently despite a good whack of sun, so today I've been testing it with a USB power checker:


Close-up of solar panel hooke dup to battery with USB power monitor

As with the cable checking before, I'm fairly confident now that the connector on this battery is a bit unreliable - connectors get damaged way more than the actual battery tech.

It seems silly to replace a whole battery because the connection is a bit wobbly though. Are there good options for fixing up a connector? I've opened up a battery before, but it's not always easy (for good reason). What advice and knowledge should I gather and learn at this point?

Friday 29 January 2021

Journal 2021-01-29: Lunacy

People think solarpunk is all about power from the sun. But every day that I put out the panels, I get to wander out into the dark grass to collect my battery, and on evenings like tonight, the full moon looks down and we have a little chat, and the stars are there and everything is OK. Sometimes a meteor flies by, or a dog barks.

Batteries may get their energy from the sun. The rest of us should hang out with the moon more.

Sunday 17 January 2021

Journal 2021-01-17: Phew, some sun...

January always seems darker and more winter than December. I'm scraping my batteries for a few dregs this week, and clearing out a bunch of apps, keeping reading to a minimum, etc. Panels are full out today though.

And just for fun, here's a shot of the old guinea pig bedding composting the veg patch, and the fallen broccoli waiting to sprout. Does anyone know anything about purple sprouting broccoli?