Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Solar festival offers a taste of green energy

Published April 15 in Tucson Green Magazine

As summer approaches, Tucsonans may view the sun as an ominous harbinger of sweltering 100 degree days to come. For some, however, Tucson's omnipresent sun represents an opportunity for change and a path toward sustainable living.

On April 26, solar enthusiasts will gather at Catalina State Park for the 26th Annual Festival of the Sun and Solar Potluck, a family-friendly celebration of the power of solar energy with music, food, and demonstrations on innovative solar technology. According to organizers, the event is one of the longest running solar events in North America, second only to the annual meeting of the American Solar Energy Society.

The potluck is organized by Citizens for Solar, which was formed for the purpose of putting on the event. Ed Eaton, a solar pioneer and founding member of the group, began the tradition in 1981 with a small group of friends. Over the next few years, the event continued to grow, and organizers began holding the potluck at Catalina State Park. Last year, the event drew about 1,500 people.

One new feature this year is the Teahouse of the Rising Sun, a place where attendees can gather in the shade, enjoy a cup of tea, and listen to a lineup of guest speakers who will address this year's Paths to Sustainability theme. Eaton will be one of the speakers this year, discussing the long history of the solar industry. Mark Schwirtz of Trico Electric Cooperative, and Bill Henry of Tucson Electric Power will explain the utility rebate program for solar systems. Bruce Plenk, solar coordinator for the City of Tucson, will offer another perspective, discussing what the city is doing to go green.

A solar-powered stage, supplied by George Villec of GeoInnovation, will provide live music, including local artist Black Man Clay.

In addition to speakers, performances, and hands-on kids' activities, there will be ample opportunities to see cutting edge solar technology in action. "It's almost become a game of one-upmanship every year between the exhibitors," said Jerry M. Samaniego, the group's president. "Everybody likes to have new things every year."

Samaniego, whose father owns Expert Solar Systems, grew up with an appreciation for solar energy. He has helped his father run the local business for 18 years, and been involved with Citizens for Solar for about ten years, serving as president for the past two. "The solar potluck is really my favorite solar event of the year," he said. "Now I bring my two kids out there, and they have fun."

While a variety of solar technology will be on display, the main attraction will be at least 50 solar ovens and cookers of various types. Some are quite powerful. One year, someone made stir fry and popcorn, which requires about 450 degrees, using an enormous solar reflector parabolic cooker. Other participants have made turkey, pizza, and a plethora of vegetarian food. Demonstrators will hand out food samples of all kinds throughout the day, culminating in a potluck dinner at 5 p.m.

Toby Schneider, treasurer of Citizens for Solar, has been involved with the group along with his wife, Vivian Harte, for many years. Solar power is increasingly entering the mainstream, said Schneider, in part for economic reasons. "With increased energy prices, more people are thinking of solar as a long term investment," he said. According to Schneider, an inverter, which changes DC voltage from solar panels into standard household AC voltage, typically lasts about 10 years, and the panels usually last more than 20.

Because of the low cost (you can pick one up for as low as $250), solar ovens are an attractive option for those who are just beginning to go solar. "[They're] a great, inexpensive foot in the door, a way of experiencing solar power and playing with it," said Samaniego.

Cari Spring, the group's vice president and a faculty member at Pima Community College and Prescott College, believes there is more to solar living than just the technology. "There's a solar culture in the world," she said. "When you practice solar and renewable energy, you place the sun at the center of your existence--and that means you don't just buy a technology and live the same life you used to."

In 1996, Spring bought a piece of land in Catalina and began designing a completely solar-powered home. She soon found that everyday activities--from laundry to cooking--required her to be conscious of the sun. "The center of your life shifts," she said.

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