Solar Power to the People

June 20, 2013 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

Here is the Energy Fair, a three-day convergence of homesteaders, hippies, ecotopians and more than a few end-times enthusiasts, staged by the Midwest Renewable Energy Association. Beyond the lecture titled “MacGyver Windmills” (that is, devices fabricated from junk), a $15 day pass gets you admission to 200 other workshops. Would you like to learn about home algae cultivation and humane rabbit husbandry (for meat and wool)? How about advanced photovoltaic systems and D.I.Y. biodiesel?

The overarching theme is what marketers call “sustainable living,” and these days it hardly qualifies as a kooky pursuit. Many of the fair’s longtime commercial exhibitors, manufacturers of solar-energy technology or rainwater harvesting kits, could now find a home at the Home Depot.

The first fairgoers were devotees of Home Power magazine, which is to say, aging dudes with ponytails and recumbent bikes. But the renewable-energy movement has been renewing itself. So it’s probably no accident that the organizer of the fair is a 26-year-old woman named Ellie Jackson.

Before she started, Ms. Jackson said, “I was thinking, 20,000 people actually come here? But after I went to my first fair I wasn’t surprised anymore. The quality that we have in the workshops, the people who donate their time — they truly believe in the work that they do.”

Four of this year’s volunteers appear in the profiles below, along with pitches for the big idea they’ll be presenting. The green home remodeler Ramy Selim, for instance, will be demonstrating how to make nontoxic paints out of base materials like milk and clay. Jason Edens will be explaining how a simple solar-heating kit can free low-income folks from what he calls “fuel poverty.” Dominic Crea will talk about building a big contemporary house that runs on just half a kilowatt-hour of solar power. And Greg David will share his prototype for a D.I.Y. anaerobic digester, a backyard tank that turns food waste into methane fuel.

These innovations could turn out to be transformative. Or not. The idea behind all of them, though, could be summarized by the title of a Friday evening workshop: Feeding and Housing the World.

And if you’re not interested in feeding and housing the world? There’s always the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. How about that new BlackBerry?


Your nose isn’t fooling you: conventional house paint is toxic. How toxic? Ramy Selim, a 49-year-old green home remodeler, believes that oil- and latex-based paints release sickening volatile organic compounds for years, decades, maybe centuries. The hunt for alternative finishes flummoxed Mr. Selim when he used to run a sustainable-building supply store in Minneapolis.

The magical elixir he discovered then is the same one he recommends now at Sunny Day Earth Solutions, his new educational nonprofit: homemade paints. Specifically, he likes to whip up batches that use common natural materials like powdered kaolin clay, milk or egg yolk. A little flour works as a thickening agent. If this glop sounds like a pancake batter for someone with pica — well, Mr. Selim wouldn’t disagree.

“They’re just food,” he said recently. “I’m mixing the stuff in my kitchen dishes, and I put them in the dishwasher when I’m done.” The leftover paint can go in the compost bin. Or you can give it to the children, lay down a drop cloth and see what happens.

This is the essence of his original children’s workshop at the energy fair. But in truth, the adult version isn’t much different. Batch by batch, Mr. Selim continues to refine formulas he has found online. “Search ‘make your own paints,’ ” he suggested. “There’s stuff out there. But you have to be willing to do a few tests.”

Here is a basic recipe: Add 1/2 cup of flour to an equal amount of water. Then add ¼ cup boiling water (to remove clumps), then ¼ cup of regular water, another ¼ cup of flour and ¼ cup of white clay. “After that,” he said, “add your dyes.” (Mr. Selim likes to use foodstuff like berries or crushed plant matter, but glaze compounds like iron oxide are cheap and often innocuous.)

Finally, he said, “add more water to your desired consistency.” Try for something with texture, because that’s what you’re going to get.

The “milk paint” uses old-but-not-sour milk, garden lime and vinegar, and clay as a filler. (Caution: “If it stinks in the bucket, it’s going to stink on your wall.”) The egg paint takes yolk, water and clay.

A gallon should cost between $5 and $14, Mr. Selim said, or “pretty much nothing.”

But something this simple can’t possibly work, can it?

“If you want an exact shade of color, you are in the wrong workshop,” he said. But after spreading rich clay earth-tones over the first three walls, he added, “if you run out, I tell people, that fourth wall is now an accent color.”

In other words, the perfect recipe may be nifty. But the secret of decorating with homemade paints is to change the way you look at things.


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