Blog of Eerik Wissenz

Why GoSol

Posted Friday 12 April 2019 by Eerik Wissenz.

This is a key reading to understand our work and our vision. This text is a short version of a much longer text that unpacks all the arguments with calculations and sources. However, since climate change is accelerating, we feel it is better to publish and share this version in the meantime. Please send any comments or feedback to the author: eerik@gosol.solar.

 

Context

Our organization is at a critical juncture of requiring capital to expand. Our team has used all vital energy stores to get to this point – doing a lot with a little, which in the past was often times a useful context to develop the lowest capital technology possible that still has high power, ease of use and a short ROI – but now that this vital energy is consumed there is no fallback position, and we find it unlikely another group will recreate our work as effectively in the time we have to make the highest impact on climate change, which is now.

 

Failure to raise the right kind of capital from organizations that really want to push the maximum impact the technology can deliver, though would not be catastrophic as business would still maximize profits and the technology would still “get out there” slower, but more importantly several opportunities for truly high-leverage actions may be missed.

 

This essay is not for people who are skeptical that it is ever rational to consider other things than profit, nor for people who believe the climate crisis isn’t time sensitive and will just work itself out, or that believe there isn’t anyway much that can be done about it.

 

This essay is for people who are not only extremely concerned to do something about climate change but also consider the question of what is “the most we can do” in the time we have – rather than “what fulfils a minimum sense of doing something”. In other words, we see a difference between having “some” impact and having the impact needed to solve the problem.

 

Furthermore, this essay is for people who believe the climate crisis has no satisfactory solution without also solving poverty; that we have an ethical responsibility to both the earth and the people that do not benefit from the existing global infrastructure and are most vulnerable to its effects – not to mention that climate change may simply make nearly everyone we know today poor, by today’s standards of comfort, and so a solution that works in the context of poverty may ultimately be the only game plan possible.

 

Where We Are

Currently we have successfully piloted in East Africa, we have our first clients, an innovative software for industry and we have completed the last piece of the puzzle, which was to develop and pilot an education package that can be deployed in low income regions. Education is the key for rapid expansion in low-income regions; first, to learn how to effectively use and maintain the solar machines, second to develop the business and ecosystem skills needed to create the most value possible with the technology, and third for fabricating the technology locally.

 

 

The Implications of Cheap, Cost-Effective Solar Thermal

Although it is generally recognized that cheaper electricity is great and a big driver of economic development, it is, for whatever reason, usually not recognized that cheaper thermal energy has the same benefits for the same reasons, just for a different set of applications.

 

In addition to the nearly 3 billion people burning biomass for daily thermal (heat) needs, nearly all industrial production requires thermal inputs at various stages of material transformation. Roughly half of energy consumed in industry is for heating processes between 100° and 250°C.

 

Currently, the main limiting factor for using solar thermal energy in industry, as it is today, is that production is organized in large urban centers where land is expensive, installing any large equipment at all in a industrial area requires various heavy leveling and ground work, and large capital investment would be needed to retrofit solar thermal to existing complex fabrication systems (that were not built with solar thermal in mind), and, on-top of this, the existing air pollution of fossil based thermal processes and electricity production reduces the effectiveness of solar thermal devices by blocking out the sun and depositing particles on the solar collection surfaces.

 

Keep in mind that to run a large factory that consumes many megawatts of thermal energy, hectares of solar reflectors would be required which is far larger than the area of factory typically occupies. Unlike electricity, thermal energy cannot be transported long distances, so piping thermal energy from far outside the city where land is inexpensive is not viable (the thermal energy would need to be converted to either electricity or a chemical fuel, completely eliminating the efficiency and capital cost advantages of using the thermal energy directly for thermal processes).

 

Although "plugging in" solar thermal energy to today’s infrastructure is economic only in niche areas, production will ultimately follow the cheapest source of energy available, regardless of the sunk costs of the existing system.

 

In small farming and rural areas, the cost of land to place solar thermal machines is less a factor and there is plenty of space to run thermal processes, the cost of setup does not require costly commissioning or earth work, and air is usually cleaner (so more light reaches the surface and mirrors get less dirty). Furthermore, there is agricultural activity already existing with a large potential for added value thermal processing with thermal energy and sell higher-value transformed version of existing agricultural product. Examples are solar roasting, dehydration, baking and other thermal food processing as we have piloted in East Africa, South East Asia and South America.

 

By capturing this value added, skills and income will increase, which is setting the stage for larger and higher temperature solar thermal devices that can power productive industries including ceramics, textiles, and paper. The skills and capital of this second phase of development lays the foundation for powering high-thermal temperature process, including metal works and silicon.

 

Mitigation benefits

Emission displacement

Displacing a large amount of thermal energy industries to rural areas would significantly reduce embodied carbon emissions in exports to rich countries. A large component of global production today is based on thermal energy supplied by coal, either directly or through electricity when it is cheaper to burn the coal close to mining and transport the energy with electricity lines rather than trains.

 

This entire component of global emissions today can be shifted to solar thermal technological ecosystems that can emerge in low-income rural regions.

 

Reversing fuel based deforestation

With a cheaper source of thermal energy available, a balance can be created between using solar thermal devices and collecting and burning biomass. If biomass becomes farther away to collect or increases in price, it motivates reorganizing life and production to use a higher percentage of solar thermal energy (i.e. wait for the sun to be available for the tasks in question).

 

As solar thermal energy becomes cheaper, the distance / price threshold of biomass fuel changes proportionally.

 

Furthermore, what biomass is consumed can be converted to charcoal using excess solar thermal energy when the sun is shining. This is a way to store excess solar energy in the added value to the charcoal making process.

 

Currently, charcoal is often made in very inefficient “smothered mounds”. The highest cost-component of supplying a city with biomass fuel is the transport of the fuel from source points to sale points. This bottleneck of capital and fuel costs for trucks, motivates transporting as much fuel value as possible with each truck trip. Since charcoal has higher energy density than the source wood, fuel suppliers have a high motivation to transport only charcoal, converting the wood source to charcoal at the source points. However, since all charcoal suppliers can increase price as resources are reduced, there is no fundamental motivation to convert the wood to charcoal in an efficient way, and so even more wood is consumed than needed.

 

Through the above dynamic of the availability of cheap solar thermal energy pressuring fuel costs down, reforestation can re-encroach on where people are living. With available biomass and available solar energy, the conversion of biomass for charcoal for evening and and cloudy periods becomes much more efficient. Furthermore, with solar thermal charcoal conversion, the oils, esters and other evaporates of the biomass can be condensed and, depending on the plant, can have significant value, such as resins.

 

Second order mitigation

As this solar thermal productive system becomes more efficient, easier to use, at some point it becomes competitive as well in higher and higher income regions for the supply of most thermal energy based goods.

 

Since solar energy is available in so many places at little cost, but transportation always has a cost, once the ease of deploying solar thermal technology decreases below a certain threshold it is simply cheaper to start to produce goods locally instead of transporting/importing it into the region.

 

This is in contrast to fossil based production, where is it nearly always more efficient to produce at central fossil-complex locations and transport, using fossil energy, end goods to farther away markets.

 

Cheap enough solar thermal energy would reverse the principle that centralization is a more effective mode of production for a wide range of good. (The reason as to why this is a progressive process of becoming cost effective in wealthier regions is because labour automation is a requirement as well as sufficient synergy of a wide range of productive applications; whereas, these factors are not required in the roughly two thirds of the world that are low-income regions where labour costs are low, and so maintenance is not a large barrier, and furthermore there are smaller scale farmers that can easily add value to produce they already grow.)

 

This expansion of thermal production systems to higher and higher income regions, ultimately results in much smaller transport distances for a wide range of goods, further displacing fossil consumption currently needed to ship centrally produced goods.

 

Adaptation

General adaptive benefits

Increase in income is one of the key factors that can radically increase resilience to disaster, whether a bad growing season, prolonged drought or a massive storm.</p>

 

With a solar thermal energy device with very short payback that is easy to maintain, people can increase their income even if displacement is an eventual certainty.

 

Low-capital solar thermal devices that have a high ROI, can furthermore be simply rebuilt wherever people are displaced to by climate or other events, and so the skill keeps its value after displacement as well.

 

Since solar thermal devices are by nature decentralized and do not require a grid for efficient use (thermal energy cannot be transported large distances), solar thermal devices are largely immune to grid and other regional infrastructure collapse.

 

This is particularly relevant in low-income regions where grids are already very unstable, vulnerable to disruption and difficult to rebuild post-disaster, but it is also relevant in higher income regions.

 

Nearly all regions are vulnerable to grid disruptions of electricity and other fuels, and so the pre-positioning of low-cost and high-power solar thermal devices can significantly help in natural disasters in many high income regions as well.

 

Refugee benefits

Currently, refugee camps are often placed on marginal land that is already vulnerable to desertification and there is no way to stop people from collecting biomass if it is the only productive activity available. In parallel, NGOs must truck in large amounts of fuel in various forms to run the camps and settlements.

 

This situation is ideal for the benefits of low-cost, high temperature and locally built solar thermal devices, as building and maintaining the concentrators also provides employment and meaning to refugees, along with income and skills building benefits.

 

Education

In general, renewable energy is unlike seasonal agriculture or trading. Even with the short payback period of our product, renewable energy is a business where the investment in capital and learning is upfront and the value is generated over time. This requires sufficient business skills to plan and operate on the required time-frame, otherwise no net value is generated. Where these skills are lacking, education and entrepreneur incubation programs are critical for the deployment of the technology.

 

Although using the GoSol technology is intuitive and training on basic gestures and maintenance is fairly short, a rich educational context is required to fully motivate and empower new solar entrepreneurs.

 

Low-cost, locally-built, and high-temperature solar concentrators are also ideal for the education setting. Students can help build and / or assemble the technology and help operate and maintain it.

Furthermore, there are a lot of engineering, physics and other principles embodied in the technology and its use provides many teaching opportunities for diverse subject matters. In particular, social and environmental problems can be taught with a “solutions attached” approach which is more engaging.

 

Schools in low-income rural areas often cook meals and require purchasing fuel for this activity, and therefore there is also a direct return on investment from the use of the technology.

 

Furthermore, in low-income regions many of the applications of the technology may be unfamiliar and cannot be learned in a simple training. For instance, many of the students that participated in our baking course had never baked before, because ovens are not a common thing in their region.

 

In low-income regions, a rich and engaging education training must accompany the technology, and we have developed and already started this in Uganda within the context of the Smartup Factory program with Plan International.

 

Open Source

Since the technology can be built simultaneously all over the world and furthermore every new thermal application adds value to the existing ecosystem, the strategy with the maximum impact potential is to open source high quality engineering and educational material.

 

Reaching high ROI for solar thermal involves optimizing many factors. Although once a design is developed, it can be copied easily, developing a new optimized design is not trivial but requires software algorithms to simulate the physics and economics of the reflector, application, and operational constraints. This is further complicated by environmental, social and economic conditions changing from place to place, not to mention different materials and common tooling and fabrication methods.

 

We have accumulated a significant amount of software, prototyping and field experience that is not easy to recreate. The best starting point for any innovator who wants to develop a new application or to re-optimize an existing application and configuration for different conditions, is the full and complete documentation of the knowledge we have now.

 

With fully open sourcing the knowledge, thousands of innovators can be directly empowered as well as every educator and entrepreneur. This collective potential completely dwarfs the capabilities of a single organization.

 

Conclusion

Given the cost of deploying the GoSol technology relative the potential benefits, it is a high leverage, high growth-rate, impact potential on mitigation, adaptation and sustainable income generation in general.

Eerik Wissenz - April 2019


GoSol.solar Launched!!!

Posted Tuesday 24 April 2018 by Eerik Wissenz.

It’s been a great experience designing the new site and we’re super excited our new website GoSol.solar is now launched.

For longterm followers I think it’s a good moment to answer "why all the website changes?"

Our company domain moved from solarfire.org to solarfire.co when we made the company, then back to solarfire.org (when it was clear people would email to the .com too easily and a business is an organization too) then finally to solarfire.io (because .org remained confusing to people).

Why we started at solarfire.org in the first place was because the whole idea and effort of developing solar thermal technology goes way, way back before the company, and we tried making a non-profit out of it since our motivation was (and still is) to just get the technology out there to people who can use it. Since none of us involved at the time were engineers,

We quickly learned however that our role in the process was providing the expertise about solar thermal technology and a company was a better structure for that.

After launching the company ... surprise, surprise, we needed to succeed as a company, and the "locally maintainable, high power technology" designs we had made before as just a band of adventurers were totally unproven and not-optimized.

Fortunately with our experience in developing countries and numerical tools, we found good demand providing consultancy services to other solar projects or then just thermal projects in general (not coal kind of thermal, but rather optimizing waste-recovery ORC and server-room components kind of thermal).

We were pretty happy the business was able to get clients and survive from year to year, since failing as an entrepreneur is, though a learning experience, best to avoid. Even a big Silicon Valley company hired us for a thermal project which was a great “we can make it anywhere” moment.

But commercial success does not equal success at improving the world, it takes more than commercial logic in order to solve our problems today. It takes risks and engagements that are not strictly dictated by just doing what we did last quarter, just more of it.

The dream of unlocking the sun’s potential to solve social and environmental problems on a planetary scale and find a technological system that could scale quickly and have a far greater impact than resources needed to develop it... was slowly fading into the night.

What then would have been the point?

Making incremental improvements to small parts of existing industries was intellectually engaging, but not what we set out to accomplish. So we thought and fraught about it and discussed what to do.

We came up with a plan and then launched GoSol.org, as an initiative to build momentum behind our original solar designs and high-power, local autonomy concept. We did a small crowd funder that we didn’t really think through in any sort of business or marketing sense, but the people that did find out about it and saw the vision were incredibly motivated and supportive that we continue. Crowd funding didn’t really work as we had no idea if our designs would really work as intended — could normal entrepreneurs really maintain it? really make use of it enough in a real business context for fuel savings to be worth it? what was the optimum design for these entrepreneurs? — were all questions we didn’t know the answer to. What we did know is that we needed an NGO to incubate pilot projects to find out. We were able to participate in World Vision’s Weconomy program and with the help of the crowd-funding funds, Weconomy program, small grant from Rexel Foundation, a small business loan as well as Finnpartnership support we were able to launch 2 pilots in Kenya.

The enthusiasm of the communities for the technology was super high, deep engagement in the maintenance training, and most importantly they kept using it and making repairs after we left. Based on the feedback it was clear that the designs could be significantly improved but fortunately between the communities and periodic returns for bigger repairs, the technology was off the ground commercially. Having small entrepreneurs actually use the technology in their business was an incredible milestone, that took over a decade of thinking, tinkering and testing and then 3 years as a business building up our optimization algorithms to accomplish.

With the momentum we were able to attract support from Autodesk Foundation to improve our designs, training methods and material and from Wärtsilä Corporation to run the next series of pilots to implement everything we learned from the first two, refining the designs, training material, and whole methodology needed for global scaleup. Support from these organizations has been amazing and sped up the whole process by several years, and most importantly has allowed us to prepare both a more traditional "we’ll ship you the hardware" way for people to get the technology as well as the "we’ll train and incubate local artisans to build and supply the technology". Having both these scale-up options, industry and education, at the same time we believe is the recipe for super disproportionate impact, as both scale-up methods reinforce the other and for end users gives all the options, from turn-key to artisans to simply DIY. Making all the options available means entrepreneurs can choose the solution optimized from them and their local economy.

Which brings us to why GoSol.solar.

We had chosen a .org ending for GoSol.org because it gave the signal that we weren’t expecting the technology to be a commercial success (for us). This could have failed for any number of reasons that would have just proven it should be tried again ... just probably not by us. Failure to prove the technology’s potential and build momentum would have been a big hit and we would have had to concentrate on other things entirely. But with a .org we’d be able to easily share how far we got, what we learned and invite other businesses, organizations and individuals to continue where we stopped, succeed where we failed. And if someone else succeeded with it we’d still be there to offer our experience and optimization services.

As it happens, it’s been a success and now a core part of our business, so the .org ending has been confusing.

The new GoSol.solar website presents that what was once just the "GoSol initiative, Free the Sun Campaign" is now the core of our business, network and next milestone we’re focused on now: scaling up the "SOL5" technology.

We’re thinking of re-launching the GoSol.org website later for fully non-profit activities, but for now we are simply grateful for the GoSol.org experience and excited about starting this new chapter with all our partners, clients and supporters! Thanks all!!


Solar Fire at AutoDesk University

Posted Tuesday 22 November 2016 by Eerik Wissenz.

We just got back from the Impact Summit organized by Autodesk Foundation in parallel to AutoDesk University in Las Vegas. We participated as a grantee project supported by the AutoDesk Foundation

The Impact Summit was an amazing event. All the impact organizations and startups supported by Autodesk Foundation were able to meet and share experiences as well as participate in interesting discussions and panels.

In addition to the Impact Summit we also took part in the broader AutoDesk University program so we could benefit from increasing our design skills and seeing the latest and greatest software and prototyping tools in the engineering world.

Big thanks to the whole AutoDesk Foundation Team for organizing the event and supporting so many great impact projects!

After recovering from the 10 hour jet-lag between Nevada and Finland, here are few snapshots from our week-long stay in Las Vegas.

"Welcome to Autodesk U!" Team members Eerik Wissenz and Arnaud Crétot attended the AutoDesk University 2016 in Last Vegas.
As part of the week-long conference we met with other Autodesk Foundation grantees
Our CTO Arnaud Crétot getting some needed sunlight...!

Post COP21 Ecology Strategy Review

Posted Sunday 27 December 2015 by Eerik Wissenz.

We are still in the magic of Christmas and I think it’s a good time to reflect on whether Santa will grant the COP 21 wishes. As all children know, there are no guarantees. And that’s the whole point, there is nothing in the COP21 agreement that sets out to try to guarantee anything, we are told that’s because that would be too hard. The climate Santa may come one day, but maybe not.

As George Monbiot notes "By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster." Why is this so?

Not long ago the discussion around climate negotiations was “enforceability”, how would an agreement, assuming it is reached, be enforceable. The answer is of course simple: trade tariffs on anyone that breaks the agreement, forcing the environmental costs internalized on polluters. i.e. the “polluter pays” (the true actual cost of production) which is the only method that is both common sense and proven to work for harmful pollutants of which there is no practical short term mechanism to simply ban altogether.

Continue reading on PhiloSolphy.com.


The COP21 Agreement: A Letter to Santa

Posted Thursday 17 December 2015 by Eerik Wissenz.

The COP21 agreement is filled with all sorts of legalese that may be difficult for the average person to understand. A great deal of press has been published about a few phrases in the agreement, like a nod to 1.5°C being better than 2°C, but without a human, readable, translation it’s difficult to put this discussion in context.

As chairman of my company I often have to both read and write similarly worded agreements, MoU’s, letters of intent, going through fine print of service and insurance contracts of various sorts, etc. As such, I’ve taken the liberty of translating the COP21 agreement into layman’s terms to allow greater access to it.

Dear Santa Claus (of 2025),

Continue reading on Philosolphy.com


Solar and the Meaning of Life

Posted Monday 28 September 2015 by Eerik Wissenz.

We have many ecological and social problems.
Some say we’re doomed.

Solar is expanding exponentially.
Some say everything will be fine.

We believe a solar economy is possible, but we can’t be relaxed about it.
Our Plan Is To Do Something About It

Our aim is to strike at the heart of our social and ecological problems, all of which are either directly caused by or fundamentally enabled by our bio-fossil energy system — and so the solution must be fundamentally an energy one, as we’ve known for a while. But because the hour is late we now must solve a lot more problems than just energy, we must not only technically produce a solution but scale it super quick, in shaky financial times, against the business as usual plan of the fossil fuel interests, furthermore the solution must be inclusive to half or more of humanity that has little financial access and the solution must be resilient against global economic disruptions.

In other words, an energy solution must be low capital (lower the
better), yet power a viable economy, and be locally buildable and
maintainable with little or no imports. If such a system can be found it
could be scaled all over the globe simultaneously without reliance on
any inter-government treaty and wouldn’t break-down (could even continue
scaling) in the event of serious global economic dislocations... And at
GoSol, we think we have found it.

Though effective inter-government treaties, global economic
stability, milder than expected climate events, and peaceful times
certainly help a great deal, and should be hoped for and striven for as
best we can, an overarching energy transition plan must account for one
or several of these things going worse than expected.

At the end of the day people need energy where they are, if they can
build a renewable and clean energy device where they are, with the means
they have, then that would be a viable solution.

It’s not an unfamiliar concept: Most people on earth take it for
granted that they can build and light a wood fire right where they are
to cook, heat themselves and power a range of commercial and industrial
processes. We want to transfer the knowledge to just as many people that
they can build a solar device right where they are and access even more
energy, clean and sustainably. If this starts to be taken for granted
then we’re getting somewhere.

Such a method might exist but may not be obvious. In the case of
fire it was not "obvious", humans are the only species, as far as we
know, to have mastered fire in the 2 billion years history of earth, so
too for accessing solar energy ever where a method may exist that is not
obvious but must be invented, learned and mastered globally before taken
for granted.

Making and spreading this tangible method is what GoSol is all about.

However, in the discovery of fire there wasn’t any short term risk
of catastrophe if our ancestors didn’t master fire, they could take
their sweet time, the mastery of solar is on the other hand on a time
schedule: We have to master solar as fast as possible, the faster the
better.

And the only way to master solar faster right now is with your
participation. Free construction guides is the only way to scale a
potential "GoSol Method" rapidly. Join us now!

Do you really think our plan of viral exponential construction is feasible?

Yes, because three things have recently changed:
1. Fossil fuels and biomass energy are finite when over-exploited,
our exploitation of them leads to depletion and cost increases, which
shifts the goal posts in our direction making it easier to get to
“cheaper than”.
2. The Internet allows information and experience to be spread at
incredible speeds. Getting the information out there followed by much
implementation at local scales all around the globe is required to get
to technology and business models adapted locally. The Internet can
massively accelerate this information sharing and learning process.
3. Supply chains are increasingly penetrating world markets. Power
tools are now more commonplace around the globe and much cheaper to get
if you don’t have them. Similarly, reflective materials are much cheaper
and all sorts of old and new forms have been improved. This makes things
much easier and quicker to scale from a logistical and technical
perspective.

What would be a locally-rooted solar economy?

Building a locally-rooted solar economy – as in a local economy that
could go more than a few weeks without external imports, but can still
benefit from trade with other communities – means redesigning a majority
of agricultural, domestic and economic processes to work with the sun.

Just as all sorts of bio-energy based applications needed to be
re-designed to work with fossil fuels, likewise to move to direct solar
power we need to redesign applications to work with direct solar energy.
The best way to make these applications happen is to make free
construction of our reflectors and core-applications freely available so
anyone can build them, use them, and test out new uses.
Every new
application that is developed increases the value of building a solar
concentrator, which increases the reasons to adapt other applications
thus increasing the value. The more solar concentrators that are built
the lower the cost becomes, due to increased skill, better designs and
better materials, fueling the positive feedback loop further.

Check our FreeTheSun campaign page.


 

 

 

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