You Can’t Start a Fire Without a Spark

“Build a small, sufficient solar array on a man’s house; he saves money and uses clean energy. Build a large, sustaining solar model on the man’s community center; his community saves money and it teaches everyone how to help save the environment.”

Listening to Dave Merrill, the President of SunAir Systems, make this proclamation, while sliding my work gloves up to my wrists, I began to get a little nervous about what I had volunteered to do: Assist in the installation of a 1 kilowatt (kW) photovoltaic (PV) system on the roof of Upper Arlington High School in Arlington, Ohio.

I am Solar Resource Corp’s Corporate Development Coordinator, and while I know everything about the schematics, the logistics and the productivity of solar arrays—photovoltaic or thermal—I didn’t know anything about getting my hand’s dirty or the physical act of installation. I told Dave, “I can help you coordinate the installment, but I’m afraid I’ll screw something up, or attach the wrong wires if I am involved in the actual installation.”

The day before the installation Dave and I had made the same trip onto Upper Arlington High School’s roof, but this time I was there as a participant and not an examiner. The plot Dave had lined out was still there. Like an empty puzzle spot in the middle of the puzzle’s board; this twenty feet plot was waiting to open up an entire community to a new way to do things.

My first task was to line up the 25 solar panels and strip them of their old electrical wire and replace each with a new one. I found the positive-charge ends of each panel-each panel has one end with a (+) and one end with a (-), just like a battery-and screwed in the appropriate wiring. The job was tedious, but I had no idea my skills of replacing the battery of my guitar pedal would be the only prerequisite needed to build the intra-circuit of the solar panel model.

“Perfect job,” Dave said as he looked over my ‘electrical’ work. “When those are finished we’ll get them to the roof for the display.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“We’re going to the roof to attach the panels together. We’re building the display,” he said.

Taken aback, I went back through my rolodex of knowledge of the various auxiliary power systems, and found Photovoltaic: The circuit is made up of a collector (Panels)-check-of a charge control (a conduit running from the display into the building), and DC/AC inverter (which takes the power from the sun and basically runs it through the wires in the form of usable energy), and the AC load center (turning the DC power into AC which is how the power is used).

I guess Dave was right; next stop, putting the collector together in the form of the display.

While Titan Power Solutions (one half of Solar Resource Corp’s joint-venture) was craning up the materials onto the roof of the High School, I paused for a photo op. I thought the best way to document this construction would be to take pictures of the progress of the build, so I had my camera ready at all times. The only problem I found was the quickness of the job itself. While I was working I forgot to take pictures.

As I became saturated in the melodic instructions by Jim Groeber from Wheel Constructors Inc. out of Springfield Ohio, I didn’t realize I was wiring the panels together onto the newly constructed frame.

“Hey Dave,” I said, “I’m writing this article about the progress of this display but I forgot to get some more photos before we began installing the panels. Do you think we could take a few panels off, and reapply them so I can get some photos?”

You’re killing me Alex,” he said. “If we really need to.”

Even though Dave was unhappy about my request, I found that one of the other gentlemen helping with the construction took a few photos of me, hands dirty, installing the panels. I told Dave those would work. “Never mind Dave, thanks,” I said.

With the display complete I wiped my brow and looked around at the tools and the small group required to complete (what I thought was) such a daunting task. The community of individuals on top of that roof saw past the politics of renewable energy—the name calling, the slander—and were the perfect balance of realism and idealism.

The notion that as an individual one can help the world is, without a doubt, idealistic. However, no one in Solar Resource Corp., Titan Power Solutions or SunAirSystems wants to “fix” the world’s energy problems. What we want is to help by leading through example. It’s like what [Bruce Springsteen] once said, “You can’t start a fire without a spark.” And our aim is to show communities the plausibility of solar, then the rest will come with the combustion.

Looking past the High School I could see the Upper Arlington community of homes and rooftops; each rooftop representing potential space for energy savings, and each homeowner representing someone who could make a difference. I wanted to scream and say, “Complacency isn’t cool and change is inevitable, can’t you see that?”

But I didn’t scream because Solar Resource Corp. already had a plan for that community and I was standing on it. The High School was to be a shining example of the feasibility of solar technology and I was beginning to believe it was simple enough for residential construction and use, as well. I admit, before the day began I would be scared to death to tell someone installing solar in their own home is easy because I have a terrible poker-face.

But it only takes a confidant teacher like Dave Merrill to share the know-how, and a small group of able individuals, and the rest is sun-baked cake.

Alex Kizer is a Columbus, Ohio native with a degree in Public Policy Studies from Ohio University. Currently, he is attending graduate school at American University’s School of International Service, focusing on International politics.

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