Credit goes to @pdbuckland for the original interview
Jeffrey Brownson writes on his blog and gives permission for us to reprint the interview here with credit to Peter Bucland
Today I am sharing an excellent interview that I engaged in with Dr.
Peter Buckland of the Penn State University Sustainability Institute.
you will enjoy this interview on solar ecologyas much as I did
speaking with Peter. It was so fun!
LINK TO ORIGINAL INTERIVEW:
You can find the original article at the website of the SI, and I also recommend looking into more of Peter’s personal thoughts at his blog, Peter is in the Forest, and following him on Twitter: @PDBuckland.
Peter Buckland: Your championing the adoption of a big concept, solar
ecology. Why? Where did that come from?
Jeffrey Brownson: Solar ecology is meant to be a systems framework to
engage in both discovery and design of the space of the sun, the light
from the sun interacting with the earth, with the environment, with
the solar technologies that we create and use, the solar technologies
that we adapt for food, and the solar technologies that we live in
(like photovoltaics, agriculture, and our homes, respectively). It is
an exploration of patterns of the flow of light from the sun within
the dynamic context of the place where we live and act out our lives.
It includes the seasons, the ways stakeholders in an environment
interact with each other and make decisions, and the ways we choose
the technologies that we use in our lives. How do we use the sun? How
do we perceive the sun? How do we understand the patterns of the sun
interacting with the earth and our choices to design, adapt, and
improve our livelihoods using that flow of light? It’s analogous to
the way we use geology as a systems framework for exploring and
discovering design of the earth systems around us.
PB: If I say “solar” to a typical person today, I bet they’re going to
think of photovoltaic solar panels. But you’re talking about something
that’s so much bigger than that.
JB: I think that thinking of photovoltaics–or the conversion of light
into electricity using those blue or black panels–is a really great
starting point for thinking about solar energy. It’s very tangible.
It’s right in front of us. It’s a hot topic. It begins a discussion to
generate a conversation. If light can be used to generate electricity,
then what else can light be used for? What else is light being used
for? That kind of beginning dialogue to talk about photovoltaics for
generating electricity and expanding it see that solar is part of our
homes, our building systems, how solar is part of the light that you
use to perceive the world around you, that it’s the functional element
to creating the food around you, to creating wood products, and
everything that we use to create modern society–it’s all at the core.
PB: Is there almost a solar consciousness you are trying to build?
JB: I’m trying to remind people that there always was a solar
consciousness. But through the advent of readily available fuels our
culture has forgotten its solar awareness, things as close back as our
grandparents’ generation. There are ways of living that are tied
closer to solar than we think. We’ve just a loss of core knowledge of
how to use solar energy.
PB: How far back does that go?
JB: That’s a fascinating thing. The more you look at solar as the flow
of energy that gets converted into many goods and services, you can
track it back to building systems, to trees and agriculture. Finally,
what you find goes back to the Neolithic revolution, over 10,000 years
ago–to the beginning of the Holocene geological epoch. That’s when you
see human society aggregating, becoming localized and fixed in one
They were cultivating agriculture–a solar energy conversion process, a
design strategy for food and for the products for building the
environments around them. And so there are fixed places and building
structures to stay in one place, and they have to develop design
principles for the buildings. How do those structures provide
functionality? How do they provide shade on hot days? How do they take
advantage of the sun to provide warmth on cold days and avoid fuels?
You can look into ancient Mesopotamia to look at the beginnings of
agriculture and civilization and see this.
Gnomon at the Penn State Arboretum
But it gets more interesting about 6,000 years ago. John Perlin is a
solar historian who’s pointed out that in China we see the emergence
of what we call “solar vernacular,” a localized design principle that
works the way the culture works. We have the emergence of the first
“gnomon,” sticks that stand out of the ground to tell time–we have a
large one at the Penn State Arboretum. The very first curved mirrors
were being used to start fires using sunlight at that time too. There
were conventional requirements that you had to orient your buildings
toward the equator. Living in the northern hemisphere you had to take
advantage of the sun for warmth during wintertime.
This is also coincident with deforestation that comes along with
urbanization. Where you have deforestation you have a high cost of
fuels (like wood), as those fuels are inaccessible. So what am I left
with for useful energy in that case? I will go back to solar. We call
that an “energy constraint response.” When fuels are available, easily
accessible and cheap the sun is forgotten.
PB: Oil. Coal. Natural gas.
JB: Right. When fuels become constrained because they are physically
inaccessible, if the demand outstrips supply, if it requires high risk
(like a war) to access, or if a society puts restraints on the use of
fuels, then those constraints transform society to go back to solar.
Solar is ubiquitous, fast, and viable for solving problems.
PB: If you think about the oil shock of the 1970s, solar became a
saving strategy for a time. And then it died away…
JB: …when fuels became more accessible.
PB: And in American and European history there are previous examples.
JB: Absolutely. There are waves of this across centuries. When there
are fuel constraints you see new solar designs in buildings and
agriculture. An example is that during the Little Ice Age in northern
Europe people were building solar fruit walls or espaliers. They would
pin fruit trees to a wall so you can grow fruit in a colder climate
because the sun warms the back wall that creates a microclimate. So
that becomes an aspect of the culture. It’s not like a technology that
you go to school to learn how to do but something that becomes the
vernacular, the common thing that everybody knows about and does.
PB: A few years ago peak oil folks were calling attention to peak oil.
But they’ve lost some gusto temporarily because of the shale gas and
fracking boom. You would think that solar would be getting pushed
aside by the ubiquity of natural gas and yet it’s not.
JB: Part of that is that is looking at these fuels as commodities.
Natural gas right now isn’t a global commodity. You can’t ship natural
gas very easily. It has to be put through compression processes and
liquefied. The main way you ship natural gas is through pipelines.
That’s a physical constraint to fuel access.
If you counter that with solar, solar photovoltaics in particular for
electricity generation, then you can put them anywhere. The modules
themselves, the panels, are made and sold as a global commodity just
as barrels of oil are. Their price keeps dropping as more photovoltaic
panels are deployed on the planet. There are niche areas on the planet
right now that need electricity and there’s no natural gas pipeline
and no grid to provide electricity from coal or nuclear plants.
PB: Like much of Africa, Asia, and South America.
JB: Exactly. So we have this Anthropocene revolution, where we are
seeing decentralized and local energy strategies and new solar
vernaculars emerging. These will solve the local and regional problems
of adaptation to and mitigation of climate change. I don’t see solar
turning back at this point.
If you look back to the 1970s and 1980s solar was not a global
commodity. It was still manufactured product that was local to a
region of the United States or Germany or other areas where it was
manufactured. Since then, solar has expanded beyond a tipping point,
and now we have manufacturers in Southeast Asia that are beating out
everybody else. The panels themselves are now just raw commodities.
Most people don’t care about who the manufacturer is other than
quality assurance and quality control. They just go out as readily
available as TVs and phones, base products that you just buy and
expect to work.
PB: In a solar ecology conception of community development and
building, the local solar vernacular should dictate how development
JB: Right. One of the beautiful things about solar vernacular is that
it brings us back to local skill and local knowledge. You can’t
outsource that skill and knowledge. You need to know how the weather
works here…in this place. You need to know about access to water,
rain, and the permeability of the land. You need to know local
policies or the ways that local municipalities interact with one
another, how they make rules, and how those can help or hinder solar
solutions. All these things become very localized very fast.
PB: What are the traditions in the area even.
JB: How does the area see itself? If the area sees itself as a farming
area then solar must be part of a farming strategy. If the traditions
are looking at something other than electricity then how do you use
solar for thermal applications, for hot air, for hot water, or for
industrial processing? They’ve done that in Austria and other places
for brewing solar beer. There are really cool strategies emerging.
I think one of the cooler things I’ve seen emerging–and that you
hinted at–is attention to the community. What happens when the
community leads it? Let’s take solar photovoltaics. It appears to be a
turnkey solution that can be dropped in from on high. It’s just
electricity on demand. Here ya’ go. You’re problems are solved. We now
know that won’t work, and it will create new problems. If you haven’t
developed human capacity to work with solar solutions by the time
you’ve deployed them then you will have problems. Developing the solar
vernacular is more important than the technology.
PB: An example of that would be what happened last year in Woodland,
North Carolina where a community rose up against an energy company
building a third solar power plant there. A corporate entity came in,
built two arrays already, and the community rejected them because of a
disconnection between what they knew, who they believed they are, and
what they were going to get from the project. It looked like there was
no relationship there. It looked like an imposition being put on them.
JB: Yes. Absolutely. And I think there are two parts to that. When any
energy generation becomes big, it becomes “Big Energy.” Big Energy has
large impacts and impositions on the people and places it’s deployed.
You can’t get away from that. Just because photovoltaics might be a
low-carbon energy source doesn’t mean it will have a low impact on the
communities and societies where it’s grown to enormous proportions.
PB: So you could have a devastating enterprise that’s zero carbon
powered renewable energy?
PB: So just because it’s solar doesn’t mean it’s egalitarian.
JB: Oh no. It doesn’t even mean that it’s environmentally safe. If
it’s done wrong it can be hugely impactful. The classic example of
that is the Dust Bowl. People were sent out and told “Go out and
farm.” They were to be solar designers. “Grow food.” And what
happened? They tore up the soil not realizing the destabilization they
were causing. Suddenly a thousand acres became millions of acres of
disrupted environment. Similar things could happen in a solar
environment. If you just lay out photovoltaics and change the land use
pattern then who knows what happens?
PB: Right. What happens when you have rainfall on hundreds of acres of
impervious solar panels getting channeled in new ways?
JB: This becomes a discussion where we have to talk about the
ecosystem services of a particular environment as part of the solar
solution. How do those tie together? What’s the systems framework for
tying those together?
PB: That really brings Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic” and Wendell Berry’s
“Solving for Pattern” to the front. So this sounds like you’re
bringing together community processes, the deployment of technology,
and how it fits in the land.
JB: Yes. We would use the term “solar utility”, which is a preference
for solar goods and services. That can be meadows, trees, agriculture,
or photovoltaics. If you go to a community and develop a project and
you show no good to them, no utility, no solar goods and services for
that community, then you are working against good solar design. You’re
just extracting the solar energy resource from that community and
shipping it someplace else and negatively impacting them. That kind of
thing can “poison the well,” so to speak, by generating antagonism
against solar technologies.
There is definitely a wrong way of going about deploying solar
technology. The folks in Woodland saw that. They had no return of
solar goods and services coming their way. They saw a disruption of
their land, maybe forest or hunting land and nothing given back.
PB: Like employment.
JB: Like employment. So the folks deploying it were not using good
solar design, which is for higher preference for solar goods and
services to the stakeholders in a given locale.
PB: So I want to ask about climate change. Big solar is very
attractive. When you get a whole lot of money thrown at a problem you
can move fast. How fast can what we’ve been talking about happen? If
you look at the Paris Agreement’s goals of a 1.5 degree Celsius limit,
we don’t have much time. According to an analysis by Carbon Brief, the
carbon emissions budget for that will be used up in five or six years
if we want a pretty good chance of meeting the goal.
JB: I’m not just referring to photovoltaic technology. That technology
can be deployed in very short periods of time. Months for huge arrays.
Years for gigawatts worth of energy. It’s very easy to put in the
ground. But where’s the human capacity coming from? Where’s the skill
set coming from, so that as we do the solar development we aren’t just
exploiting regions all over the planet in the name of providing
low-carbon electricity? It may or may not be the right solution for
We should develop local capacities for understanding, for
understanding solar within that place and time, meteorology, and
community engagement. That means education and developing solar
understanding across all the disciplines. It can’t just be science,
engineering, technology, and math (STEM). It has to be a cultural
phenomenon. To me, that’s the only way we are going to get a very
rapid change for solar, when we relink to solar awareness.
PB: Readers and contributors of and to this blog come from across the
disciplines including climate science, geoscience, psychology, poetry,
photography, and education. We have the breadth of solar ecology. How
do we bring it into art, literature, philosophy, or social studies
JB: The wonderful thing about solar is that it’s been around for a
very long time. The story of solar is the story of people living in
place. Its message is embedded in some of our norms. When we have a
porch or a patio, it was originally designed to face the south to be a
shading mechanism during the summer time and to let sunlight in during
the winter to heat your house. It comes from the portico in Italy and
Greece a long time ago.
There are stories. In South Africa we have the story of the Little Man
and the Big Man carrying the sun across the sky. When the sun is high
in the sky in the summer the Big Man is carrying it. In the winter
when the sun is lower, the Little Man is carrying it. We have ways of
visualizing and telling the stories of our changing environments and
You wouldn’t have that story in much of India, where the sun is a
little to the north or a little to the south but the days are
generally about the same length. In designing a home in India you want
a southern facing door, but that has nothing to do with the Sun. That
has to do with wind coming in and cooling your house to keep it
comfortable during monsoon season. All of this can come in story and
When you embrace the message of solar in a way that becomes part of
our livelihoods there opportunities for many, many disciplines.
Original interview attribution: P. D. Buckland. Penn State
Sustainability Institute. Posted July 9, 2016