Gary Vaughn    10/23/2012  rev 3/9/2014

Ecology, Sustainability, Alternative Energy and All That

     Far too few of todays “ecologists” and “alternative lifestyle pioneers” have the slightest inkling of what the low-energy, self-sufficient society of the future will really have to be like if the planet is to have any chance of surviving.          

     Fortunately for us all, a handful of thoughtful philosophers and thinkers and doers do have a reasoned concept of the tremendous — and necessary — changes in living patterns which we must all make if Earth is to endure. Peter van Dresser is one of those philosophers and thinkers and doers . . . and many more of today’s citizens especially those who fancy themselves “environmental pioneers” of one stripe or another would do well to study the man’s work.

Solar energy, wind power, humanitarian, ecology, alternative lifestyle and related freaks . . . please take note: You didn’t — as you sometimes seem to believe — invent all those groovy fields of interest overnight all by yourselves alone. Other — and occasionally better — men and women were trying to “put it all together” a long time before it became fashionable (or even possible) to do so.

     One of those who’ve gone ahead is Peter van Dresser, a man with a lifelong interest in technology and its applications within the framework of an ecological consciousness. At various times in his life, Mr. van Dresser has been — among other things — a writer of science fiction, a professional regional and urban planner, a member of the Decentralist movement of the 1930’s, a pioneer in the development of rocket engines and a near-total dropout from our military-industrial society.


A rare photo of Peter van Dresser in Santa Fe

   In 1949, van Dresser moved to El Rito, a small village in the mountains of northern New Mexico. There he opened a little restaurant, designed and built solar-and wind-powered houses and began working in earnest for the development of decentralized, self-sufficient communities which “make use of sophisticated technology to produce a high standard of living, yet exist harmoniously with the natural world around them”.

     Peter van Dresser’s vision of the community of the future may sound utopian to some . . . but it’s based on pure common sense and a lifetime of experience. Peter’s ideas stated in detail in his book, Landscape for Humans, have had a profound influence on a whole generation of counterculture experimenters and designers.

     Sounds very contemporary doesn’t it?  A-la Taos/Santa Fe 2012?  Well, take a moment to consider that this is an excerpt from an article published in the Sept/Oct 1975 issue of Mother Earth News!!    You can read the entire article at  http://www.motherearthnews.com/nature-community/peter-van-dresser-zmaz75sozgoe.aspx#ixzz29fdW60CH

Zomes and Baers,  Oh My!

     During the late 60’s, a group of “dirty hippies” — as they were then known — dropped out of consumerist America’s mainstream and began settling in the arid reaches of this country’s Southwest. There, they usually eked out a living by raising organic gardens, doing odd jobs, selling craft products … and just plain scrounging.

Well, undoubtedly, some of those dropouts really were the ne’er-do-wells that their parents thought they were. But others in the crowd were genuine visionaries, philosophers, social critics and Renaissance men … and women.  Steve and Holly Baer certainly fit into the second category.

     The Baers, as so many of us have done since the mid-50’s, did some rambling from one school and occupation to another and saw a little of the world before they came to rest near Albuquerque, New Mexico in the last half of the 60’s. Steve was especially restless. He was capable enough to make a way for himself and his family wherever he went … but he couldn’t seem to convince himself that he belonged in any of our culture’s neat little pigeonholes.

The answer, of course, was simple (whether the Baers knew it at the time or not) … they’d just have to start building a new culture.  Which they, and some others, proceeded to do.

     The Baers — in alliance with a few of the Southwest’s young communes — began by showing the world that very inexpensive dome housing could be fabricated from the tops of junked automobiles (Steve’s out-of-print manual, Dome Cookbook, is still the classic reference on the subject).

     Steve then moved on to develop zomes (open, airy buildings that offer much greater structural flexibility than domes). At almost the same time, he plunged deeply into make-it-work-on-a-practical-basis solar energy research. Eventually, with two friends, Steve founded Zomeworks, a company that designs and manufactures zomes, solar water heaters and other imaginative hardware that springs from the fertile brains of Baer and the young innovators that are drawn to him.

     Holly has stood close beside Steve during his struggle to develop his ideas. She has made many meaningful contributions to his work and done much valuable work of her own. Together, they make an impressive team.

     The above is an excerpt from a July/August 1973 article in Mother Earth News on Steve & Holly Baer.  You can read the entire article at:  http://www.motherearthnews.com/nature-community/steve-baer-holly-baer-dome-home-zmaz73jazraw.aspx

     Steve Baer is best known for inventing the geometrical forms known as “zomes”; for his creative & innovative work in passive solar energy applications; and for his iconic company,  Zomeworks.  Zomes are 3 dimensional “space frames” intricately linked to sophisticated concepts in math, science, art, and architecture.  Steve is the God-Father of the zome.  He designed the first zome structure; he and his wife Holly built the first zome home; and they’ve lived in that zome for 40 years.  Ancient news you say?  Well, in 2012 the Belgian “Delft Architectural Studies in Housing” (DASH) group published an impressive book called “The ECO House” which features the Baer Zome Home as one of the most interesting ECO houses IN THE WORLD.

     In 1972, just before the first Arab oil embargo triggered the first US “energy crisis”, Peter van Dresser and Steve Baer and Keith Haggard founded an organization called the New Mexico Solar Energy Association, and hosted the very first “Life Technic” Conference.  The “Proceedings” from that conference became NMSEA’s first “official” publication.

Design, Build, Test & Educate

     About 70 miles north of Santa Fe—set amongst the rugged sandstone cliffs of northern New Mexico—is the Ghost Ranch, an adult study center owned and operated by the United Presbyterian Church. But Ghost Ranch is far more than a church retreat . . . it’s also the site of one of the most important passive solar heating experiments in the U.S. today: the Sun-dwellings Project.

     This program was born roughly three years ago, when a representative of the Four Corners Regional Commission (a federally funded agency administered by the governors of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah) asked New Mexico solar energy pioneer Peter van Dresser (see The Plowboy Interview, MOTHER NO. 35) if he would be interested in receiving grant money for the purpose of designing a solar heating unit that could be retrofitted to mobile homes.

     Mr. van Dresser came up with a better idea: “Rather than try to solarize house trailers,” he suggested, “why not spend the money to develop inexpensive, owner-built solar homes appropriate to the human ecology of the local area?” Surprisingly, the Regional Commission spokesman encouraged van Dresser to write up a proposal and told him that—once submitted—his paper would be given a “sympathetic reading”.

     To make a long story short, the Four Corners Regional Commission liked what van Dresser had to say and came up with a $34,000 grant calling for Peter to head up a team of architects, engineers, and solar experimenters. Their job: design and supervise the construction of a variety of low-technology solar-heated dwellings made entirely of indigenous materials. (Additional funding—to make the construction phase of the project into a manpower training program—came from the state of New Mexico . . . bringing the total amount of “allocated monies” to $102,000.)

     The very first thing the Sun-dwellings design team (which initially included architects William Lumpkins and David Wright, engineers Francis Wessling and B.T. Rogers, and New Mexico Solar Energy Association Executive Director Keith Haggard) did—even before sharpening their pencils—was to ask the local people what their needs and desires were in a dwelling . . what they required in terms of food storage areas, tool-sheds, harvest rooms, etc. This, of course, made the Sun-dwellings Project unconventional from the start. (Other federally funded housing projects in New Mexico have seen fit to plunk California tract-type houses down in the middle of Indian reservations, without the slightest regard for the traditions of the people or the ecology of the area.)

     What the Sun-dwellings team found—not unexpectedly—was that the individuals who live in the 400-year-old pueblos and villages of northern New Mexico tend to be conservative and prefer their traditional (some would say “primitive”) way of life to the keep-up-with-the-Joneses style of living so prevalent in other parts of the U.S.

     This meant two things: First, the design team would have to work in the classically beautiful Southwestern architectural motif (which uses adobe brick walls, flagstone floors, peeled pine roof beams, and so on) . . no far-out domes, zomes, or plastic bubbles. Second, all the pumps, fans, and other high-technology geeble-fetzers usually found in solar heating setups would have to go. Whatever kind(s) of solar heating equipment the design team decided on would have to be—above all—simple and reliable.

     Ultimately, it became apparent to the Sun-dwellings designers that they could get the most information per dollar spent if they were to build—and carefully monitor the performance of— four separate dwellings: one featuring a lean-to greenhouse, a second utilizing a Trombe wall collector, a third unit employing the “direct gain” concept, and a fourth structure (similar in construction to the other three, but having no special “solar” features) to serve as a control.

Sun-Dwellings at Ghost Ranch

     Construction of the four 20′ X 40′ test units began early in 1976.   Mark Chalom, Aubrey Owen, and Quentin Wilson—three highly creative (and enthusiastic) solar energy experimenters from the northern New Mexico area—served as on-site construction foremen for the project. (As part of their duties, these three men provided workers with two hours of instruction each day on solar energy fundamentals and basic building techniques.)

     The 16 trainee-workers who participated in the project—all men from the surrounding pueblos and villages—did their own millwork, quarried flagstones, cut timber, and made all the adobe bricks for each “Sun-dwelling”. (Virtually all the materials used in the four buildings came from the immediate area.)

     The above is an excerpt from an article published in the July/Aug 1977 issue of Mother Earth News.  You can read the entire article at  http://www.motherearthnews.com/Nature-Community/1977-07-01/Passive-Solar-Cabins.aspx

Sun-Dwellings at Ghost Ranch

    In the early 70’s, a newly minted nuclear engineering PhD from MIT named Doug Balcomb accepted a job at Los Alamos National Lab to work on nuclear powered spacecraft.  When that program lost its funding, he followed his growing interest in another nuclear related energy source – the sun.  Dr. Balcomb pioneered some of the early research in quantifying passive solar design performance, including analyzing data from the Ghost Ranch Sun-dwellings. He is considered to be the “father” of the Energy-10 modeling software that revolutionized passive and active solar architecture design methods.  After serving a stint as President of NMSEA, Dr. Balcomb accepted a far less prestigious position  –  as the very first Director of the newly created US National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL).

     From 1977 to 1982,  NMSEA had an executive director and dozens of paid staff engaged in what was at the time the cutting edge of “alternative architecture”, sustainable community building, and passive solar research, applications and education.  NMSEA’s annual “Life Technic” Conference at Ghost Ranch was attended by people from all over the world, and each conference resulted in the publication of a thick volume of conference proceedings. One of the regular attendees was a young outside-of-the-box thinker, a scientist named Amory Lovins.

Passive Solar Architecture

     The state of passive solar heating, though built on timeless principles, has changed over the past several decades.  Some 36 years ago, in the summer between my junior and senior years of college, I dipped my feet into the world of renewable energy. About 20 students from Ithaca College and Cornell University spent the summer trying to determine whether a farm outside Ithaca could become energy self-sufficient. This was three years after the 1973 oil crisis, and like a lot of people, we wanted to figure out how to wean ourselves from fossil fuels. The National Science Foundation supported the project.

The “Balcomb House” in Santa Fe

     In 1976 solar heating usually referred to complex, active-solar systems. Experimenters and back-yard inventors were putting solar collectors on their roofs and pumping solar-heated air through rock-beds to store the heat, or they were pumping antifreeze through roof-mounted flat-plate collectors to charge large insulated water tanks.

     We experimented with some of those systems in our quest for energy independence, but we were also hearing about these low-tech, passive-solar designs being developed in the Southwest—especially northern New Mexico. We liked what we saw and put on our tool belts to build some of these passive systems we were reading about, including south-facing attached solar greenhouses (sunspaces).

     Intrigued, I headed to Santa Fe, New Mexico not long after graduating to work for the New Mexico Solar Energy Association (NMSEA). When I arrived in 1978, the organization was leading tours of passive solar buildings, conducting hands-on workshops to teach people about attached solar greenhouses, and promoting such systems as Trombe walls and convective air collectors.

The Passive Solar Sandias

     Those were heady times. We were at the leading edge of the future of energy design. We imagined, in our youthful idealism, that within ten years all new houses would be oriented on East-West axes and rely on south-facing windows and thermal mass for heating. We were hungry for information and worshipping at the feet of such innovators as Peter Van Dresser, Steve Baer, Doug Balcomb, Jeffrey Cook, Wayne & Susan Nichols, and Ed Mazria.

     For the better part of three years I worked for NMSEA, first running the Workshop Program (in which we traveled around the state leading construction workshops), then getting more involved in research and writing. My first real publication was the Thermal Storage Wall Design Manual, published in 1979. At national conferences I became inspired by the burgeoning interest in passive solar design, and at one of those conferences I met John Hayes, a professor at Marlboro College and chair of the Passive Division of the American Solar Energy Society, who would convince me to move to Vermont and become executive director of the New England Solar Energy Association (now the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association).

     The above is an excerpt from an article titled “The End of the Line for Passive Solar?” posted on July 02, 2012 by Alex Wilson, who is founder and executive editor of BuildingGreen, Inc., and coeditor of GreenSpec. You can read the entire article at: http://www2.buildinggreen.com/blogs/end-line-passive-solar

Renewing Renewable Energy in NM

     The sunny days of enthusiastic support for solar energy came to an abrupt end in 1983 with the election of Ronald Reagan, who gutted federal support for all of these types of programs.  1983 also saw the loss of Peter van Dresser, one of the founding members of the organization.  NMSEA’s paid staff plummeted to zero, and the organization soon lacked the funds to publish even a modest newsletter.  Dr. Bill Gross, then Dean of the College of Engineering at the University of New Mexico, hosted NMSEA board of directors meetings in his living room – and there were still some empty seats.  However, the annual NMSEA Life Technic Conference continued and even expanded to include a co-conference – the Peter van Dresser Workshop on Village Development.

The NMSEA “SunChaser” Tailer

     Slowly but surely the organization rebuilt itself.  In 1994, NMSEA published the first edition of  “The New SunPaper”.  In the late 90’s, Karlis Vicepts launched the NMSEA “SunChaser” Program, named after a solar energy demonstration  trailer that was built with modest grant funding and lots of volunteer labor.  The SunChaser trailer, in various incarnations, roamed the roads of New Mexico for years, delivering hands-on solar energy related educational content to thousands of New Mexican students.

     In 1998, NMSEA hosted the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) National Conference – Solar ’98: Renewable Energy for the Americas, in Albuquerque.

     In 2000, Rose Kern organized the very first “stand-alone” NMSEA Solar Fiesta, which was held at the Bernalillo High School campus.  A combination of a “solar trade show” and an educational forum, the NMSEA Solar Fiesta became an annual event, one which has introduced thousands of New Mexicans to a wide variety of solar energy products, ideas and possibilities.

     In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, LANL physicist Ben Luce expanded NMSEA’s educational reach with an expansive web site and many hundreds of pages of high quality educational documents and informative handouts.  He also encouraged NMSEA to become more involved in renewable energy policy advocacy.

     In the past 10 years,  NMSEA has sponsored, organized and conducted numerous “professional quality” educational workshops devoted to photovoltaic design and installation, solar hot water system design and installation,  biofuels, electric vehicle conversions, and home energy efficiency upgrades.

1998 NMSEA/ASES Conference Solar Fiesta

    Although its namesake “SunChaser” trailer has retired to Taos, NMSEA’s SunChaser Program is very much alive today.  In 2011,  SunChaser instructors around the state made 56 mostly full day school visits, and delivered high quality hands-on educational content to almost 6,000 students.  In addition, NMSEA volunteers manned info tables and waved the solar flag at 28 community events such as energy fairs and Earth Day Celebrations.

     In  past few years, NMSEA members have become more active in “advocacy” and “empowerment” issues in addition to their usual energy education outreach work.  NMSEA has participated in public hearings on energy efficiency and clean energy initiatives, written op-eds, and authored articles specifically focused on topics related to renewable energy generation and regulated utility initiatives.

     And what about the fourth pillar of NMSEA’s mission statement – collaboration?  It’s obvious even from the brief history related above that NMSEA has always been all about genuine grass-roots collaboration.  There is no organization in this state nor, indeed, in this county, that can point to a longer and broader and deeper record of collaborative efforts than NMSEA.  Even in culturally diverse New Mexico, it is rare to see Los Alamos Laboratory PhDs working together with “hippies”, research scientists working together with garage-shop inventors, professors working together with high school dropouts.  NMSEA’s membership is eclectic, eccentric, highly creative, and often politically incorrect.  Animated “discussions” are the norm.  What is it, exactly, that we all have in common?  We’re crazy about sunshine.

     40 years of “front-line” service in the battle to promote clean, renewable energy and sustainability in New Mexico through education, empowerment, collaboration and advocacy – that is a legacy that we can all be proud of!

The Next 40 Years

     So where should NMSEA go from here?  What will the next 40 years look like?  The future will be different from the past – we can almost certainly count on that.  So NMSEA will have to change too.

     Passive and active solar designs and products are relatively commonplace today, although much to our dismay, even here in New Mexico they’re still far from the norm.  New Mexico now has a wide range of successful PV and solar thermal companies who are advertizing, conducting free educational workshops, offering free consultations, showing up at community events, and even hosting their own mini-solar-fiestas.

      New Mexico’s community colleges are now offering a broad selection of solar and RE-related programs and classes – including, while the money lasts, free training programs for qualified students paid for with federal stimulus funds.  Santa Fe Community College has a brand new, very well equipped mobile “energy education trailer”.

     Photovoltaic systems are now mature and sophisticated products, most often grid-tied, and usually operated at voltages and power levels far above those that were common just a few years ago.  The era of simple “do-it-yourself” PV and solar thermal system installations is quickly coming to an end.  “Easy” home energy efficiency “tips” are readily available on-line and at every bookstore and home improvement center.  More ambitious home energy efficiency upgrades require detailed knowledge of exactly how a home is constructed, as well as a wide range of building skills and experience.

Holly Baer (r) & NMSEA VP Janet Bridgers (l)
at the Baer’s famous “Zome Home” in Sept 2012

    New Mexico’s classic passive solar adobe architecture works amazingly well, just like it always has, but a combination of  market forces,  new “standardized” energy efficiency building codes, and national building efficiency rating systems are pushing homebuyers away.  A range of new building materials and techniques are readily available and in most cases, far more familiar to the average architect and home builder.  Natural gas prices have plummeted, making it easier than ever to ignore the benefits of proper building orientation, south-facing windows, strategic shading and thermal mass.  Solar hot water systems are facing fierce competition from relatively inexpensive but still very efficient natural gas fired systems.

      Clean, renewable, sustainable, “green” energy related organizations are everywhere – the Green Chamber of Commerce and the US Green Building Council (USGBC) are just two of many major examples.  The more “green” the better, but how many people can tell one shade of green from another?

     In the educational arena, the internet has revolutionized the access and delivery of educational content.  School systems now emphasize state standards, standardized testing and strict teacher qualifications.  The available classroom hours and budgets are already fully allocated – leaving teachers few options and no $$ for inviting outside presenters.  There are many many choices for renewable energy related educational content, including an array of web-based curricula.  Several national organizations offer “teacher approved” classroom kits and lesson plans, developed with the assistance of PhD-laden educational consultants and generous financial support from major US corporations.

     In 2011, even the famous Rocky Mountain Institute saw a fall-off in financial support.  NMSEA runs on a very modest bare-bones budget even in the best of times – and these aren’t the best of times. But hey, if running an organization made up of solar energy gurus & fanatics in the poorest state in the whole country was easy, then anybody could do it!!

     In New Mexico, droughts come & go.    NMSEA is still here.