Our solar roots

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

Traveling between the Art Institute in Chicago and the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison, Wis., to do research for his new book about the history of solar energy, John Perlin, a keynote speaker at the 2003 Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair, saw our column in The Rock River Times and decided to call us.

We discussed solar installations in our area, including Freedom Field and the Kickapoo Center, our home system and Pura Vida energy-efficient solar home, and toured the facilities in Ogle County.

Since his presentation at the 2003 fair, Perlin has secured an appointment with the Department of Physics at the University of Southern California at Santa Barbara. After viewing the film The Power of the Sun, the student advisory body at the university launched a successful campaign to assess a student fee to fund the installation of solar electric panels on the roofs of campus buildings. Perlin serves as an adviser on the design and installation of the pv systems. The student recreation center has 68 percent of its electrical demand met by solar electricity.

The campus rooftop installations have a payback of 7.8 years, providing free electricity for the remaining life of the system.

In his research, Perlin gathered information about early solar innovators, including John Keck, a solar architect in the Chicago area, and solar energy in Chicago.

Keck initiated construction of solar homes in the Chicago area from 1938 through 1941. He was successful in setting up a test house in Flossmor that included monitoring building performance. Overheating was a problem in the building; he established the source of the overheating was a white gravel walk on its south side. Homes were built in Glencoe and Flossmor for three clients who, in turn, built solar subdivisions based on Keck’s initiative. The homes were south-facing and narrow in their east and west dimensions. North windows were limited, and utility rooms were placed on the north side of the home.

The basic design included thermal windows with movable insulation. A concrete slab served as a thermal mass to absorb solar energy and release it slowly into the evening. The buildings’ frames included high levels of insulation and had overhanging eaves to minimize summer sun and maximize the penetration of winter sunlight.

Clients claimed energy savings from 20 to 40 percent over similar sized conventionally-constructed buildings.

The solar movement gained recognition in magazines. The Museum of Modern Art featured a solar home on the cover of its magazine. Reader’s Digest and Mademoiselle magazines had articles covering the solar movement.

Simon & Schuster contacted Keck and his followers to compile a book titled Your Solar Home. The book covered solar criteria for construction of homes in each state of the union.

Kech pressed Libby Owens Ford for funds for research studies that would advance the practice of solar construction but failed to convince them to back his research efforts. He preferred independent funding sources to advance solar energy rather than to seek clients willing to fund design changes.

Despite their early promise, solar homes made little impact on the rapid buildup of cheap, energy-guzzling suburban housing developments.

From the Feb. 15-21, 2012, issue

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