A Tiny Little Footnote in Solar Energy History (2005)
Reflections on the Future of Renewable Power
My first experience with photovoltaics — one I was inspired to write about, back in 2005 — and an unexpected surprise …
I bought an RV last summer [in 2004] — something I’d had my eye on for a while. It’d be great for travelling: vacations, impromptu weekends away, and even the occasional business trip to another city. Since then, I’ve done all that and more.
It’s very cool that way, having most of the comforts of home, all on wheels, to take with you anywhere you please. Of course, part of the novelty is something called “boondocking” — namely, camping out somewhere for a period of time, without any hookups at all (water, sewer, power).
For anywhere from a couple of days to a week or so, an RV has the capacity to be entirely self-contained and self-sufficient. That might be off somewhere in the wilderness — or the parking lot of a local Walmart store.
Though I can speak from experience in saying it’s a bit of a bummer when the RV’s “house” battery finally dies out — leaving you without interior lights, fans, fridge, water pump, heater, etc. … and having to run the engine or generator; or trying, perhaps late at night, to run a few essentials off the cigarette lighter instead.
Which is why I’d already decided that when I had the chance, I’d put a couple of solar panels on the roof, and wire the coach directly from the power of the sun. I love my RV already, and being able to generate its own electricity would be the ultimate addition.
But what’s so special about that? People have been doing it since the 70’s. Nothing really — except …
It seems the day I was having the installation done, a contingent from the photovoltaics division of Mitsubishi Electric was flying in especially from Japan to get a look at such a setup first-hand.
They were evaluating whether to pursue (and officially support) this market themselves, with their own brand of panels. Apparently, putting solar panels on top of sometimes-moving vehicles is something they just “don’t do” in Japan.
Which didn’t quite make sense to me. The Japanese have been high-tech innovators for decades. Solar power is a natural fit for RVers, providing that much-coveted electricity without being tied to a generator, alternator, or “the grid.”
I couldn’t understand why the Japanese wouldn’t have made the same obvious leap as we have here.
And so, I volunteered to be the first token American guinea pig.
Turns out, as their stateside counterpart Vern explained to me, the reason the Japanese don’t put solar panels on their RVs is because … the Japanese don’t have RVs. They had no idea what one was. He’d had to email them pictures and explain the concept to them.
Seems American roads are luxurious compared to those of the Japanese. Theirs are more precarious and narrow, and more crammed with traffic lanes. A road containing, say, four lanes here in the States would hold five or six lanes in Japan. Talk about gridlock!
The cars the Japanese manufacture for us here in North America are NOT the cars they drive back home themselves. Theirs are correspondingly smaller (and yes, more narrow) than ours.
And so, I gathered, no one had yet dared put this “house on wheels” on a Japanese road. Let alone put a set of solar panels on one.
Thus, my modest little number was the first RV these high-technology tech folks had ever seen.
They eagerly climbed up onto the roof and inspected the panels carefully, with great interest. They took pictures to bring back home. Then I showed them around the interior.
Modest by the standards of many rigs, they were nonetheless impressed. I gave them info from relevant websites. Finally, I demonstrated the generator, so they’d know first-hand why it’s not a practical solution for all circumstances (due to engine noise, exhaust, etc.).
And then at last, they left — seemingly quite taken with the idea. And so presumably, as a result of their week-long excursion to the U.S., a huge multinational corporation will see the benefits of yet another application of solar energy.
I was happy to have been a part of it.
Now at the moment, I’m still knee-deep in inverters, heavy-gauge cable, and other assorted paraphernalia to install. I’ve still got a little ways to go before using the power of the sun to run the microwave oven. But the result will be worth it.
Some, more eloquent than I, have long since observed … that the sun shines its abundance of energy freely down on the earth, there for anyone able to make use of it.
It’s an unlimited source of energy — and doesn’t need armies to protect it. And so maybe, little by little, this whole solar thing could add up to a brighter future for us all.
This is more along the lines of what I’d always thought the twenty-first century would be like.
Text and photos © Copyright 2005, 2022 Ron Diamond. All rights reserved.
Mitsubishi Electric press release (2005)