How Jimbo Made a Solar Panel out of Coke cans and Giving the Six Trillion Dollar Renewable Energy Market to China

It was 1980 and I was shootin’ the breeze with Jimbo, a maintenance guy at Colorado State University in Fort Collins where I was enrolled. He motioned me over to his old Ford pickup. There in the full-size bed was a four by eight-foot wood box he had built out of two by six scrap lumber and plywood. Jimbo could pass for a mountain man and he always had a story to tell about his homestead in the foothills on the eastern slope just outside of town. He was standing there in his well-worn work shirt, blue Dickies and work boots, with a scuffed up Stanley Tools cap on his head. “Check it out, what do you think?” he asked. I scanned the large wooden box. Glass covered the top showing an array of short black tubes inside.

“After I banged out this frame I attached loops of a garden hose to the bottom of the box and snaked the ends of the hose through holes in the sides. Next, I laid a thin layer of sheet metal over the hose in the bottom of the box. I filled the box full of these Coke cans with the tops cut off, and spray painted them black. Finally, I covered the top of the box with a sheet of plexiglass and sealed it with caulking and trim pieces,” he said. “Who designed it?” I asked. “You’re looking at him,” he said, beaming proudly. “I’m pretty impressed,” I said. “That’s what she said,” he replied, winking.

“The Coke cans’ dark surface area gets hotter ‘n blue blazes and heats the water or antifreeze within the hose in the box almost any time of year,” he said. “So it’s a homemade solar panel? Must get hot in there,” I said. “Oh, that’d fry a freakin’ egg just like that. Tomorrow I am mounting it up on my barn roof!”

I was dumbfounded by Jimbo’s creativity and captivated by the idea of using the sun to heat water. There is something primal about seeing everyday materials such as cheap lumber, cans, hose, glass, and caulking come together to produce energy. Something quite simple but also sophisticated. Of course it wasn’t creating energy, it was just using energy that was already there. He invited me out to his place the following week to check it out. I headed to the outskirts of town one Saturday morning.

There it was, the wooden box with a glass top looking pretty small sitting up on top of his rustic barn roof. I checked it out from the ground, then headed in to see the water heater mounted below the panel on the second floor of the barn. It was 9 am and the Colorado sun was heating the water to 130 degrees already! At that point it hit me.

This was free energy --free to anyone who wanted to capture it. And unlike nuclear or fossil fuels it didn’t require a huge investment. And it didn’t produce poisons while it produced energy. And it was so cheap to make anyone could afford it. What could be simpler? What could be more obvious?

I thought about the sun providing energy for photosynthesis for algae, plants, and animals, and after billions of years burning the remains of those composted organisms in order to release the sun’s stored energy. Instead of burning concentrated plant and animal remains, why not simply get the energy directly from the sun?

The sun doesn’t shine at night, you say? Solar panels produce DC energy, which is ideal for homes and even businesses who need energy and even heating. In fact, DC power is an up and coming energy source. But don’t thank the U.S. Congress, which subsidize renewables very modestly but fund fossil fuel companies to the tune of $20 billion a year!

Not only did his solar water heater give Jimbo a warm shower any time he wanted it, but it could also provide heat to his living space. He continued to tweak and modify the box with insulation to get more efficiency out of it. Of course, heating water isn’t the only thing you can do with the sun. Cheap photovoltaic panels (PV) can convert sunlight into energy that can be stored in batteries to power houses, cars, and almost anything else with DC current.

A lot has happened in 40 years since the early 1980s. Jimbo has graduated to working for a solar company. The renewable energy market for solar and wind has exploded into a $1.5 billion dollar market globally that will eventually be worth $6 trillion. But it is still under-appreciated in the U.S. At this point solar panels produce electricity cheaper than coal or oil.

Nonetheless, China is leading the charge on solar energy and renewables in general. Congress is still not funding renewable energy research, development, or corporate subsidies like they do with fossil fuels. And according to experts like conservative MIT climatology professor Kerry Emanuel, unless that changes the U.S. will be buying power from China in the future.

Enough talk. I think it’s time we took action. Americans deserve to tap into that six trillion dollar market. Let’s call and email our senators and representatives and let them know that solar energy’s time has come, and it is time for people like Jimbo, you and me to get cheaper, cleaner energy from the sun.

Author of Vermont’s Ebenezer Allen: Patriot, Commando and Emancipator by Arcadia/The History Press, University of Vermont EdD.

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