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Hey, man. Solar Man here. Well, my ­name’s Derek Ensminger, but my friends call me Solar Man. Look around my office and ­you’ll know why. ­There’s a solar-powered video camera over there, a solar charger for my laptop on the shelf in the corner there. Solar-powered TV and radio, solar ice chest, solar cooker…you name ­it.

The art studio/gallery in this building, The Losina Art Center, gave me this office space, and I set up cameras and DVD burners, and I record their art classes and shows straight to DVD. When ­I’m not doing that, I work on solar projects — this iPod charger, for example. I set it by the window, and my tunes are ready to go in half an hour. Cost less than ten bucks. ­It’s just a three-inch solar panel bought off the ­internet.

­We’re all addicted to fossil-fuel energy. We want to plug our iPod chargers into the wall outlet, which supplies 120 volts, even though the iPod only uses 6 or 12 volts. So that charger that came with the iPod has a transformer in it which steps the voltage down to 6 or 12 volts, and the rest of the energy gets wasted, turned into heat. ­That’s why the plug is always ­warm.

­I’ve made a solar cooker which I call the Sol Q. Let me see if ­I’ve got a video here on my computer…Check this out…this is just a big magnifying glass — actually a Fresnel lens — which I strapped to an old drafting table frame. It can cook steak, lobster, anything. In this video ­it’s cooking a half-pound lobster tail with focused sunlight. I can also use a mirror to reflect the light up onto the bottom of a frying pan and cook that ­way.

The problem is, a roughly three-by-three-foot Fresnel lens like this costs $100–$150, though I got this one for free. I was out at the now-closed Hot Monkey Love Cafe on El Cajon Boulevard, near 70th, behind the Salvation Army. I used to work filming all the bands that came in, with my Sol Cam, burn a DVD, and sell it — bam — out the door, $20 or $40. I had a studio there. I had been looking for these lenses online, and there was one out on the side of the Salvation Army, next to an old TV. It had been the ­TV’s ­screen.

In this video, I have the lens mounted on an old drafting table frame. Eventually, I put it on top of a barbecue. That is going to be one of the things that I try to market and sell, the Sol Q. Just think, ­you’re at the beach and ­everybody’s trying to light their charcoal barbecues, which are hot and smoky and bad for the environment. But you set up your Sol Q and cook hot dogs, steak, fish, anything you want using focused ­sunlight.

The big lens makes the Sol Q a bit expensive. So ­I’ve developed a smaller cooker that uses simple magnifying lenses, the kind you can buy at Rite-Aid that sit right on the page of the book. ­I’ve mounted them in a frame above four cooking dishes. You could have your meat in one, potatoes in another, and maybe some beans and veggies in the other two. Set it next to your lawn chair and let the sun cook a four-course meal for you. Meanwhile, your beer is chilling in a solar-powered cooler, tunes are going on your solar-powered stereo, and ­you’re catching the whole scene on your Sol ­Cam.

­I’ve built all this stuff, and ­I’m a high school dropout. ­I’ve learned how to do it, sometimes the hard way, over a couple of decades. ­I’m 42 now. When I was 21, 22, and living in Ocean Beach, I spotted this old homeless-looking dude who was using a tiny solar panel that ­he’d ripped off a calculator to charge a AA battery for his radio — a regular old battery, not a rechargeable battery. I had been reading about solar panels, how to make them and use them. So I started quizzing this old guy about solar power. “Can you do this? Can you do that?” He said, “Yes, yes, you can do anything with this ­stuff.”

Turns out, dude was a former physics teacher, down on his luck — well, actually, he was probably a tweaker. But he ­wasn’t quite homeless. He lived in a garage, surrounded by dozens of bicycles which he worked on all day. He was known around Ocean Beach as the Bike Man. Anyway, after talking to him, I started buying car batteries and solar panels and hooking them up to amplifiers and video equipment and just blowing stuff up and melting ­batteries.

The first solar kit I bought was about $300, which was a lot of money, but it was a huge kit. I had no idea what you could do with these things. So I took a set of big video-camera batteries, and hooked it to the solar panel. This was my first time ever charging anything off it. I came back, and the batteries were melted all over the place. Over time, I learned to reduce the size of the solar panels. So instead of using a panel like this 12-by-12-inch one here to charge my video camera, I learned that all I needed was something like this four-inch. But I melted a lot of batteries and fried a lot of circuitry before I figured it ­out.

Now ­I’ve got it down, and ­I’ve got all these ideas for marketable products. But people ­don’t want to listen, or they want to steal my ideas. My best customers have been migrant farmworkers up in Carlsbad and Carmel ­Valley.

These guys live in cardboard shacks under bushes that grow in the canyons up there, a ­stone’s throw from multimillion-dollar mansions. By day, they work in the flower fields and strawberry farms that you see when you drive up I–5. ­There’s an organization out of Encinitas called Las Casitas that was trying to help these guys build better housing for themselves, basically adobe huts made of sand bags. I went out there to video the whole thing, and I thought, they ­can’t get power to these little huts. Solar power would be perfect for them. Because these guys were burning candles inside cardboard huts in super-dry chaparral canyons, putting themselves and the neighboring houses at risk. So I put together a suitcase-sized solar kit, which included a 10-watt lamp, a four-inch TV, a radio, a battery pack, and a solar panel. I was going to donate the kit to them, but they ­wouldn’t let me. “No, no,” they said. “¿Cuanto?” How ­much?

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pick May 21, 2010 @ 11:27 a.m.

I am glad to have someone out there interested in helping the migrant workers. Interesting how the migrants have incorporated solar power in their lives, and most of us living in the mainstream have not.
It is easy to do, the Federal Government pays for 50% of the installation.


David Dodd May 21, 2010 @ 11:39 a.m.

Cool story. When I build my house here in Mexico, I plan on eventually installing solar panels and running everything I can from that energy. I figure it will pay itself off in about five years.


jham88 May 22, 2010 @ 1:55 p.m.

Hey Refriedgringo: I understood that in Mexico that all energy produced in Mexico is property of the state. And that includes Solar energy. Any truth to that?


David Dodd May 23, 2010 @ 8:27 a.m.

That is correct, I would be gifting any production of energy to the State of Baja. I don't mind. My electric bill would be zero. And my property taxes are very affordable here. It's a good trade-off, in my opinion.


Rizioule May 26, 2010 @ 9:05 a.m.

That is AWESOME STUFF Solar Man! PLEASE keep us up to date on all of the latest solar stuff. The power of the SUN has been kept in the DARK for WAY TOO LONG!


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