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?
I didn’t want to take money from dudes living in cardboard shacks. But they insisted, so I said, “Uh…$200.” Right there, one of them pulled out a big roll of hundred-dollar bills from his pocket, peeled off a couple, and bought the kit. I was hoping my Sol Mates — that’s what I started calling my kits — would make their lives in the canyon a little bit more comfortable. But the funny thing is, I made the most sales when their work was done and they were getting ready to go back to Oaxaca or wherever. They wanted them for their houses back home.
I probably sold about 20 kits to those guys. It was a hot business for me. And the irony, man…I couldn’t get over the irony. Here I am in the richest country in the world trying for 15, 20 years to get people interested in this technology that could change the world. And my best customers turn out to be migrant farm workers from the Third World.
But I’m not giving up on solar power. There’s just too much potential there. That little briefcase over there — the Sol Mate — can change the world. And the Sol Q could make millions and millions of dollars. In the meantime, I make a little money with my video work, and I do a little sales work with rooftop solar-panel companies. That’s all I need to survive. I don’t have a lot of bills…haven’t paid rent in several years. I crash on that couch over there, or kind of bounce from friend to friend. I’m a gypsy by nature. I like being able to go off to Peru for a couple of months to help build adobe houses in a village in the Andes — which is something I did recently and hope to do again. I’ve been building a drum circle at the World Beat Center in Balboa Park, kind of a mini-amphitheater. I love volunteer work. But don’t get me wrong, I love money, and solar power will make me lots of it. I can wait. I’ve already waited 20 years. I don’t think I’ll have to wait another 20. ■
— Derek Ensminger and Ernie Grimm