PROSSER, Wash. - As the sun peeks out from behind a rare cloud, about 20 cattle graze in a field covered in blue chicory flowers. Rancher Charlie Card, 74, has been in and out of agriculture his entire life.
His four-wheeler rounds the corner, and his dog, Whitey, runs along side. Card says running his small ranch in Prosser, Wash., would be just a drop in the bucket for most folks. But at his age, it’s plenty. He views the entire place in terms of energy, starting with the grass the cows eat.
“But this is the way we harvest the sun,” Card says. “We harvest clean energy with these cows. We don’t have to buy any diesel, burn any carbon, or whatever they’re worried about.”
With what he calls the truest form of solar energy already ingrained in his ranch, adding newer technologies came naturally to Card. About a year and a half ago, at an agriculture show in Pasco, Wash., Card wandered over to a solar booth.
“So I got to visitin’ with this guy, and he had this solar hot water stuff,” he says.
Card got to thinking about his garage, and some hot water pipes he had installed to heat the floor.
“And I said, well, that’ll heat my shop,” Card says.
After that, he was hooked. Twenty solar tubes line the back wall of his garage. On a sunny day, the tubes’ inner core can exceed 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
Card pulls out a tube he uses to experiment on. “Feel that,” he says. “If you hung on to it good and tight, you’d find out it was probably hot.”
Ray Lam – the guy Card visited with a year and a half ago at the solar booth – is the president of Silk Road Solar in the Tri-Cities. He develops these systems for use on small farms or in houses.
“It’s basically two tubes, with a vacuum in between the two tubes and a coating on the outside surface of the inner tube,” Lam says.
That coating absorbs UV rays, which boils water that surrounds a copper pipe inside the tubes. The water then flows through the system, generating heat.
For agricultural projects Lam says the USDA will provide grants up to 25 percent of the cost through its Rural Energy for America Program.
Back in Prosser, Card climbs into an old white and blue-striped pick-up truck that almost matches his cowboy hat and overalls. He’s been advocating for solar thermal energy around town. But he admits not everyone is quick to take up new technology.
“Well, it’s new and it might now work, and what happens if? And what happens if? Well, I don’t know,” he says. “We’re scared to try. It took a lot of people a long time to get out of the horse and buggy and in the car.”
A dairy farmer down the road did try it, installing five units. The system developed problems that the farmer fixed.
“That thing went crazy, that hot water thing. You heard about it?” a farm hand asks Card, who dropped in for a visit. “Well, I heard a little about it. Tell me about it,” Card says. “Well what happened is that water went up over 160 yesterday. Too hot, like, crazy,” the farm hand says.
Just down the road from the dairy, another of Card’s friends, Buck Enos, may soon use the solar thermal tubes in a less conventional manner. He wants to power a restored 1894 compound steam engine, and Card has been giving him advice.
“We’re gonna hook it up with the solar panels,” Card says. “Make the steam with the solar panels,” Enos adds. “Yeah, and then he wants to run a d-belt off of there to an alternator to generate a little power and put it in a battery or something. Just for the hoot of it,” Card says.
Card plans to expand his own solar fixtures as soon as he gets a little more money and more time.
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