Demand Energy Equality is an organisation that encourages energy literacy and teaches practical skills. They’ve developed a very straightforward way of helping people to understand the opportunities of renewable energy: build it yourself. You can book in for a day long workshop and learn how to make a solar panel, and that’s what I was doing on Saturday.
Demand Energy Equality operate out of a workshop under a bridge in South London, and there were a dozen of us or so. There was an interesting diversity of participants, including a wind farm developer who wanted to learn more about solar, a woman from Saudi Arabia who was investigating business opportunities, and a journalist who was looking to specialise on energy matters. I was there because I won a place in the Look Up solar competition that 10:10 ran last year, and I’ve been looking forward to it for a while.
The workshop is set out in a big U shape, and each place has a soldering iron and assorted tools. But we begin with a basic introduction to energy and power, and some key terms. Not having a technical brain, I’ve never quite got my head around volts and amps and watts and whatnots, and that’s entirely my fault for not paying attention in school. I’ve got it now. I also understand what a solar cell is doing, and how the different properties of metals are combined to free electrons and generate power.
I also understand how fragile solar cells are. We get to work with the soldering irons, attaching metal strips to the little solar cells. They glint in translucent blue and are beautiful to look at, but they snap like poppadoms. It’s fairly easy to handle them gently at the beginning, but the stakes are raised with each stage of the build. Soon we have them lined up on a sheet of perspex, and we start soldering them together in series. Now if you snap one, you have to undo the solder and replace it. It starts getting tricky.
Fortunately we have an experienced volunteer helping out, and our patient and genial facilitator Ian on hand to fix our more outrageous gaffes. It’s like a computer game, he says, where the consequences of making a mistake rise with each new level. The organisers have also done this before though, and have put a lot of thought into a design that is achievable for people with zero skills and experience. That’s why we’re making a 12 watt panel, when a phone only needs to draw five or six watts when it’s on charge. Even a participant that cracks half their cells is still going to go home with a working panel.
In the end, I think all of us got there. I tested my panel on the bright sodium light at the back of the workshop, and the little lightning icon obligingly came on in the top corner of my phone. It works. It’s not the smartest solar panel you’ll ever see, but I made it myself and I’m pretty proud of it. It’s coming camping with me at the weekend.
If you’d like to take part in one of Demand Energy Equality’s workshops, you can find out when the next one is running here.