We cannot solve problems by using the kind of thinking that created that problem, said Einstein. And that was what I kept thinking as I read about the Living Energy Farm, who have come up with a dramatically different approach to using renewable energy that they call ‘daylight drive’.
It took me a little while to grasp exactly how revolutionary LEF’s approach to generating energy is. Their DC (direct current) powering of appliances is quite different from our AC (alternating current) world. Alternating current can travel huge distances, but can only tolerate a small voltage variation. DC can tolerate quite large voltage variations but transmission distance is very limited. Alexis Zeigler explains it here.
It is an approach that holds huge promise for areas that have limited electrical infrastructure, like Navajo communities in the US and in Puerto Rico. They have proven it works, there and at their farm, which has operated this way for more than a decade. And the people who really understand electrical systems and electronics think it works, too.
LEF won Honorable Mention at the IEEE’s Global Energy Access Forum in Orlando, Florida, with a $5,000 prize, having installed their micro-solar system at three community centers and six residences in Puerto Rico as part of the final round of the “Empower a Billion Lives” competition in March 2023.
This work in Puerto RIco followed up Zeigler’s 2021 visit to Jamaica, where electricity prices are extremely high, to install the systems with on-the-ground partners. Similarly, in Puerto Rico, making local contacts through the intentional communities’ movement led them to Tara Rodriguez Besosa, who had been working on food security, and El Departamento de la Comida, a restaurant and nonprofit produce store.
(In fact, it was in the context of Puerto Rico that I heard about both LEF and the Empower a Billion Lives competition, which I wrote about in a recent post. An article by Truthdig noted that a solar system developed on a Virginia farm could offer a sustainable alternative to Puerto RIco’s old, expensive and unreliable grid. Having never heard about Daylight Drive, I went looking to find out more about it, and there is a lot to read and watch……)
Living Energy Farm, by Debbie Piesen
Alexis Zeigler was living in an intentional community in Virginia when he began designing and building community-scale off grid renewable energy systems, learning what worked and what didn’t. It inspired his idea of starting an intentional community that would run without fossil fuels. In 2010, at Living Energy Farm in Louisa, Virginia, he developed a solar energy system called Direct Drive DC Microgrid. And it turns out to be the ideal answer for an island like Puerto Rico where the battery storage needed by many off-grid solutions like solar microgrids are too expensive for poor rural citizens.
The vision behind LEF, says Debbie Piesen, is “to demonstrate a way of life that everyone on the planet could afford, both environmentally and financially.” LEF’s system uses daylight drive, or direct DC power, to run during the day, relying on non-electric storage at night. It uses nickel-iron batteries, which can last 50 years or more, to power lights, fans and electronics.“We knew durable battery technology existed, we knew about direct drive, and had heard about running things DC, but nobody else had taken it to a community scale,” says Piesen.
LEF has been using a direct drive DC Microgrid for all its domestic energy needs since 2011. “Our system supports an 8 unit residence, community kitchen, metal working shop, and farm equipment. Most of our heavy appliances are powered by a 180V, 1400W direct drive system, which supports over 15 different motors and cookers. (We don’t run them all at the same time.)” They believe that this technology can make the centralized, fossil fueled power grid obsolete, and go a long way towards addressing climate change.
In March 2020, a crew from Living Energy Farm travelled to Tsaille, Arizona, in the Navajo Nation, bringing the equipment and tools to install 55 Iron Sun Cabin kits. These kits, which can provide a family with power for lighting, device charging, and small 12V appliances, were free of charge thanks to donations from people in VIrginia. Local organizations provided room and board and transportation. The LEF crew installed 47 systems, and donated the rest to their host organizations to help seed new businesses.
In 2021, Zeigler traveled to Jamaica, where electricity prices are among the highest in the world, to install the systems with on-the-ground partners. The following year, they received a grant to work in Puerto Rico as a follow-up to that project and began making local contacts through the intentional communities’ movement. This led them, in March 2022, to Besosa and El Departamento de la Comida, Puerto Rico’s first multifarm community-supported agriculture program.
In the summer of 2022, two groups of 15 people from Puerto Rico — including electricians, activists, farmers, entrepreneurs and cooks — travelled to Virginia for a two-week immersion course in the daylight drive DC model. They stayed at the farm, where they did chores and became familiar with the appliances.
“We used LEF as a living, breathing model of the technologies we wanted to learn from,” says Besosa. “It was a wake-up call for everybody that went to the training that there are ways to harness the energy of the sun that don’t require [a major] investment in battery storage.”
In December of 2022, LEF shipped eight pallets of DC equipment including 12 pumps, 14 refrigerators, eight cookers, and 30 battery kits to Puerto Rico, and early in 2023, Piesen and Zeigler traveled to Puerto Rico to install the equipment at several demonstration sites, including El Departamento de la Comida in Caguas, Fundación Bucarabón in Maricao, Señorial Community Center in Cupey, and a small off-grid farm in run by elders in Arroyo.
Fundación Bucarabón, where they installed a DC water pump, fridge and solar cooker, began in 2018 when six locals occupied Francisco Vincenty Second Unit School, closed by the island’s education department but reclaimed by the community. An energy cooperative is planning to develop a community microgrid there.
The system installed at El Departamento de la Comida includes a DC fridge and freezer, battery kits for lights and charging stations, and an Insulated Solar Electric Cooker (ISEC), a PV panel connected to a burner that turns electricity into heat and makes it possible to power kitchens from morning to night.
At a coconut farm in Arroyo owned by an older couple, they installed six solar panels to run a DC fridge/freezer and cooker and put in a DC water pump to provides running water and a functioning toilet. Miguel and Dinorah then hosted a skill-share for about 30 people who wanted to learn about daylight drive and the new appliances.
The Depa team plans to spread knowledge of the Direct Drive DC Microgrid model to other islands in the Caribbean, with the goal of bringing Caribbean countries together in a shared struggle for food and energy sovereignty. And LEF is beginning to work with engineers who expressed interest in their model at the IEEE conference to apply this technology within the context of other models, as well as expanding the project in Puerto Rico.
Decolonizing Puerto Rico Through Solar Power. Truthdig, May 15, 2023
Solar installations in the Navajo (Dine’) and Hopi reservations. March 2020. Living Energy Farm.
How to never pay an electric bill. Living Energy Lights, You Tube, Mar. 22, 2020
DC Microgrids for Puerto Rico. Living Energy Farm, 2023.
LEF in Puerto Rico 2022. Living Energy Farm, 2022.
“Daylight Drive” DC Solar Power at the Living Energy Farm. No Tech Magazine, Jul. 14, 2019
Cover image – this wonderful photo is by Brenda Callen for Truthdig.