When I or other Climate Leaders talk about the need to shift our energy supply to renewables over the next couple of decades, the tired old slogans come out: “it’s too expensive,” “it’s not practical” or “it will take too long”. Yet these naysayers are being upstaged by people who follow the motto “Just Do It!”, both here in Canada and around the world.
Attending Climate Reality training this past summer, I learned the story of William Kamkwamba. This boy and his poor family lived in a small farming village in Malawi with no electricity. William saw windmills in library books and decided to build his own. Using a dynamo and other bicycle parts from the junkyard, with flattened pipes as blades and mounted on a tower made of blue gum trees lashed together, he created a working windmill to power some appliances in his home, and soon people from all over were lining up to charge their cell phones at his house.
He added a solar pump to bring fresh water to his village, and built more scrap turbines, the tallest 4 stories high. And all this started at age 14, without any special training, while his family couldn’t even afford to send him to school! Having attracted international attention through his inspiring story (which you can see as a TED talk), he is spreading his approach to other places suffering energy poverty.
Here in Canada, rather than shortage, we have the opposite: an over-abundance of cheap fossil energy, whose economic dominance pushes us to overlook its problematic pollution. The challenge for clean renewable energy here isn’t overcoming poverty, but out-competing existing profitable industries that receive huge subsidies, political support, and a free ride for their wastes.
Nevertheless, some Canadians are up to the challenge. I’ve written before about my own solar hot water heating and electric panels, which produce enough emissions-free energy to offset my family’s entire carbon footprint. But recently I was contacted by a local retiree who has his own claim to renewable ingenuity.
Former printer and long-time Barrie resident Fred Prince has made his own solar lawnmower. Starting with a standard electric mower someone gave his son, he upgraded the rechargeable battery with one he got used for $10, then added an 18V solar panel he picked up on sale for another $10. Attached to the mower with duct tape Red Green-style, and wired to the batteries with a trailer-hitch plug, the panel charges the batteries over the course of the week, providing more than enough juice to cut the grass each weekend.
Like William, Fred wasn’t specially trained as an electrician or engineer; he just paid attention way back in high school and reviewed some instructions on how to connect wires. The result is a low-cost, low-noise, zero-emissions lawnmower that powers itself for free!
These do-it-yourself solutions are laudable, but unless everyone follows suit, they won’t get us off oil in time. Yet they prove switching to renewables is practical right now; with serious public and private investment and a shared commitment, the only real obstacle to a clean and green tomorrow is pessimism. Together, let’s say “no” to the naysayers and let William and Fred show us the way to the tomorrow we can all share with pride.
Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Great ideas need a push" and "Real obstacle to clean & green tomorrow is pessimism"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a certified member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.