Saturday, June 16, 2012


Published in the Sun June 16, 2012

“We cannot always build the future for our youth,

 but we can build our youth for the future.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1940

Daniel Thomas, Jina Torres, Michael Carlson, Jessica Carr, Jim Rudd, Jeremy Carr, Jacob Bishop and John Jarmon.  Not pictured is Sean Bullock, president of BLADE club.
When Jacob Bishop, 16, was first learning to build solar panels he wasn’t very good at soldering.  The 6 inch square polycrystalline wafers he was soldering together were as brittle as potato chips.  He and his fellow students at Taylor High School broke quite a few of them in the beginning, which was a shame because the wafers were bought with money from the Waffles for Wafers Breakfast fundraisers.  But the students kept soldering on, and painstakingly completed four 126 watt solar panels, each constructed from 36 of the delicate wafers connected in series, framed and protected from breakage under glass.

Jacob and his friends are members of BLADE – Beginners Learning Alternative Designs for Energy.  The after-school club was the brainchild of John Jarmon, a master electrician and employee of ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas) who wanted to give back to the Taylor community.  John believes we need a lot more people with technical skills and wanted to teach electrical theory to teens who might become electricians and engineers.  A few kids showed up for the club, but when they saw that a textbook was involved they drifted away, leaving John alone in an empty classroom, pondering how he might spark some interest in electricity.

The breakthrough came when John was approached by a representative of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).  IEEE was recruiting high schools to compete in a photovoltaic design competition culminating in a presentation at the Austin Convention Center on Solar Day.  The students would have to design and build a project demonstrating a practical use of solar energy, using photovoltaic solar panels as the sole source of energy.

Competition set the BLADE club on fire.  The kids decided to build their own solar panels and mount them on top of a van.  When parked in the sunshine the panels would charge a bank of batteries storing six kilowatt-hours of electricity, plenty for hours of video games on a wide screen TV or full length movies projected on an outdoor screen with a thundering sound system.  The van would become an off-grid mobile entertainment center.  How cool is that?

The solar panel factory opened for business.  John gathered some of his co-workers at ERCOT and they started looking for a van.  Jim Rudd, one of the co-workers, pointed out that John already had a 1999 GMC Safari van with 220,000 miles on it, and hadn’t John really been planning to get a Prius anyway?  John’s van was donated to the club.  Maroon was the wrong color for the Taylor Ducks, but a green paint job and some duck decals on the doors made it perfect.

Sponsors rallied around the cause.  Interstate Batteries supplied six deep cycle batteries, HEB helped with a 40 inch flat screen television, Best Buy gave an amplifier, and Taylor Sporting Goods provided a PlayStation 3.

Jessica Carr points out the fragile wafers
 the club members soldered together.
By June 3, Austin Solar Day, the van was ready, and the kids had a booth at the convention center.  Although they were competing against seven other Central Texas high schools, the BLADE kids came away with first prize – a thousand dollars.  According to the judges, the fact that they built their own solar panels rather than use off-the-shelf panels was a major factor in the victory.  Of course the win was also a huge self-esteem booster for the kids.  Jessica Carr, one of the few girls in the club, plans to major in both solar engineering and art at Concordia, and Jacob, who is now pretty decent at soldering, will pursue an electrical engineering career in the military.

Winning was great, but I was curious why these ERCOT people were so enthusiastic about solar energy.  After all, ERCOT controls 85% of the state’s electric load, managing 40,500 miles of transmission lines and the flow of electricity to 23 million Texas customers.  I had thought that ERCOT might be dismissive of solar energy, but I was wrong.  When people put up solar panels, they are generating electricity for their own use during the sunniest part of the day, right when power is needed most.  This is called distributed generation.

John pointed out that we were very close to rolling blackouts last summer when all the overworked air conditioners put a huge strain on the electrical grid.  “When we get up to those kinds of loads, those power plants are in trouble.  The transmission lines are in trouble too.”  With demand for power peaking, “a couple more solar panels on a couple more roofs would have been nice.”

Jim Rudd, the friend who persuaded John to donate the van, agrees that we were very close to blackouts last summer.  Jim keeps his electric bill down to $50 a month by turning his AC up to 84 degrees while he is at work.  He wants to put a 4 kilowatt solar system on his roof so that his house can be “net zero,” meaning he will produce as much electricity as he uses.

John has another reason to like solar energy.  His wife is from Japan.  Her family (who will soon be installing solar panels on their house) live 100 miles from the Fukushima Nuclear Power plant, the one that was damaged by the tsunami and leaked radiation.

While I was admiring the BLADE van, John’s 12 year old friend Michael Underhill explained to me why it’s good to use fewer fossil fuels.  “We need to save those for the future, just in case.”  Michael, who is going to live in that future, wants to make sure we don’t run out of resources before he gets there.


  1. Hi!
    What is the name of the battery manufacturer??


    AVSolar Brazil

  2. They got the batteries from Interstate Batteries. The model number was Pro 29M-675 CCA.

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