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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Solar Sam

Air Date: Week of April 13, 2001

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Transcript

CURWOOD: The White House budget cuts funding for the research and development of solar energy by nearly 60 percent. But this move won't discourage a man who late in life became fascinated with the notion that photovoltaic cells can convert sunlight directly into electricity without releasing a drop of pollution. From member station WBUR in Boston, Monica Brady has this profile of Solar Sam.

(Voices oohing and aahing)

CHILD: That is so cool.

BRADY: Solar Sam stands in the Hunnewell Elementary School library in Wellesley, Massachusetts, in front of a long table crowded with his solar-powered inventions. A class of fifth graders is sitting at the edge of their seats.

(The crowd oohs)

CHILD: That was so cool.

BRADY: A ping pong ball has just been projected at them. It was propelled by a rotating arm attached to a panel that uses energy from the sun. Each of Solar Sam's inventions has a small two-by-four-inch photovoltaic panel that changes light into electricity. In this case it makes a plastic rooster crow.

SAM: You know that roosters like corn, but this one here likes solar energy.

(A rooster crows. Children laugh)

BRADY: Sam is 82 years old, a fit man with thick, wavy, white hair. And he's as wide-eyed as the fifth graders.

SAM: You will get as excited as I do about all the possible uses for this free, non-polluting energy...

BRADY: Solar Sam's real name is Clyde Weihe. He got the nickname Sam when he was a boy growing up in a coal mining area of Pennsylvania. He always assumed energy had to be dug out of the ground, until his daughter introduced him to solar power when he retired at 75. She gave him a solar panel that he attached to a water pump.

SAM: I thought: Gee, this is 12-volt DC current, and I have a little pump in the cellar that's 12-volt DC. I thought: Gee, I wonder if this would possibly go directly from the sun to that pump. And when that water shot eight feet in the air, my heart jumped eight feet. (Laughs) And from that moment on, why, I've been seeing how many uses I can find for solar energy.

BRADY: Sam's blue eyes sparkle when he talks about his inventions. There's the solar-powered wagon, and a kayak he uses on local rivers. He hasn't counted how many inventions he has, but they're all over his house, covering the kitchen counter and littering the back yard. The dining room is filled with dozens of solar power kits that he puts together for school children. The kits allow students to build a solar powered cardboard car. Then they can re-use the components to create their own inventions. Sam has 20 patents, including one for a full-sized solar-powered vehicle. But so far it's been an expensive hobby, not a moneymaker. And despite his devotion to solar, nature hasn't cooperated to allow him to power his own home appliances with the sun.

SAM: I have nothing but trees. (Laughs) And I have to go over to a schoolyard to do most of my testing and so forth. It breaks my heart. (Laughs) And the trees are mostly on my neighbor's property, so I can't cut them down. (Laughs)

BRADY: Sam says he's not an expert on solar power, he's an enthusiast, and his interest may seem outdated. Solar power had its heyday in the late 1970s when Jimmy Carter was president and a world oil crisis created long lines at the gas pumps. In 1980 President Carter initiated the Photovoltaic Demonstration Project, which set up eight solar centers around the country for research and education. Solar energy fell out of favor when Carter left office and the oil sector stepped up its lobbying. Now, only one center remains: Solar Now in Beverly, Massachusetts, north of Boston. Carmel Valenti-Smith is education director of Solar Now. She says electric and oil companies are starting to think again about solar because they know their resources are limited.

SMITH: But it is frustrating that more politicians and policy makers, architects, all of the people that really push the industry, don't see this as choices.

(A radio plays in the background)

SAM: And that will run for hours on sunshine that happened a couple weeks ago.

BRADY: Back in the Hunnewell Elementary School library, Solar Sam is demonstrating how four AA batteries from a radio can be replaced with one battery that stored up solar energy.

SAM: I mean, it's incredible. It just is unbelievable that you can store sunshine, and use it in this manner.

BRADY: A small panel, enough to power a radio, costs about six dollars and lasts more than 20 years: a better deal than store-bought batteries. Ray Clemer, a fifth grader, says he'd like to use solar power for his Game Boy.

CLEMER: My mom would probably love it, because, like, they always, like, are mad when we have to use up batteries and stuff.

BRADY: And these kids say they'll share what they've learned with their parents. Kelly Whittaker is also in the fifth grade.

WHITTAKER: My mom would like it for the lights, because she always tells us, "Turn off the lights!" Because my brothers always forget to turn off the lights.

BRADY: Solar Sam says he'll keep promoting the benefits of solar energy because right now people are squandering a valuable free resource.

SAM: And to this day, every time I see that sun shine I think oh, boy, all that is going to waste. I mean, we should be capturing it and being ready for the day when fossil fuel is exhausted.

BRADY: And according to Solar Now, that day isn't so far away. Although there's controversy over how long the world's oil reserves will last, Solar Now quotes the British Petroleum Company as saying it has only 30 years of oil reserves left. Solar power promoters like Solar Sam hope this means solar energy will finally have its day in the sun. For Living on Earth, I'm Monica Brady in Boston.

(Music up and under: Orchestral Manouevres In The Dark, "Electricity")

CURWOOD: Next week, we'll look at efforts to help Vermont homeowners use power from the wind to cut their electric bills.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Coming up: Digging out from Appalachia's coal slurry disaster amid fears of another spill. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now this environmental health update with Diane Toomey.

(Music up and under: Theme by Allison Dean)

 

 

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