Monthly Archives: January 2010

The Five Takeaways of Solar Power: Ian Howard

Ian Howard is someone who likes to get his hands dirty.

Before dabbling in solar power, Howard was a paratrooper, then a mountain guide, then a builder of IT infrastructure in Africa.  So, how exactly did he get into solar power?

“I had been interested in renewable energy since I was very young.  Growing up in Northern Ontario, I was, of course, interested in the environment and the outdoors.  However, solar in particular, I became particularly interested in solar while working in Africa, where  we used it to bring telecommunications to rural areas. Solar was a way for us to bring these technologies without burdening these communities with the cost of fuel for generators.”

Solar power is seen to be one of the alternatives to fossil fuels, the latter of which has caused much of the CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere.  While in the past, solar power was expensive and ineffective, over the past couple of years solar technology has become cost effective and efficient.

Howard now does consulting and as a partner with a solar start-up called Power Panel.  Below he provides his five takeaways of solar power. 

1.  The speed at which solar technology is developing is comparable to that of the microchip.

People often forget that solar technology is just that – technology.

“The most common misconception about solar that I encounter has to do with dated information. Solar is progressing at such a fast speed that the two year old information that is the basis of most preconceptions is really off the mark. Solar is changing almost as fast as microchips, and this is creating opportunities that are smashing down walls decades earlier than anticipated,” says Howard.

2.  Solar energy is a good defensive measure against unpredictable weather and high energy costs.

Solar energy was once the domain of off-grid, patchouli scented hippies.  It turns out, however, that solar power has greater application than most people think.  With the upgrade of electrical networks to “smart grids”, whereby power is distributed and two-way digital technology is used to deliver electricity from suppliers to consumers and vice versa, it could potentially be a way to pay very little for electricity.

“With only a few square meters of collectors on a roof, all of the hot water for a home can be heated by the sun. This equipment costs little more than most home entertainment systems, and provides sustainable energy for more than a decade.  It also provides some insurance against those few but painful occasions when the gas, or electric grids go down. I find it astonishing that people in Ontario who endured the ice storm years ago are not convinced of the need for greater resilience and autonomy in our systems,” exclaims Howard.

As it turns out, solar power is good for the environment, wallet, and self sufficiency.  Perhaps the hippies were on to something.


3.  Solar power works in cold climates.

When one sees stock photos of solar panels and solar power, they always seem to contain an array of panels in the middle of a desert.  Should people in cold climates, such as Canada, be using solar power?

“It is another misconception that colder climates are less suitable for solar. Cold is not the issue, but rather sunlight. The further from the equator one goes the less light there is in winter, but photovoltaics perform better when they are cool and the heat generated by solar thermal becomes yet more useful. In fact, the best places on earth for solar are in mountain areas, like in Northern Chile which have low temperatures but plenty of sunlight,” Howard explains.

How about solar panels getting covered in snow?  Wouldn’t that render solar power pointless in cold climates?

“Snow, of course, can block sunlight from getting to the panels. Typically panels are installed on an angle so snow can slide off the glass most of the time. For those cases where this doesn’t happen, there are a few innovations which allow the panel to be heated, melting snow and ice off their surface,” he says.


4.  Although solar is “clean” energy, making panels is quite resource intensive – however, over the life time of the panel, less resources are needed than fossil fuels.

In the creation of new technologies, a shift occurs in resource demand.  For example, with the increase in need for long-term energy storage, the amount of lithium-ion batteries needed is increasing.  As a result, the demand for lithium is also increasing.  Similarly, with the manufacture of solar panels, there will be a need for resources such as silicon, cadmium telluride, plastic, and copper-indium selenide.

“Solar does require materials, so using no energy will always be more environmentally friendly than using solar. Where solar excels, however, is in producing power where it is consumed. This obviates the need to build infrastructure to transport energy great distances such as other energy sources require, and thus has a much lower impact and reduces transmission losses,” explains Howard.

In regards to the increased need for resources, Howard admits that many solar companies are constrained for resources and often don’t think of the longer term implications for sustainable manufacturing.  There is a need to incorporate this thinking into future product designs.

5.  Government incentives for solar power tends to favour the “big guys”.

“At the onset of the recession, the idea of ‘green jobs’ spread faster than a cold in policy circles. Governments quickly inserted green into their economic recovery plans and this created a great boon for renewable energy, particularly in places where industry dominates.  Although there has been very favourable incentives and policy for renewables, this seems to have favoured big players. Government grants often go to the well prepared and staffed big corporations. So, this green policy boon has only strengthened the big players while the small players have been weakened by the credit crunch,” explains Howard.

For now, Howard continues to fight the good fight.

For more information about Ian visit his blog at

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Yet another pause….

Will be back on the 28th of January.  Away in California!

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The Five Takeaways of Couchsurfing: Cesar Valentim

One of the great rites of passage into adulthood is backpacking around the world – staying in grotty backpacker hostels, experiencing different cultures, trying new foods, seeing sights that you haven’t seen before.  However, one begins to notice after visiting several cities, that this routine doesn’t provide for a lot of interaction or immersion with the people who actually live there.

Then, along came Couchsurfing.  Couchsurfing is “an international non-profit network that connects travelers with locals in over 230 countries and territories around the world.”  Couchsurfing has been around since 2004, and has focused on cultural exchange, friendship and learning exchange through sharing hospitality and cultural understanding.   A fancy way to say that if you find yourself in a strange place and don’t know anyone, Couchsurfing is a great way to find a couch to sleep on, or a friend to show you around town.

Cesar Valentim, does media for Couchsurfing and is a veteran couchsurfer.

“I can remember the first day that I couchsurfed – it was June 11, 2005,” he reminisces.  He recalls seeing a news article on television about the concept, and was intrigued.

Valentim has since couchsurfed and hosted couchsurfers at his home in Lisbon, Portugal, over 500 times.

“Actually, I’ve lost count,” he laughs.

Below, Valentim provides his five takeaways of couchsurfing.

1.  Couchsurfing is not for everyone.

“Why should you couchsurf?  Well, couchsurfing is for people that really want to see and feel a different culture, who want to mingle with locals.  Couchsurfing is for people who don’t want the tourist life, and don’t care for deluxe travelling accommodations,” explains Valentim.

This scene is not always for everyone, however.

“With couchsurfing, you have to be able to share some of your privacy – all this cultural exchange is not for everyone, and not everyone can open their house to a complete stranger.  You could be showering in a bathroom that is filthy, which you may not like.  You could be sleeping in someone’s living room, or sharing a room with the host’s kids.  There’s not a whole lot of privacy every time you have to couchsurf, and you have to be respectful,” says Valentim.

2.  There are couchsurfing hosts in places you couldn’t even imagine.

Two hundred and thirty countries is a lot of countries where you could potentially couchsurf.

“I’ve hosted people that come from the middle of the US and usually live in treehouses.  I’ve couchsurfed in East Timor, where there are no tourism facilities, and I couchsurfed with a family there, and ended up having an amazing time.”

If you can imagine a country, it’s more than likely that there will be a willing friend, if not a willing host, ready to receive you.

3.  Couchsurfing is quite safe, however instincts are very important.

“It’s up to you what couchsurfing it – it’s your own experience, and you have to use your own good sense.  Couchsurfing and all the volunteers and couchsurfing staff put a lot of effort into safety tools.  We have references, a vouching system, and other safety tools to provide a better and safer experience.  However, it all comes down to your judgment – if you don’t feel comfortable with something, it’s probably not right to do it.” says Cesar.

However, as reassurance, the initiative boasts 3.2 million positive experiences, which is an amazing 99.6% of all couchsurfing experiences.

4.  There is no such thing as an average couchsurfer.

“The average changes daily because the number of people who join couchsurfing each day – we’re at over a million couchsurfers now.  You never know who’s going to knock on your door – I’ve had 62 year old women, 48 year olds, 18 year old teenagers – there isn’t really a particular profile,” explains Valentim.

“However, if you want statistics – the average couchsurfer is 27 years old, almost 90% have a college education, and everyone speaks at least a second language, or tries to.  And generally, they all have an amazing will to experience new things,” he explains.

5.  Couchsurfing runs on a whole lotta love… and a whole lotta volunteer labour.

Couchsurfing is only run by a few paid staff members, and over 2,000 volunteers.  Pretty amazing for a site that boasts over a million users.

To learn more about Couchsurfing, head over to


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The Five Takeaways of North Korea (DPRK): Simon Cockerell

North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), has always been somewhat of an oddity.  Closed off to the world, the only exposure we’ve had to the country are fleeting images and stories, ranging from the frightening to the eccentric:  the sour face of former US President Bill Clinton with Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il; the harrowing plight of reporters Euna Lee and Laura Ling ; the Dear Leader’s penchant for toro, fatty tuna belly; human rights abuses, rumours of political stand-ins, and the grinding poverty of its people.

This would often be enough to deter most people, but for the brave of heart, Koryo Tours is one company that specializes in tours to North Korea.  Simon Cockerell, a Brit and one of Koryo’s tour leaders, was once a participant himself eight years ago. That same year, he joined the team as general manager, and he now goes to North Korea once a month.  Below, Cockerell provides his five takeaways of DPRK.

1. North Korea is not as closed as we think it is.

There is a misconception that no one can visit North Korea.  In fact, North Korea does has some tourism albeit it being very small – approximately 2,000 people visit North Korea each year.

“We take about 50% of these 2,000 people – 10-15% of them are US citizens, and we take about 80-85% of the Americans.  We’re the only specialists in the field.  Besides not knowing that you can visit North Korea, it’s expensive to visit.  However, once you get over that, the visa process is quite easy – they don’t generally arbitrarily deny visas, but it is harder for journalists and South Korean citizens to get in.  Generally, Americans can only go for certain parts of the year,” explains Cockerell.

2.  North Korea is actually quite a safe place to visit.

In 2008, a  South Korean woman, Park Wang-Ja, was visiting a North Korean resort.  She was reportedly shot and killed by the military after allegedly sneaking away from the resort in the middle of the night.  However, this story doesn’t seem to be representative of most tourist accounts.

“Certainly there are some restrictions – tourists aren’t allowed to wander off anywhere they want, and generally they are asked to stick to an all-inclusive itinerary that doesn’t involve wandering around town – but they are generally not in danger.  They just have to be aware of some limitations,” explains Cockerell.

“There isn’t really any danger or risk of large scale uprisings or petty crime in DPRK for tourists – I’ve never heard of anyone being mugged, robbed, or taking any specific precautions before going,” says Cockerell.

3.  There are actually touristy things you can see in North Korea.  (No, not secret nuclear facilities or hard labour prison camps)

North Korea is a fairly spartan nation.  However, there are some highlights worth seeing.

“Every year, there’s an event called the Mass Games – this is what most people go to see.  It’s enormous, and takes place over a 10 week period in October.  Sixty to seventy percent of the market goes at this time.  The Mass Games are a spectacle of synchronized music, dance, sports and propaganda, not unlike the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony.  Over 100,000 performers take part in a 90 minute show over this period every single day,” explains Cockerell.

People often visit during leaders’ birthdays and other holidays too.

“Really, the real highlight is just going there, and seeing what it’s like.  Every time I go back, I feel like I learn something new,” says Cockerell.

4.  North Koreans are friendly; but somewhat suspicious of foreigners.

There is another assumption that North Koreans, who are under state control, are not authorized to speak with foreigners.  This is untrue.

“North Koreans are by nature, very conservative. They don’t encounter a lot of foreigners, and no one there speaks English, and not many tourists speak Korean.  Generally, the message put across in DPRK about foreigners is a negative one.”

However, that is not to say that they will never speak with you.

“The best time to speak with locals is during Korean holidays – May Day for example.  People are shy and hesitant at first, but after they have some drinks, watch matches of Korean wrestling, have some homemade alcohol, you might have some people practicing languages with you.  It’s similar to if you were visiting any other country.”

5.  When all else fails, football is always a good fallback.

Cockerell often organizes friendly exhibition matches in North Korea.

“Football is a friendly game – it’s the world’s biggest sport, and there are very few exceptions in the world where people aren’t interested in it.  We’ve had teams from Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Netherlands – play against Korean teams.  We arrange a game, have lunch, talk about football – if you can’t talk about anything else, if there’s absolutely nothing else to talk about, we’ve got football.  Someone always has an opinion on Manchester United,” jokes Cockerell.

In 2008, a South Korean woman, Park Wag-ja, was shot and killed by the military as she reportedly snuck away from a resort in the middle of the night


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