Denny was a former professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who had purchased a bit of remote land studded with old miners' cabins. A renaissance man and informal leader of our rather large counter-culture group, he painstakingly restored one of the buildings using wood he reclaimed from either the tumbledown facilities near the underground mine site nearby or from the many outbuildings slowly being reclaimed by boreal forest.
But his house had no electricity. Nor did it have running water. The outhouse was just off the front porch and behind a stand of trees. I once declined its use when I saw a somewhat angry 2-year-old brown bear in one of those trees one summer. Most of our homes were like his, small and easy to heat with wood stoves but without modern conveniences.
To power his tiny turntable and play his Dylan, folk rock and Stones records, Denny used a number of automobile batteries that he rotated, charging them with jumper cables affixed to the old International pickup he'd purchased surplus from the Alaska Department of Transportation.
The system wasn't fancy, but it worked.
Remote power has gotten a lot more sophisticated since 1969-70. Should Denny have the cash, he could now purchase several solar panels for about $850 each and wire them up to his bank of batteries. Of course, there's the problem of Fairbanks winters when light dwindles to a trickle during the deep sub-zero winters.
Researchers at MIT have come up with a technological breakthrough that could make renewable-powered energy systems like Denny's self-supporting. In other words, a solar-powered home could be converted to supply electricity 24 hours a day without being hooked up to the grid.
Total independence. The hippies I grew up amongst would have loved it. Heck, I would have loved it. Kerosene lamps and candles, no TV and no electric pump to provide running water go only so far.
The breakthrough concept has to do with a molecule discovered in 1996 called fulvalene diruthenium. It absorbs sunlight then releases the energy as heat when combined with a catalyst.
According to an MIT press release, the process by which the molecule releases this energy while remaining stable indefinitely "could form the basis of a rechargeable battery to store heat rather than electricity."
One drawback. Fulvalene diruthenium is rare and expensive to the tune of about $650 per 100 grams of bulk product, according to chemicool.com. The pure stuff is more than twice the cost. MIT officials said the team led by Jeffrey Grossman, the Carl Richard Soderberg associate professor of power engineering in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, will continue its research to find to "find similar chemicals based on more abundant, less expensive materials."
Should the team's search for a replacement chemical prove successful, solar power could enter an entirely new and more versatile phase. No longer would homes and businesses have to rely on the grid after sunset.
"It takes many of the advantages of solar-thermal energy, but stores the heat in the form of a fuel," Grossman said in the MIT release. "It’s reversible, and it’s stable over a long term. You can use it where you want, on demand. You could put the fuel in the sun, charge it up, then use the heat, and place the same fuel back in the sun to recharge."
Denny's still around though I haven't spoken with him for more than three decades. His son is an artist and works at the same university where his father once taught. My family got running water when we moved from our 18-by-32-foot log cabin to Anchorage in 1976. (Showers!)
I heard Denny built himself a massive round-log home down Goldstream Road from our cabin. You can bet it had bathrooms and electric lights.
The philosophy of his band of merry pranksters back then was self sufficiency and doing more with less. They wanted to live with nature, not in competition with it. The Last Whole Earth Catalog and Diet For a Small Planet were amongst the best read and followed books. So was the concept of super-insulated homes as many of the counter-culture group were highly educated and part of UAF's engineering programs. Denny built many homes with huge R values before anybody really knew what that was.
Here's a link to superinsulatedhouse.com with the latest book from Ed McGrath. I inherited the first book of his, published in 1978, from some of mom's friends after they stayed on our floor after hitchhiking from Fairbanks. I read and reread it and still believe it to be one of the standard-bearers of the superinsulated movement.
As I grow older -- I'm hitting 50 this month -- I realize that many of the goals they pursued have gone from the fringe to mainstream. Energy efficiency, green energy, net-zero energy buildings and the like continue to win greater popularity with each passing year.
I wonder what Denny would say.
Photo: Ruthenium courtesy Tomihahndorf.