Jason Edens started experimenting with a solar-powered furnace because he didn’t have any money and he didn’t want to be cold. He is happy to explain how “solar thermal” technology works. It’s what he does as the founding director of the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance, which manufactures and installs solar energy systems across nine states.
First, here is what a solar-powered furnace isn’t: the familiar shiny photovoltaic panels that rest on the roof, generating electricity year-round. Instead, “essentially it is an aluminum-and-glass box,” said Mr. Edens, 41. Inside one of these solar thermal systems “is what I like to call a sun sponge or the absorber, the part that inverts the irradiance of the sun into useful heat.”
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Still can’t picture it? Try this: A solar-powered furnace is a slab of coated metal and a fan. The technology, which was patented way back in 1881, Mr. Edens said, operates when the sun shines.
But let’s get back to that cold winter a dozen years ago in Pine River, Minn. Mr. Edens, then a graduate student in environmental policy, was so poor that he ran out of propane to heat his 1,250-square-foot home.
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