Solar Ecology

Solar Ecology Field Guide


What is Solar Ecology?

Years of research within the Brownson Solar Collaborative have refined the scope and relationships for solar ecology as an integrative knowledge base for light matter interactions derived from solar irradiance, from the materials scale to the earth systems scale.

Solar ecology is the systems framework of discovery and design associated with solar energy conversion writ large, coupled with the dynamic context of locale (e.g. a regime of place and time), the affected stakeholders, and the diverse technologies or ecosystems providing preferred solar goods and services (i.e. solar utility). Put another way, it is the systemic linkage of humans and other life founded upon the favorable solar energy abundance on Earth.

Solar photovoltaics are being planned at a grand and global scale. Although the success of solar is something to marvel at, its rise to international prominence has brought with it the opportunity and need to explore the solar field deeper through the lenses of multiple disciplines. Within the solar ecology framework, the field is shifting from a growth and expansion focus towards an impact and systems management one. A knowledge of the challenges paired with the heavy coupling of food, energy and water systems (thus the food-energy-water nexus) are solved through a solar ecology framework, tying together multiple aspects of technology, society and environment.

Figure 1. A photovoltaics installed on an old dairy farm in Connecticut, a state in which land-use planning issues have arisen in recent years. Photo courtesy: Business Insider 

  • Solar Ecology is the study of shortwave light from the Sun incident upon a system's surface as a thermodynamic driver for *energy conversion*, associated with light absorption [1] (i.e. process could be thought of as "remote pulsing").
  • Solar Ecology is also the study of the information derived from unconverted fluxes of both shortwave and longave light leaving a surface (the spectral residuals, *energy transfer*); resulting from the reflectiance and emittance of light (cumulatively termed radiosity) or transmission of light (physically modeled in terms of reflectivity) [2]. (i.e. processes normally thought of as "remote sensing")
  • Solar Ecology is finally the systems study of the emergent biological and abiological changes and behaviors resulting from light-matter dynamics, coupled to hierarchical earth systems regimes called locales [3] (i.e. the system's emergent behaviors linked to the optics from remote pulsing).

In Solar Ecology, three broad material responses are identified at the macroscopic level for light-matter intra-actions:

  1. An optoelectronic response,
  2. An optocaloric response, and/or
  3. A photochemical response (or photoelectrochemical response).

[1]: *Optics* refer to the physics of light-matter interactions: including light amplitude, spectra, and directional components of light;  coupled to the system properties of surface absorptance, emmittance, reflectance, and transmittance. 

[2]: *Radiosity* and *reflectivity* are standard optical terms in physics, associated with radiative transfer for opaque and transparent services.

[3]: *Locales* as hierarchical regimes of place and time on the planetary surface-atmosphere system. As the sun-earth-atmosphere reltionships are continuously changing, due to the relative movements of the Sun-Earth-moon celestial bodies, and due to terrestrial meteorology and climate regimes (seasonality), the concept of a “locale” is established in solar ecology as a joint combination of place and time. From another perspective, place or location on the planet is connected to seasons and regional climate, to variations in positioning of the Sun on the sky dome each day and night, and to the angular orientations of a Solar energy conversion system when placed north or south of the Equator. 

What does Solar Ecology Accomplish?

Solar ecology provides an integrative knowledge base, an ontology [4] and epistemology [5, 6] to explore and communicate light-sourced energy conversion and energy tranfer coupled to  biological/abiological responses. The Brownson Solar Collborative terms this Solar Ecology Research as "exploring pattern". 

The integrative knowledge base of Solar Ecology informs the extensive amd still growing fields for the *design* of solar energy conversion systems, solar goods, and solar services to address socio-ecological needs and desires [6] and to manage risk and loss [7]; while also remaining inclusive of non-anthropocentric adaptation to radiative phenomena. The Brownson Solar Collaborative terms this framework for design, "Pattern with a purpose".

There are three established intergenerational cultures employing Solar Ecology in purposeful ways:

  1. Agriculture/Forestry/Horticulture
  2. Architecture/Landscape Architecture/Ecosystems restoration and management
  3. Solar Energy Engineering/Architectural Engineering

Prior to the integrative framework of Solar Ecology, these core cultures of design associated with both the Holocene and Anthropocene epochs were only very loosely associated with each other.

[4]: *Ontology* is stated here as the concepts and categories showing properties and relationships among an integrative set.

[5]: *Epistemology* is stated here to express the set of beliefs about what constitutes knowledge, how it is produced, and how it should be applied:

    "...all researchers have an epistemological perspective, a set of belief about what constitutes knowledge, how it is produced, and how it should be applied. Through epistemology, which is developed (in part) during our disciplinary training, we define what counts as legitimate research questions (conceptual framing), how the objects and processes of study are considered to relate to one another and to the world (theoretical framing), and the appropriate techniques and tools used to investigate a particular question (methodological framing)."

[6]: Blythe et al. (2017) "Feedbacks as a bridging concept for transdisciplinarity". *Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability* **26–27**:114–119. For this excerpt, the authors cited T. S. Khun, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions". University of Chicago Press; 1962. 

[7]: Solar Utility** is a term of practice in the Brownson Solar Group describing the seeking motivation of an agent. A  client or stakeholders preference for solar goods and services. 

[^8]: The Brownson Solar Group has researched the historical basis for solar energy cultural adaptation, in partnership with solar historian John Perlin. We propose the theory of the "energy constraint response", whereby individuals and societies seek out solar design solutions to manage risk and loss, as a result of one or more constraints to biofuel or geofuel access.

Who is using the Solar Ecology Framework?

Where can we go next?

The goal is to demonstrate three key points:

1. there is a unifying pattern in solar energy and the effects of light on people and places, a framework called **solar ecology**;

2. people take advantage of this pattern in purposeful ways, by designing strategies and technolo-gies that fulfill societal preference for solar goods and services, called **solar utility**; and

3. there is a common language of the people that emerges for each *locale* associated with the values of a society, and intergeneration sharin of those values through design, arts, and communication—we call this **solar vernacular**.

Solar utility (interpreted as preference among the portfolio of solar goods and services) is the vehicle-aiding project development in solar ecology, describing stakeholders' preferences for solar goods and services fit within the dynamic perspective of the locale. The broader field of solar ecology is described as an emerging transdisciplinary systems field of solar energy within the context of the environment, society and technology–connecting science with design, business, lifestyle, health, and well-being. A solar ecology framework will contribute to a shared wave of coupled discoveries, inventions, and social change strongly influencing the food-energy-water nexus by 2100.

Solar ecology roots itself in the solar field as a study of flow-based energy systems as opposed to stock-based systems. It is known that sunlight is a basic need for much of the things of everyday life including biodiversity, climate and, of course, energy. The study of solar ecology involves a deeper look into how changing components in the grander Sun and Earth systems will affect those systems as a whole. Rather than starting out with a stock of sunlight, it must be known before attempting to obtain said light that solutions will have impacts on the locale in which the solution was delpoyed. Architecture will no longer focus solely on the reflective light coming from a building, nor will photovoltaics be singly thought of in the electricity sense.

At the utility scale, photovoltatic farms come with impacts, not only on the living ecosystem around it, but on the community and economy around it as well. The coupling of various systems throughout the Sun and Earth systems - and within it - requires the coupling of tools used to integrate solar solutions into locales. Agriculture, being dependent on the solar resource and heavily coupled with the water cycle, is built into the solar ecology framework because as it is planned in a locale, it affects how much of the solar resource is available for other uses such as architectural lighting or solar heating. It also brings up a land use issue that must be solved for the stakeholders in order to be a sustainable option.

This use of "place" in the ecology sense calls upon a societal aspect of the locale in that it brings up issues of policy when allocating land between solar, agriculture and other uses. Through societal involvement of deciding upon the feasibility and sustainability of solutions involving solar, the education of a population of solar opprtunities arises. With that, too, comes the opportunity to learn how a new technology or way of organizing a society's resources towards a solar-based sustainable option plays out in varying societies. Although a solution may seem feasible on paper, however diversified its "resource portfolio" it may be, the stakeholders' word holds all control in order to come up with a sustainable solution - if one is needed at all!