Book Review: Let It Shine – The 6000 Year Story of Solar Energy


Perlin’s historical solar stories will provide students of all ages with insight into the Sun’s enormous potential to fulfill our energy needs

Reviewed by Rebecca Canright.
Rahus Institute-Solar Schoolhouse. 20171111

John Perlin’s Let it Shine proves that solar energy has powered human communities long before the dawn of photovoltaic technology. Nowadays we consider solar an “alternative” form of energy, but Perlin’s in-depth analysis illustrates that it has not always been that way.

Perlin’s account of the history of humankind’s relationship with the Sun would serve as a reliable teaching tool for high school and college classes in environmental science, engineering, and science history. It is a trusty must-read for anyone entering the solar industry who seeks a deeper understanding of our ancient experiments with sun energy. Students interested in engineering will learn how numerous advanced civilizations have tapped into this abundant resource to warm their water, food, and homes, to enhance their quality of life, and most recently, to generate electricity. Students interested in political studies will learn of the ability of government to make or break the advancement of solar energy technology, especially in the last couple centuries. Even middle-school science teachers could integrate excerpts of Let It Shine into their classes’ studies of energy and natural resources. Accompanied by hands-on experiments with solar ovens, solar phone chargers, or a field trip touring a passive-solar residence or rooftop photovoltaic array, Perlin’s historical solar stories will provide students of all ages with insight into the Sun’s enormous potential to fulfill our energy needs.

This book needs to be in the hands of the next generation of engineers, architects and political decision-makers so that we can learn from history and harness the truly limitless capacity of solar energy. Our communities can thrive not only through the widespread adoption of rooftop photovoltaic systems, but also through the implementation of the simpler solar technologies of the ancients, like passive solar architecture. Imagine the energy saved and comfort gained if all new homes were built with south-facing windows and reliable insulation! We are speedily depleting our once-abundant fossil fuel reserves, and given their climate change-accelerating consequences, we would be wise to educate our youth, heirs to the energy problem we have created, about the solutions that lie in the orb in the sky.

Abel Pifre's solar-powered printing press, 1880. While exhibiting it at the Gardens of theTui9leries, he printed five hundred copies of the Solar Journal

Abel Pifre’s solar-powered printing press, 1880. While exhibiting it at the Gardens of theTui9leries, he printed five hundred copies of the Solar Journal

Perlin takes us on a journey through the ages as humans have harnessed the power of the sun, focusing heavily on the evolution of passive solar home design around the world. From heating the famous Roman baths, thereby reducing the need for charcoal, to sustaining the post-medieval European penchant for greenhouse cultivation of exotic plants, to providing hot water for innumerable 19th and 20th century homes, all the way up to the invention of photovoltaics, Perlin leaves no stone of the solar story unturned.

Designed and built by Steven Strong in 1980, the Carlisle House was one of the first Zero Net Energy homes using photovoltaics, passive solar heating, and solar hot water heating strategies.

Designed and built by Steven Strong in 1980, the Carlisle House was one of the first Zero Net Energy homes using photovoltaics, passive solar heating, and solar hot water heating strategies.

His analysis reveals that solar knowledge has varied widely among different civilizations. Within societies like the U.S. and Europe especially, the use of solar building and heating techniques has fluctuated with sociopolitical changes; for instance, people of the Middle Ages largely forgot the earlier Greek and Roman knowledge of orienting buildings toward the sun to keep warm in winter. More recently, as oil, natural gas, and nuclear power entered the energy scene of the 1900s, government investment in solar faltered severely. The reader learns how a perceived abundance of cheap fossil fuel has been many times interrupted with sudden scarcity—and a renewed interest in solar “alternatives” inevitably follows. One cannot help but sympathize with solar, the ever-present energy underdog, waiting to be realized as the genuinely endless, harmless power source. We learn of other insightful nations’ rewarding solar ventures: from Israel and Denmark’s heavy reliance upon the Sun for hot water, to Japan and Germany’s widespread incentivization of rooftop solar, to African villages’ achievement of energy independence thanks to micro-arrays of photovoltaic panels. Perlin also thoroughly covers the research-based improvements made to solar technology over the centuries, recounting for us the challenges faced and victories won by numerous engineer and architect solar champions, including Leonardo Da Vinci, Bernard Christoph Faust (German advocate for the sonnenstadt, or utopian solar city), Freeman Ford (hippie entrepreneur of solar pool heaters in the 1970s), and countless others who recognized both the risk of conventional fuel shortages and the bounteous rewards of tapping into the original source of all light, heat, and energy on our planet.

Gustav Vorherr's plans for a solar schoolhouse. (1820s)

Gustav Vorherr’s plans for a solar schoolhouse. (1820s)

Perlin’s tone when recounting the successes of the various solar pioneers is decidedly optimistic, and rightfully so: these are moments in history when humanity recognized the potential for thriving, resilient solar communities, and acted upon it. Despite the inevitable naysayers and obstacles hindering the path to widespread solar prosperity, the one crucial ingredient—the Sun—has not gone anywhere (and won’t be, for a while, anyway). It shines patiently as humans grapple with other more fluctuating, finite forms of energy, until we (hopefully) arrive at the sensible conclusion that there really is no other light at the end of the tunnel except the one that has been here all along.

Freeman Ford tesing one of the many configurations of his revolutionary plastic solar pool heating panels. (1970s)

Freeman Ford tesing one of the many configurations of his revolutionary plastic solar pool heating panels. (1970s)

Anyone who questions our current energy system and who seeks the solar path will learn a great deal from John Perlin. After reading Let it Shine, I regard the brilliant orb in the sky with much more awe and gratitude. It has sustained humans (and countless other life forms) for eons, and with luck, will keep our planet humming for many more. The decision to transition to a fossil fuel-free future (and thereby save the lives of our children) rests largely in our hands. Yes, government plays an important role in encouraging the transition, but we as individuals can climb aboard the train of solar revolution whether the political powers that be are with us, or not. Given the threat that global climate change poses to humanity’s continued survival, I reckon that if we want to stick around, we had best tap into our very own cosmic power plant. Thanks, John Perlin, for eloquently shedding light on the long line of foresightful advocates of the Sun. May many more of us join their ranks.

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Totality Awesome! Experiencing the Solar Eclipse of 2017

[click on the image above to view the short video of our Totality Experience]

Envisioning Totality

How Dreams Eclipse Reality. The Power of Vision and Family

by: Pauline Allen

SSH-SolarEclipse2017 143-PaulineSkywatchI knew I wanted to go to the eclipse. I first heard about it a year ago from a teacher at one of our workshops. As it got closer to the eclipse I heard other people excitedly making plans to make a pilgrimage to the path of totality. I’m going to Oregon. We’re going to Wyoming. It’s going to be big! This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!

Stuck in the stress of school and life I could do little more than voice my desire to go. Then I decided to do a summer field studies program in a remote part of Alaska where my only connection to the outside world would be via mail plane. And half of the time we would be in the backcountry, where one could send a letter on the resupply bush plane if someone in McCarthy was then willing to take the mail to the mail plane—needless to say it made communication a little complicated. So much for making plans to see the eclipse. I put all my positive thoughts into hoping that when I returned to the lower 48 someone would miraculously allow me to join their travel plans, then I turned my attention to my schoolwork and the moment I was living in. I knew that there was only a slim possibility of going to the total eclipse, since after beginning my final year of undergraduate studies I was now officially a broke college student—for the first time I had run out of money. Putting off my summer job for summer studies had certainly not helped my bank account.

Ten days before the eclipse I flew from Alaska to California. I was almost ready to accept the fact that I would not be able to make it to the path of totality. I was however thankful to get to visit with family and friends. Perhaps an hour after my parents picked me up at the airport, my mother said, “When you go to the eclipse you guys are going to–”

Wait. What?! We’re going to the eclipse??”

“Yeah. Your father’s been obsessing over it. You two are going to drive up to Oregon.”

This was it. This was the moment I knew that it would all work out.

Compilation of images of the solar eclipse at different stages as projected using binoculars. Center image created using pinholes in aluminum foil along the letters. by Pauline Allen. [click on image to enlarge]

Compilation of images of the solar eclipse at different stages as projected using binoculars. Center image created using pinholes in aluminum foil along the letters. by Pauline Allen. [click on image to enlarge]

The last article we read in my summer program was “Envisioning a Sustainable World” by Donella Meadows. In her work Meadows discusses the importance of visioning. She says that visions ought to reflect our values and not be limited by what we think is possible. This vision making is an important step that should come before taking action and implementing a plan. Too often our culture makes us feel “childish and vulnerable to admit a vision.” Many people working towards noble causes don’t stop to envision a world where the fruits of their labor have created a new reality. For Meadows this visioning process is useful for all sorts of things in her everyday life. Creating a vision means that you don’t know what steps are needed to make it happen but it will guide you towards your goal as you make plans. In the end you’ll get farther along than you thought was possible.

After reading Meadow’s article it took me a few days to realize that I had been vision-making for years. For example, for many years I dreamed about being an exchange student in Norway to fully learn the language and connect with family. When I graduated high school and went to college I thought that I had missed my opportunity. Then I met a woman who told me about her experiences at a folkehøgskole. I immediately went home and applied and the next year found myself studying Kunst and Norwegian in Oslo, Norway.

I realized that experiencing the total eclipse in Oregon was another vision of mine. We weren’t there yet but as soon as my dad began to share my vision we began to make a plan to implement our vision into a reality. Sharing visions meant that we began to collaborate and incorporate each other’s ideas.

            My dad said, “There’s a story to be told. There are art projects and teachable moments.”

            I said, “I’ll start sketching out a story. Where are we staying?”

            –“Let’s do a Watt Trekker episode.”

            “Can you check if I can drive the rental car?”

            –“We can stay in Monmouth, but it looks like there are some interesting events happening in Corvallis. Can you make a grocery list?”

            “When should we leave?”


            I don’t know if everyone experiences this, but I’ve noticed that when packing for a trip the closer it gets to takeoff, the more stressful it gets. The bigger the trip and more unknown variables, the more the stress increases. People get tired, tempers shorten.

“Did you figure out the bike rack dad?”

            –“I can’t HEAR YOU!”

The thing was my dad wasn’t just tired or angry—well maybe a little—but he actually couldn’t hear me. Four days before the eclipse, one day before we were supposed to leave home, my dad contracted a severe ear infection. His outer ear was so swollen that he had to visit the doctor in between running errands and get some special ear drops. Besides causing my dad a lot of pain, the ear infection pushed our departure to 4:30am on Friday as we gambled with the projected traffic of the apoco-clipse. (And no we didn’t figure out the bike rack—apparently they purposefully make rental cars difficult to attach racks to for fear of people damaging the roof.)

            Leaving on Friday shortly before 5am, we managed to beat the crowds and crazy traffic. We arrived in Corvallis by 4pm. Asking around a week ago, we managed to jump on eclipse plans of some friends. You know, a friend of a friend is my friend too. The funny thing was it’s such a small world that my dad actually did know the friend of our friends—from 20 years ago. We really lucked, our gracious Corvallis host had prepped his yard for about 30 of his friends to camp out and watch the eclipse together. As Monday and the eclipse approached more and more people kept arriving until we found ourselves in the midst of a festive assemblage of creative EV-car, Makerfaire and Burning Man folks. Camping with a large group of people sent me back to Alaska and the now familiar feeling of community living. By comparison though, backyard camping was glamorous—heck we had barbeques and an indoor toilet!

            With all the hype, you really wonder—what is it about a total solar eclipse? People plan 22 years in the future to have a place to stay for their next eclipse. Folks travel for days to reach the path of totality. On the morning of the big day everyone gathered in the yard. We had each prepped for this moment in our own way; some people dressed up for the occasion, some set out offerings, some had special filters for their cameras or binoculars.  When the partial eclipse began people cheered and put on their NASA-approved viewing glasses. With some help, I set up an optical projection using a pair of binoculars and we watched as the sun was slowly eaten by shadow. The shadows filtering through the trees transformed from circles to crescents, then thin lines.  As exciting as this phase of crescents is, it seemed to drag on as people awaited the climactic moment of totality.

            And then suddenly time seemed to speed up—the moment that had brought us all together. We watched as the remnants of the sun crawled away from view into complete darkness. Murmurs of–Is it safe now? Take off the glasses. Removing the glasses revealed the most other-worldly sight visible in the sky. Chills crept over my body. An orb of perfect darkness surrounded by washes of light wisping away sat overhead where the sun should have been. Planets and stars were faintly visible in the morning night. Erie and captivating—words seem too weak to describe this moment and the feeling that washed over the Earth. Many cultures throughout history have considered eclipses to be fearful events and although our experience was joyous and festive there definitely seemed to be an air of something else—something powerful, mysterious, and older than anything we could understand. Before I could fully comprehend it, the moment was passing and we began to see the light. Rushing to put on our glasses, we would now experience the reversal of this moment. Light came back, stars disappeared from view, temperature increased, and over the next day we’d all disperse and travel back to our separate homes. But we would be forever linked by those brief minutes of totality that we shared together—which we agreed was TOTALity WORTH IT.


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The Great American Solar Eclipse August 21st 2017


The Great American Solar Eclipse is less than 2 weeks away.  Showtime is on August 21st 2017.  This is the first solar eclipse to cross the whole continental North America in a long while.   Many of you will have started the school year so this is a great learning opportunity share with your students, either as a classroom or whole school activity. There is alot of great information about the Solar Eclipse online.   We’ve compiled some teacher resources on this page, for those that reside on the path of totality (umbra) or where there will be a partial eclipse (penumbra).  Either way it’s a teachable moment that doesn’t come along to our neighborhood very often.  While we’ve mostly focused on what we can do with the sun’s energy that shines each day on here on Earth (Solar Schoolhouse), the solar eclipse is a great catalyst to taking a closer look at our planet, sun, and moon… which can reinforce the Sun’s status as our primary energy source here on Earth.


Map of the Total Solar Ecilpse path, and how much partial shading in other areas. [Click image to enlarge]

On the resource page, we’ve compiled strategies for engaging your class or school, where & how to buy solar eclipse glasses,  ideas for solar eclipse art, short videos on the history of solar eclipses, how to calculate the effect of the solar eclipse on solar power production at your school and throughout the state, and some recipes for solar eclipse treats.

Solar Eclipse Posters designed by Tyler Nordgren, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at University of Redlands.

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See Film “Tomorrow” today! Earthweek 2017


Review by Caitlyn Thomasson

Hope.  This is the inspiring emotion that energized everyone in the crowd during the screening for the film “Tomorrow,” by Cyril Dion, which introduces an empowering vision for the future of humanity and the environment, one that is optimistic, creative, and purposeful. 

This film highlights what our reality on earth could look like if people come together and apply regenerative and sustainable solutions in agriculture, energy, economics, democracy, and education. In facing the world’s biggest issues, it inspires humans to act on a local scale, by applying to the simple actions that everyone in the community can be part of.  The global solution is right in our backyard. 

This was not a depressing or scary film that leaves viewers paralyzed with fear or despair; it was an uplifting documentary that motivates collective action and passion. It also cleverly integrated the use of poetic, deliberate, and powerful messages within the lyrics throughout the sound score, by Fredrika Stahl. 

By documenting examples of real life solutions being conducted in communities of different scales all over the world, it was an effective way of bringing to light the power of people when they come together with a common goal of supporting a healthy planet for present and future generations to come.  This film is a must see for those who need some good news and action steps for making the world a better place!

 to learn more, visit