Community Bands Together to Create Own Solar Power

New Vision is a grassroots group in Philippi, West Virginia, that is banding together to create its own renewable energy, including solar power — and demonstrating what’s possible when citizens are invited to take ownership for their collective future.

Community Bands Together to Create Own Solar Power

Effort sparked by asking, ‘What do we have to work with right here, right now?’

An exciting example of citizens banding together to take ownership of their collective well-being is coming to life in the remote, small town of Philippi, West Virginia.

A small group of residents has been working together to create their own renewable energy, including solar power, since 2009.

Amongst their achievements: Collaborating to install their own made-from-scratch solar-panel system on a local church, as well as the homes of nine families.

Dave MacDonald, who runs a small family farm near Philippi, is one of the initiators of the group, which is now formally identified as New Vision Renewable Energy. In 2012, the group installed one of their solar-power systems on his property. He says his electricity bill has since shrunk by about 60 per cent.

The particular type of solar panel used by New Vision was invented by John Prusa, a local man who first crafted the panels to power his own home. John is described as both a mad scientist and genius. (As partial evidence of his capabilities, he’s converted to biodiesel and solar power to meet all his residential energy needs, cutting his energy costs by nearly $20,000 annually.)

John’s ingenuity plays a central part in making the work of the Philippi citizens possible.

From Hand-outs to Doing for Themselves and Others

If John is the inventor genius at the heart of New Vision’s work, Ruston Seaman is the cultivator and connector.

An “immigrant” to the area more than 30 years ago, Ruston was passionate about serving and helping “those in need.”

He was also struck by the effects of America’s welfare system, which, for all its good intentions, has entrapped people in some fairly significant ways, especially around seeing and acting on their own power.

"I think the need for energy all over the planet is a significant opportunity to get more citizens working together."
— Ruston Seaman

Then Ruston encountered the work of author and community facilitator John McKnight and especially John’s invitation to consider that every community has all the assets it requires to thrive. Suddenly Ruston’s worldview was turned upside.

Since then he’s been on a mission to support people in discovering how they can do things for themselves and collaboratively with their neighbours.

“We believe that people were created in a miraculous way and everybody has a unique set of personal gifts as it were. . . . We’re all kind of a piece of a puzzle, and that puzzle will never be complete until people are sharing and using their talents with each other,” says Ruston, who is now the president and CEO of New Vision.

“And so we believe that whatever the problem is, that we have both the human ingenuity and some of the raw materials and resources right around us and the work that we do is trying to marry those two things together.”

This perspective boldly contrasts with that of the prevailing “system” in America, which does not naturally include that kind of invitation and opportunity. Consider programs such as a $250-billion subsidy that exists across the nation for low-income families to access in times of need so they can pay their energy bills. However, there are zero dollars for a low-income energy production program.

From Struggling Economy to Community Producer

The Philippi area has long been “stamped” with the image of one of the poorest region of the country’s poorest state. Barbour County is in the bottom 8 per cent of poorest counties in the state of West Virginia. The youth unemployment rate only dampens this dismal picture — more than 50 per cent of all the people aged 16 to 24 in West Virginia are not working and not in school.

But now the possibility of changing that image is coming to life in a very real way.

  People’s Chapel in West Virginia features a system of solar panels crafted by local inventor/genius John Prusa and installed by a group of local citizens keen to create more handmade renewable energy possibilities for their community.
  New Vision’s Inventions
In addition to the solar-panel system, New Vision has also invented a sun-tracking system from junkyard parts. Similar to a rack-and-pinion bar in a car, this system includes a computer chip so the solar panels can follow the sun throughout the day. Forty-five minutes after sundown, the entire array of solar panels switches back to the east, ready for the next sunrise.

This tracking system boosts solar power production by about 30 per cent (Such a system can also by bought on-line for about $2,500. The group’s junkyard version costs about $200).

John is also the genius behind discovering how to power diesel engines with vegetable oil. New Vision now collects used oil from a few local universities and about 10 restaurants. They clean the oil with a system called a centrifuge, which spins at a rate of 6,000 revolutions per minute, throwing all the residue over the side. Participants work together to turn the waste oil into a usable fuel for the group’s diesel vehicles.

The list goes on: In the last couple of years, the group has expanded their production of local renewable energy to include crafting a solar-powered light-emitting diode (LED) light product from recycled materials. They snip recycled poly-carbonated signs (think of the signs dotting lawns in political campaigns) to the size of licence plates and paste one side with reflective mirrored paper. (Reflective mirrored paper is typically very expensive, but the group has been privileged to receive a donation of less-than-Grade-A versions of it from 3M Company.) These plates are then lined with three strips of 10 LEDs, along with a small solar panel that charges a 10-volt battery – and voila, you have a light!

Most recently, New Vision has invented a solar-powered sports product, which now has a provisional patent. Work is underway to locate an investor for the product’s manufacture.

For instance, youth have been engaged in making the solar-powered lights, which have been shipped to more than 30 countries, to be used by families who still do not have access to electricity.

“While in America (Philippi is) a kind of a bottom-tier community, in terms of national economics, globally we’re very well off,” Ruston says. “And when we realized that we could start teaching our own young people how to play a role in solving a global problem, that was magical.”

The internal “switch” in this approach, again, has been to move from trying to help and “do” for youth in need, to inviting them to share their gifts, energies and time.

The phrase manufacturing hub has been used as a possible way to begin to describe the community in Philippi. This could especially be the case if the opportunity with a new solar sports product is realized. There are also more opportunities with the solar-powered LED light — both in providing training as well as producing it.

“Before, we were stuck in a hole where we weren’t being very productive; we were just being wiser consumers,” Ruston says. “And now that we’ve figured out somewhat how to be innovative and produce something that has value, we have the possibility of doing something very powerful for our community.”

One of the most desired possibilities is more paid employment — currently, four people receive some kind of remuneration as a result of their engagement with New Vision. The rest volunteer.

Dave is one of those hoping for paid work at some point. In the meantime, he says, being involved with New Vision has not only improved his electricity bill, but also changed his outlook on life and himself.

“I used to be down on myself,” he says, citing a disability he sustained in a car accident several years ago as a factor in that. He had also made some choices that were negatively affecting himself and his family.

A big part of what’s made a meaningful difference for Dave is just connecting regularly with the people who are part of the group, which meets weekly.

“The main thing is just the relationships, the bond with the (group). Every week I get to hang out with these good (people),” Dave says.

It’s also satisfying to be able to contribute his gifts in tinkering and inventing — Dave says he’s a fellow “junkyard dog” along with John.

“I’m just trying to do the right thing nowadays and it gives me a good feeling to help other people,” Dave says.

Thanks to his engagement with New Vision, Dave has been able to attend events he would never have engaged with before — such as a solar power conference in Washington, D.C. that involved a visit with senators.

He’s now thinking about returning to school for more training in renewable energy technologies.

What’s Worked in Philippi

The need for renewable energy all over the planet presents a significant opportunity for citizens to work together, Ruston says.

If that’s true, what can be learned from the group in Philippi? What “gifts” have enabled it to thrive as it has? Here are just a few items for reflection:

  1. Start with the question: What do we have to work with right here, right now — both in terms of human ingenuity and raw materials?
  2.  Ruston also cites the fact that this effort grew out of a local church as a “gift.” While people didn’t have to attend the church to be part of the group, having some trusted relationships already in place certainly helped in moving to the level of “doing.” As it has been said, change happens at the speed of relationships. Having a great idea or invention is only part of the equation.
  3. Having raw material in the form of the donated mirrored film from 3M Company was also vital in the work of the Philippi group. “We think that raw materials are probably the best gift for our community because sometimes when you give people a completed solution and all they have to do is plug it in, it makes it nice, but they don’t have to learn anything in the process and they don’t really have any ownership,” Ruston says.

To learn more about New Vision, click here.

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Michelle Strutzenberger

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