Harnessing the sun

A Craig man with a bright idea runs into a brick wall but keeps on going

In Moffat County, where the words "energy" and "power" are indelibly linked to coal, one Craig resident, 42-year-old Wes Harper, worked for 10 years building a way to harness the power of the sun.

Until recently, Harper was spending his spare time -- and money -- constructing a giant parabolic reflector that could focus the sun's rays onto a boiler filled with water.

"My goal was to make hot water," he said.

He aimed to replace an electric or gas boiler with a solar-powered boiler.

In contrast to the roof-mounted solar panels that became popular in the late 1970s, Harper's idea was designed with the local climate in mind.

"In a cloudy climate, you have diffused sunlight, where it's better to use panels, but it's not efficient in Craig where we have direct sunlight," Harper said. "(Solar panels) make warm water, or tepid water. I can take my prototype out back and in 12 minutes it will heat water to 425 degrees."

The machine, which produces about 3.5 horsepower, is able to focus on and follow the sun using a custom electronic tracking system Harper built.

Harper was determined to make the solar boiler affordable to the eventual consumer. "The big question was, 'If I make this thing, can I make it cheap?'" he said, adding, "The Department of Energy was not able to take their great ideas and make them affordable. Half-million dollar machines are not practical for homes."

Harper said he made every attempt to bring down the cost of his device, even using an old brake drum as part of the assembly.

Despite its impressive output, Harper's apparatus has not been widely received. He said that the National Renewable Energy Laboratory approved the scientific claims he presented but his application for a federal grant was denied during the final stages of review.

"Three years ago," he said, "during the California power crisis, I got a call from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. As soon as (the crisis) was over, I heard nothing from them."

Siting the politically charged atmosphere surrounding alternative energy sources, Harper packed up his Yampa Avenue workshop and decided to shelve the project.

"When you talk about solar power, you talk about politics," he said.

He claims that funding is available for multi-million dollar projects, but not smaller ventures like his. "The Department of Energy has given up on small-scale solar projects," Harper said. "They push, instead, utility-owned plants. The point is that it is really hard to make headway. There is a huge political element to this."

Adding to his frustration was the lack of help from the people he thought would be most interested in his work.

"I contacted 50 or 60 environmentalist groups," he said. "One person in New Mexico got back to me. It wasn't very helpful. That shaped my opinion of the environmentalism movement.

"I'm an anti-environmentalist who loves solar power."

Harper suggests that inferior "gadgets" that flooded the solar power market during its infancy caused the public's aversion to solar power.

"Now, when you try to sell solar products, the public thinks back to that," he said. "I don't think solar will ever run the world, but it can be useful."

While Harper toiled in his workshop, his parents provided financial support.

"My parents have put up with a lot, in my opinion," Harper said.

"We saw that he had a place to stay and food to eat," said Jerry Harper, Wes' father.

Jerry, frustrated with the way things turned out, also blames politics.

"It was a good idea, but he probably didn't have the right connections, and he wasn't a registered democrat," Jerry said.

Wes' creativity was not suspended for long following the solar power project.

"Well," he said, "I thought I would take a break from the solar thing and do something fun," Wes said.

Moffat County's renaissance man turned to a less intensive endeavor, a product he calls "Illuminating Safety and Work Glasses."

He has manufactured several prototype eyeglasses that have high brightness LEDs mounted in the frames. Wes explained that LEDs use about 80 percent less energy than normal bulbs with similar light output. Also, they are expected to last about 100 years.

The lights connect to a small lithium-ion battery pack that can enable between 6 and 24 hours of use. Hoping his latest invention might prove financially viable; Wes has submitted a 70-page application to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

In his small workroom, amid soldering torches, vises, drills and an array of desk lamps, a faceting machine sits on a shelf, a glimpse of the artistic Wes Harper.

The collection of stones he has cut includes an emerald, a ruby, a peridot, a tourmaline, and a giant emerald cut quartz. On the workbench, next to the voltmeter, sits a custom-made horse bit with gold and silver inlays and lapis lazuli stones.

"I'm the 'What if?' guy," he said of his tendency toward innovation. "Some people ask 'what if...?', but they move on. They get married, they have kids. I ask 'what if...?,' then I do it."

Currently, Wes is working on computer models of a house he plans to build. It does not appear that will stifle his other pursuits. He still speaks with great interest about lapidary, blacksmithing, and playing his guitar. He said plans for his new house include a 1,200-square-foot shop so he can get back to work.

As for the solar boiler, Harper is confident that "when it's needed, it will be used because that's how life works."

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