Pioneers of the Oil Shock Era

…. a lot had been done right after the 1973 oil embargo but there exist almost
no documents on theses activities. The concerned pioneers were realizing all types of heat pump systems, sometimes day and night. But they did not care for publishing.

… says Professor of Engineering Martin Zogg, in his research report History of Heat Pumps – Swiss Contributions and International Milestones. He goes on to summarize what he learned from them in personal interviews. Pioneering home owners built heat pump systems from scratch. They were mostly skilled technicians from the refrigeration, air conditioning and electricity utilities business. They combined horizontal ground heat exchangers with unglazed solar roof collectors. Domestic sewage heat recovery was tested, energy fences, latent heat storage tanks.

The whole chapter is called Enthusiasm and Disillusionment though,  as…

The boom ended with deterioration in image due to the high number of unserious competitors with technically poorly conceived and insufficient planned installations.

Another Oil-Shock-driven grass root movement was more successful in the long run: Austria’s unique solar self-building movement. A country in middle Europe managed to install more solar thermal collectors per inhabitant as any other worldwide:

Source: Solar Heat Worldwide. Markets and Contribution to the Energy Supply 2014. Quoted in my article The Solar Self-Building Movement.

I’ve written about this movement in 2020, quoting myself now:

… the boom was started by DIY enthusiasts. In pre-internet times two tech savvy tinkerers did their own research and built solar thermal systems themselves, because commercial solar technology was expensive. This first DIY workshop was held in Graz in 1979. Ideas spread via word of mouth – reports of happy owners of solar systems motivated others. These tinkerers joined forces with a group of farmers with talent for improvisation and technical know-how.

The design of the solar system was gradually improved in meetings of what was to become the first “official” group of self-builders in 1984. These groups used their purchasing power to buy components at attractive prices and provided systems’ sizing and tutorials. The design of solar collectors became more and more standardized: Collectors were assembled by a “community” and home owners installed them themselves. More than once the authors of the research report point out the importance of the traditional support among neighbors.

I have been speculating about the roots of this successful initiative, as “energy data” like yearly solar irradiance cannot explain it. Why Austria and not Italy? It looked tempting to craft a narrative, connecting Austria’s not-yet-considered green hydro power, a budding green party actually fighting against new hydro power plants, and our bizarre political move to hold a referendum to let people decide if a just completed nuclear power plant should actually be started up (It wasn’t.) (See the references at the bottom here for more background).

In Southern France, a place maybe more suitable to test solar power, another 1970s “green, self-sufficient” pioneer developed a self-sustaining ecosystem that supplied his home with 100% of the energy needed. Again, I’ve already covered this in more detail in this article. Again, quoting myself:

He built a 50 tons compost mound from chipped wood – brushwood that had to be cleaned out to lower the risk of forest fires. Heat exchanger pipes were buried in the heap while it was built.

Jean Pain, The Power of Compost, Part 1. Video preview.
Jean Pain, The Power of Compost, Part 1. Video preview. I’ve linked in the video in my article A 1970s Pioneer in Self-Sufficient Living.

Jean Pain also generated gas for cooking, and as fuel for his car motor and his electrical generator: A sealed vessel filled with pre-fermented compost was buried in the mound in order to produce gas. Jean Pain stored the gas in tire tubes.

The final remainder of the mound was used as manure and mulch in his garden – he was able to grow vegetables like eggplants without watering.

When I wrote this in 2014, I went to great lengths to explain that this is not for everybody, and was specific to Jean Pain’s era, his personal convictions, and specific situation as a professional etc. I anticipated (rightly) comments like: But not everybody has a forest at their disposal, so much time, enough space to built a compost pile…

These arguments are of course correct. But it is defensive thinking: If I say, I cannot do A, because B (related to energy) – have I invested – at least – time, if not money, into thinking about Could I do C? Did I invest time to find a valuable C option?

All these pioneers are different, and their successes or failures are different. I picked stories at random. You can speculate endlessly about their motivations, the role of luck and timing. But I think there is one common thing: These people did invest their spare-time and their brains to research, tinker, and build. Today, technical solutions might be different (although I still think we can learn a great deal from the low-tech builders), but we can still aim at researching, tinkering, and building whatever it takes. You do not even have to be “technical” necessarily. Every community needs all kinds of talents and roles.


I am again adding my silly “low-tech donate button”.  Had I ever tried to monetize my blog, or publish a book, I would donate my sales to projects supporting Ukraine now. But this has always been a free blog – despite the fact that people sometimes wondered why I / we are sharing such level of detail (with respect to the heat pump system we developed).

So, if you enjoy this blog, I can only ask you to consider to donate to persons, projects, and organizations you trust. If you are in Austria, I currently recommend donating to Train of Hope. See their Twitter for updates!

Coloring my math art in my – now – favorite colors, blue and yellow.


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