Farmers of the Sun: Solar Energy to Drive Our Lives

For June 24, 2020

Please share this missive with your friends & neighbors.

Hi WN@TL Fans,

Yesterday my daughter Claire (15.6 yrs old) for the first time got behind the wheel with her newly-issued learner’s permit at hand.  She started the car, which means she fired up the gas engine.  Turning the key activated a circuit that pushed electricity from a battery to a starter motor solenoid that slung a cogwheel to turn a toothed flywheel that turned the crankshaft that pumped the pistons that compressed the air-gas mixture that was ignited by the spark plugs that initiated the self-sustaining cycles of explosions that let us say, “the engine is running.”

If the fates allow, and if in 30 years Claire gets to teach her kids how to drive, I’m guessing starting her car will be an even more electric experience.  And far simpler, because the car will be far simpler.  The car’s motor won’t idle, the battery likely won’t be lead-acid, the muffler won’t rust, the tailpipe won’t spew, and 15 year olds in the year 2050 will scratch their heads at the internal combustion engine the way I do now about locomotive steam engines.

My Grandpa Zinnen worked for the Burlington Route and so I grew up with calendars and stationery emblazoned with photos of the CB&Q engines from the mid-19th Century through the 1934 Zephyr.

The elegance of the Zephyr was not solely based on the shining stainless steel exterior. At its heart was a simpler design:   a diesel engine turning generators driving electric motors.  That drive towards simplicity in vehicles continues today with the substitution of batteries for internal combustion engines as the source of energy to make the electricity to drive the motor, whether the motor be attached to a drone, a snow thrower, or a car.

This week, at the peak period of the sunshine for the year, it’s a good time to look forward by looking back at the series of talks by Bruce Johnson, solar farmer and data harvester, featuring his experiences with solar panels to make electricity, and with electric cars to drive around town and across the country.

Living Solar in the Suburbs


Insights from a Conflicted Solar Farmer


Can You Live Without A Gasoline Car?


Living Solar in the Suburbs:  10 Years On


Energy: we can pump it out of the ground, dig it out of our mountains, or gather it from our roofs and fields.  I hope that in the end, the elegant and scalable systems win.


Ah, the 24th of June.  The corn is growing, the daylillies are cannonading, the tomatoes are about to break out of their cages.  And a week from today it will be July.

Fickle, fleeting June, we hardly knew ye. But we hardly ever do.

I hope to see you sometime soon once we can resume Wednesday Nite @ The Lab.

Tom Zinnen
Biotechnology Center & Division of Extension, Wisconsin 4-H


UW-Madison:  5.8 million owners, one pretty good public land-grant teaching, research and extension university.

Visit UW-Madison’s science outreach portal at for information on the people, places & programs on campus that welcome you to come experience science as exploring the unknown, all year round.

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