Balcomb: Selling Customers on Passive Solar

By, Alex Abdallah

“What we contributed [to passive solar advancement] wasn’t so much from a design sense; the architects were good at that. We brought respectability.”

J. Douglas Balcomb, Ph.D., has been part of SOLAR TODAY from the beginning. In his welcome note in the 1987 inaugural issue, he wrote: “We have launched SOLAR TODAY, full of optimism and hope that ASES and its magazine can forge a successful future.”

Balcomb, a key driver in the emergence of passive solar as a credible field, has put his shoulder to forging a solar future ever since. When the market disappeared in the 1980s, Balcomb was one of few to maintain the knowledge base, educating readers in the same principles he had emphasized 25 years prior.

Balcomb’s ASES resume is extensive: A former chair of the ASES board of directors, he’s received every ASES award he’s eligible for and held leadership roles in two local ASES chapters and the International Solar Energy Society.

In 1961 Balcomb joined Los Alamos National Laboratory as a nuclear engineer, but in 1973 when the lab created an alternative energy program, he moved to solar research. During a surge of interest for active solar, Balcomb was largely responsible for turning heads to passive solar, making it an important avenue of research. Thanks to the computers and expertise available at Los Alamos, Balcomb’s experiments in the late ’70s and early ’80s demonstrated that passive solar had comparable performance and much greater reliability than active solar.

What we contributed wasn’t so much from a design sense; the architects were good at that. We brought respectability. Passive solar grew out of a hippie movement in New Mexico. The engineering community was skeptical and even scornful. We were able to provide a solid scientific basis to the whole field.

Balcomb House
Balcomb | Balcomb House floor plan published in SOLAR TODAY, Sept/Oct 2006, “Passive Solar Comeback Ahead.”

“The costs are so low that it’s important to do this first, before you consider other non-passive applications. Saying this repeatedly is important,” Balcomb said. “To understand the tremendous power of that equation might be critical in the upcoming years.”

Balcomb also mentions the traditional European emphasis on building science — the analysis of building materials and building energy flows to optimize building performance — as an area for advancement in the States. For this reason, Balcomb looks forward to reviewing abstracts as the passive solar chair for the ASES National Solar Conference, World Renewable Energy Forum 2012.

“It’s an international conference and we’re going to hear about the considerable amount of work that has been done in Europe,” he said. “After being out of the game for a while, it’s an opportunity to get myself up to speed on what’s happening.”

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