According to Albert Einstein, it’s everybody’s obligation put back into the earth what they take out… And that’s the ethos that governs the efforts of Lowtech’s Tony Lopes.
Lopes refers to himself as an expert tinkerer, starting his TEDx Johannesburg talk by detailing the vegetable oil conversion he did on his diesel car, which he made because he travels a lot and his mechanic wanted to charge him too much.
After the conversion, Lopes had a hybrid car of a different kind. It uses diesel to start and warm up the engine, and then switches over to vegetable oil once its ‘going’. The conversion has been a win though. He says it’s a bit of a hassle to drive around and collect the ‘old oil’, but thus far he’s done 140000 km in the past six years. And the car’s still going strong.
Lopes’ next project was to take an old picture frame, some foil and a handcrafted ‘oven box’ and convert it into a solar oven. Today he cooks 80% of his meals using this invention.
He’s also invented a wood gas stove that can be crafted out of paint tins, or a cut off 44 gallon drum (if you want a big daddy stove).
His most astounding invention however is a solar hot water system that uses clear plastic bottles, like those Coca Cola comes in, and the inside of foil lined Tetra paks. These packs are difficult to recycle, so Lopes says it’s a huge win.
You fold the tetra paks into the clear bottles, join the bottles together and connect the contraption up to a hot water storage tank. And since hot water wants to rise, you let the sun do the rest. Lopes has a 25 column, 120 litre system installed in his home, which incidentally is in a rather fancy estate on the East Rand of Johannesburg.
What happens when it’s raining? “My food gardens do well, but my solar ovens and solar water heater don’t work quite as well,” he says.
Here, Lopes makes use of a heat exchanger, which is fitted into one of his wood gas stoves’ chimneys.
“There’s so much scrap steel in the world. I get excited when I think of everything that’s possible,” he says.
Lopes says he gets more than enough wood chips for his stove from pruning he does in his garden. And when that runs out, he says he resorts to the masses of wooden off cuts City Parks workers have left over from their pruning.
Lopes’ solutions have been rolled out all over the country through his own outreach efforts in townships and underprivileged parts of the country. But there’s a lot to offer those with ready access to electricity. Lopes says his electricity bill used to be between R300 and R400 per month. It now rarely exceeds R100 per month.
“The hardest part has been changing the way I live,” he says.
“I have to plan my meals and put them on to cook in the morning, since my solar oven takes way longer than a conventional oven. I also take showers in the evening, because I have to give the sun time to work its magic on my solar water heater.”
Those trade-offs seem worth it though. And the one thing that’s for sure is that this country needs more Tony Lopes-type characters.