A website actually powered by solar power

Low-tech magazine renewed the design of its website. At such not a world shocking event, but this design reflects the vision of the low-tech magazine and that is where it gets really interesting.

They understood that the internet became a rapidly growing power consumer, power that for a large part is created by using conventional power sources. Therefor they build a low-energy, self-hosted website actually powered solely by … solar power. Not in the way Google is doing (offsetting their power consumption, meaning buying their average power consumption from renewable power providers), but actually powering it by a solar panel.

This is the 50 Wp solar panel that is placed on the balcony of the founder of low-tech magazine, Dirk Dedecker, in Barcelona:

and this is the web server:

The web server hardware is an Olimex A20 integrated board running at 2 Ghz with 1 GB of RAM, 16 GB storage and a power consumption of 1 – 2.5 W (depending on the load). Which is more than enough to host a small website. The board is powered by two batteries, a LiPo battery and a backup lead-acid battery. The batteries are not visible in the picture, they are located in the wooden box that holds the board.

The good

I like the fact that Dirk Dedecker is walking his talk and powering his website with actual solar power. Warts and all.

To get as low-energy as possible, some tweaking of the web pages was needed. He converted his blog to a static website, which is a smart move when trying to lower the footprint of a website. He also removed other things that could increase the footprint like ads, custom fonts, cookies, third-party tracking, the commenting system and a logo image (it is created by typography). In the end, he got the average file size to a fifth of the original site. When I look at the code of those pages, I think there is still some room for improvement and get the footprint of the site even smaller.

I like the fact he did the effort to optimize the web pages. Since I learned to code web pages (now roughly twenty years ago), I saw a steady increase in the size of the average web page. I think most web pages today are bloated and do certainly like the idea of a minimal design in order to improve performance.

Kudos for Dirk Dedecker for that.

Although I think there are much nicer minimal designs possible. The current solar pelican theme (especially when it comes to the images, more about that later) looks like it came straight from the 1990s.

The bad

This is what I saw when I visited the website this morning:

Low-tech magazine is solely powered by the two batteries that only get their power from the solar panel. Also, that panel only receives direct sunlight for 4 – 6 hours per day. During the end of spring, summer and the beginning of autumn this should not really a problem in Barcelona, but in winter the site runs into troubles when the weather is clouded from more than two days. The aim is 90% availability, so the website is expected to be off-line for an average of 35 days per year.

To go above that 90% availability, the system needs to double or triple the hardware.

The ugly

Images are compressed by using dithering and then giving a color according to its category.

Making the images about ten times less resource-intensive.

Personally, I don’t like the dithered images, especially when it is applied to large images or when the images are stretched. For example, this image looks rather okay on a small screen:

When the browser window is enlarged, then we get this effect:

which I don’t particularly like, but that is of course my personal taste. I do understand that the low-tech magazine website is made for low-energy devices, so not for the desktop with a large screen as I am currently using, but rather for netbooks/tablet/smartphones/… It would probably look much better on such devices.

If I would make such a small footprint design, I probably would ditch images altogether unless absolutely necessary and then use the appropriate format for that specific graphic (gif for things like graphs, compressed jpg for photos and probably stay away from formats like png, bmp,…).

The low-tech team however used this dithering technique also for different reasons than the compression. They also want to highlight the compression and provide awareness about the resources needed to serve a web page.

To end

Generally, I like the idea and I applaud such initiative. The thing that I like is the transparency that it brings. We often hear other providers (like Google) or companies or individuals claim that they are “powered by renewable energy”, but it usually means that they just offset their power consumption with the average output of solar panels and/or windmills. That is misleading. Also, solar and wind energy is generally being presented in our media an by our politicians as being equivalent with conventional power sources, only more “sustainable”. Which is not true and presenting it this way hides the intermittent character of solar and wind energy.

The low-tech magazine initiative is different because they practice what they preach. The website actually solely relies on the power from a solar panel and goes offline when not enough power can be produced by the panel or stored in its batteries. It is an honestly shows the consequences of powered by solar power first hand. Not only the intermittency and decreased functionality, but also the needed backup capacity (the availability of the website could be improved, but it comes with a price). It is this kind of direct feedback that I am missing in renewable energy communication.

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