Before the U.S. solar market became a multibillion-dollar sector over the past decade, there was a small but mighty tribe of solar first-adopters who took the initial steps in commercializing photovoltaic (PV) technology in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. We at Inovateus understand the important foundation laid by these solar trailblazers, share many of the same sustainability values, and follow respectfully in their footsteps. That’s why we were excited to attend the second annual Solar Pioneer Party that took place recently in Grass Valley, California.
The event is the brainchild of Jeff Spies, a friend of Inovateus who has been a passionate advocate of solar since he entered the industry in 2007. Jeff is also the creative force behind a documentary film in production about the early days of solar in the western U.S. and has been conducting interviews with dozens of pioneers over the past year. In a future Inovateus blog post, we’ll talk to Jeff about the film project, but in the meantime, we’ve embedded our video interview filmed at the party with him below.
What inspired these early solar pioneers? All have a different story, but there seems to be one common theme that the Inovateus team can relate to: music. While many wished to disconnect from the city lifestyle and live more independently, they still wanted to play their Grateful Dead and Rolling Stones records, but stereo systems required at least some electricity. A 30-watt PV panel and car battery backup fit the bill—and they didn’t require smelly and expensive diesel fuel for a noisy generator.
Many of the pioneers are still active and attended the party. It was really cool to hang out with them, hear their stories, share some laughs, and look at their old photos, promotional materials and classic PV modules. As Jeff said during his opening remarks at the event, many of these trailblazers are real “characters” and entertaining raconteurs.
For example, Wayne Robertson recounted the time he and his partners met with the chairman of Japanese megacorporation Sharp and “four handlers” in Los Angeles to discuss offering “private labeled” Sharp PV modules for their backwoods and other customers. This meeting, which took place in the early 1980s before Sharp officially entered the U.S. solar market, was notable for the fact that a small group of solar companies joined forces and secured face time with the head of a major Japanese corporation. Although the handlers insisted the chairman spoke no English, some off-hand (and off-color) comments made among the Americans when they were left in the room alone with the big boss revealed that he really did speak more English than his people let on.
Recurring themes of the event included the do-it-yourself/seat-of-the-pants approach in those halcyon days and how much of the early demand for solar came from back-to-the-land hippies and marijuana farmers in California, Oregon, Colorado and elsewhere. Several pioneers recalled growers bringing suitcases full of cash to purchase those “expensive” 15-, 23-, and 30-watt Arco Solar, Solarex and Kyocera “magic” modules to charge up their batteries, power their super-cool stereo systems and light their off-grid houses in the woods.
Another highlight of the party was the presence of Dr. Solar and his Medicine Show. The alter-ego of Terry Robinson, Dr. Solar was originally envisaged as an anti-nuclear street performer and has evolved into a modern-day, family-friendly, green energy advocating version of the old-time medicine shows once popular in the U.S. during the latter 19th and early 20th centuries. Terry, an early adopter himself, is a most engaging ambassador of solar power. Our audio interview with Dr. Solar can be found below.
Thanks to Jeff and the other organizers and sponsors of the Solar Pioneer Party for this year’s festivities. We look forward to attending the third and final gathering of the tribe next fall in Mendocino.
By TJ Kanczuzewski, president of Inovateus Solar