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Did the Hippies start the solar PV industry?

By Jeff Spies

In 2015, I embarked on a journey to discover the roots of the solar photovoltaic industry after hearing solar old-timers tell stories for years about how the Hippies started the industry. My good buddy, filmmaker Jason Vetterli, and I spent two years traveling the country, interviewing dozens of pioneers of PV, to make a documentary film: Solar Roots - the Pioneers of PV, which tells the true story of the start of the solar photovoltaic industry.

Solar photovoltaics (PV for short) have been around much longer than most people realize. The photo-galvanic effect was first observed in 1839, and Charles Fritts installed the first rooftop PV array in Manhattan in 1884 using selenium cells. However, it was not until 1954 that PV became real with the invention by Bell Labs of the silicon solar cell. Silicon PV cells produced 10 times the power of selenium, but were incredibly expensive in 1955, selling at $2,500 per watt. Adjusted for inflation that equates to over $23,000/watt in 2018.

Despite this high price tag, PV cells were powering satellites by 1958, but their use was restricted to the space program for the next 15 years.

Then, in the early 1970s, a handful of pioneering PV manufacturers including ARCO Solar and Solarex began making lower cost PV panels for terrestrial applications. Finding paying customers proved difficult during these early years, and terrestrial PV applications were restricted to government-funded demonstration projects and small niche markets. Despite the high cost, PV was still cheaper than routine battery swapping for offshore oil platform warning horns and marker buoy lights, and dramatically less expensive than flying diesel fuel out to generators powering remote mountaintop telecom repeater sites. But the PV market was still very small.

By the 1970s, a new generation of engineering tinkerers was learning about these new terrestrial PV panels from electronics magazines. In 1975, a major milestone was reached when, for the first time, a popular scientific supply catalog—Edmund Scientific—sold a PV module to the public. The six-watt Solarex module sold for a whopping $420. Obviously, PV power was still too expensive for ordinary folks, but seeing this new product for sale to the public sparked the imagination of a small handful of backwoods engineers who dreamed of a free energy utopia using these magical PV cells.

Around this same time, a huge migration was under way. Thousands of environmentally minded "back-to-the-land" Hippie homesteaders were fleeing the cities in search of a better life in the country. They built their homes from trees harvested from the land, lit their homes with kerosene lanterns, and planted gardens for food.

Despite their desire to be free from the modern lifestyle, these hardy off-gridders still wanted electricity for luxuries like music and lights. Unfortunately, their only options were noisy, dirty, unreliable gas generators, expensive flashlight batteries, or driving their cars frequently to keep an extra battery in the trunk charged up to power lights and music in their homes.

By the late 1970s, ARCO and Solarex had increased production, driving down pricing. By 1980, the price had finally dropped to $15/watt, prompting several visionary California-based PV companies including Alternative Energy Engineering in Humboldt County, Real Goods in Mendocino County, and the Earth Store in Grass Valley, to start selling PV modules to their Hippie homesteader customers as a clean quiet reliable source of power.

Even though PV modules were still very expensive ($45/watt in 2018 dollars), these Hippie homesteaders could now afford them because they were flush with cash. Fruits and vegetables were not their only crops. Most grew a bit of marijuana, and their friends in the big cities were willing to pay big money for this new cash crop.

It was not long before marijuana became the engine of growth for these remote communities, and PV purchases boomed. Every year around harvest time, off-grid farmers would take fistfuls of cash to these pioneering PV companies and buy solar panels to power their music and lights.

Executives at ARCO Solar were amazed when they discovered this new home power market that would eventually overtake all others in a few short years. In our documentary Solar Roots, ARCO salesman Arthur Rudin recalled his first exploratory trip to Humboldt and Mendocino in 1981, explaining how he had to deliver two different messages back to HQ. Arthur explained, "To the corporate folks, it was water pumping and remote home power. To the inside people … well, they're growers and they pay cash for stuff; we don't care, they buy modules."

In the words of PV Pioneer Cully Judd, founder of InterIsland Solar in Hawaii: "Thank God for the marijuana business—that's what made solar happen."

Over the next 20 years, these solar PV Hippies built the solar business into a thriving mainstream industry—but there is no denying that marijuana played a major role in funding the early development of the PV industry, and the Hippies were the ones leading the way in bringing PV down from space, delivering clean renewable "Power to the People" around the world.

Jeff Spies is the executive producer of Solar Roots - the Pioneers of PV. Solar Roots will be showing at major solar industry events over the next year. To learn more, please go to www.solar-roots.com.

 


September/October 2018