Regardless of how one may view the administration of former US President Jimmy Carter, one really good thing that came out of it (besides a large supply of comedic material for Dan Aykroyd) was a sensible, proactive energy policy. Carter signed off on federal incentives to kickstart alternative energy years before it was fashionable, and a growth industry erupted almost overnight in response.
I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time because I got to directly participate. I was a young plumber at the time, almost ready to take my journeyman’s license exam, when our little outfit became involved with installing passive solar water heating systems. The basic setup was a roof-mounted panel or two along with a heat exchanger in the garage. There was even a job or two involving several panels as well as a large storage tank for swimming pools.
This activity coincided with one of the hottest Texas summers on record (1980) so it was easy to sell the systems. Technically they were only leased by the homeowners but all the users saw were net monthly energy savings. The panels would heat up to around 190 degrees Fahrenheit on a sunny day, forcing me to wear elbow-high welder’s gloves after a few deep and painful burns. The panels worked well even on cloudy days as long as enough solar radiation got through.
Unfortunately, the Reagan administration foolishly killed the federal initiative just as it was heating up. That led to repossessions of systems in many cases and a bad attitude toward the technology in general. Later on, the experience even cost me a job with a food products distributer; during the interview, the hiring manager harrassed me for having it on my resumé, saying the systems did not work and that anyone who claimed otherwise was a liar.
So I felt at least some vindication earlier this year when I was called in to interview with a newly-invigorated solar products company. They work with different types of systems than I had in the past but it was still exciting to have that opportunity. The hiring process seems to be in limbo right now but if nothing else it was good to talk with the interviewers about potential.
I look forward to the day when solar consideration is at least as seamlessly integrated into US architecture as it is in Finland. We can easily start now with better use of modern windows, skylights and solar tubes. I challenge today’s architectural students to shrug off the shackles of past conventional wisdom and design buildings of tomorrow with fresh ideas. Let there be light!
Disclosure: author owns stock in Canadian Solar Inc.