The Johnny Appleseed of solar power
Meet Neville Williams, a Maryland man who says he has an easier time installing solar in Africa and Asia than he does in the United States.
Wed, Jun 17, 2009 at 05:36 AM
Photo courtesy Neville Williams
This is a tale about a modest man, a flaming ball of plasma and a quest. The man is Neville Williams, the ball of gas is the sun, and the quest was bringing light and power to people in the developing world.
The story begins during the Carter years. It was 1979, and after churning out stories as a war correspondent in Vietnam and as a writer for a local TV news station in New York, Williams turned his energies toward energy. He had just been hired as a consultant for the freshly minted U.S. Department of Energy, and it was there he learned about an adolescent technology that would grip his imagination for the next 25 years — solar power.
President Jimmy Carter was pushing solar in light of soaring oil prices and the 1973 Arab oil embargo, so much so that he installed solar panels on the roof of the White House West Wing. "The entire drive [for solar] was energy security, not environment, not global warming," Williams says. But at $90 per watt — compared with coal at only a few cents per watt — there was little interest to fan solar's flames.
Even so, the seed of an idea had sprouted in Williams.
Twelve years later, after serving as Greenpeace's national media director during a time when the organization began blowing the whistle on climate change (long before Al Gore and the IPCC ushered it onto the global stage), his idea bloomed.
Williams was on a vacation in Zimbabwe. "All around me were people living without electricity, he says. "In the West, we don't know about the Third World, or realize that only 2 percent of people in Rwanda have electricity. I thought, 'Gee, let's do something about it.'"
And so he did.
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"Indefatigable" is one of the words used to describe Neville by Johnny Weiss, executive director of Solar Energy International, an organization that trains people to install and maintain renewable energy systems. Another is "pioneer." Weiss is not only referring to Williams himself, but also his work — more than 100,000 solar electric systems installed in many developing countries, including India, Africa, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.
"He was one of the early voices that talked about getting the space-age technology into the hands of those that needed it the most," says Weiss, who's been both a teacher and mentee to Neville for 20 years. "The World Bank talked about it, but Neville got the systems installed."
Williams' plan was radical in its simplicity. He used money donated to his nonprofit organization, the Solar Electric Light Fund, to install solar panels in rural villages. Over time, the families would pay back the cost of the panels along with a small amount of interest to create a sense of ownership and responsibility. Then Williams would move on to the next village.
Since then, Williams has helped create two more companies: the Solar Electric Light Company, which provides solar energy in India, and Standard Solar, a U.S.-based company that installs residential solar systems in Washington, D.C., and Virginia.
"All three entities started on our dining room table," says Patricia Forkam, president of the Humane Society International, and Neville's wife, who fondly refers to him as "Neville Solarseed," an adaptation of Johnny Appleseed."And all started from nothing."
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"Now it's time for Americans to do solar," says Williams, who created Standard Solar four years ago, believing that the clouds have parted and the sun is finally shining on solar power in the United States. "Conventional electricity will continue to increase in price, while renewables decrease. The immutable law is they will cross, and according to the experts there will be grid parity by 2012."
In other words, in the not-so-distant future solar electricity will cost the same as conventional electricity production. And if the predictions are correct, about 20 percent of U.S. households will have solar panels in the next 20 to 25 years.
Williams' own home runs off of 100-percent wind energy since it lacks enough sunlight, a fact that he believes demonstrates the need for renewable energy to be tailored to its specific environment. Still, he believes that today is solar's day in the sun. And like in his quest to help bring light and power to people in the developing world, Williams will probably be indefatigable in ushering in solar energy into the States, "one roof at a time."