Solar power is a true grassroots movement. For a short time during Jimmy Carter’s presidency in the 1970’s, there was powerful government support. But Ronald Reagan quickly dissolved such support by cutting funding to alternative energy programs and allowing solar tax credits to expire. The result was nearly 30 years in which fossil fuels remained king and solar power existed only at the fringe of energy politics.
So how did the solar power movement survive for more than two decades? Through the determination of incredible solar activists. The fruits of their perseverance are now being enjoyed by a new generation of solar enthusiasts that have the pleasure of renewed government and popular support. According to a recent poll by Kelton Research, 92% of Americans feel it is important for the U.S. to develop and use solar power. Given the polarization of American politics at present, for more than 9 out of 10 people to support any single position is amazing.
These 10 solar minds, some young, some old, represent the past, present and future of solar power. And these are but a few of thousands – even millions – of people carrying the solar torch around the world, from Copenhagen to Canberra to Cape Town and California.
- Van Jones is a true leader of the green movement. He is a staunch promoter of solar and renewable energy, energy efficiency, civil rights and social justice. He founded the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland and Green For All, a nonprofit dedicated to using green jobs to lift people out of poverty. His first book, The Green Collar Economy, was a New York Times Bestseller and Time magazine named him a “Hero of the Environment” in 2008. Jones was President Obama’s Special Advisor for Green Jobs in 2009, but was apparently too “active” for Washington. Van Jones represents the epitome of activism, from green jobs to solar power to people power.
- Rhone Resch is president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and a leader of the American contingency in Copenhagen. Resch has played a key role in solar legislation in recent years, including working for the eleventh-hour, eight-year extension of federal solar tax credits in 2008. He was Program Manager at the EPA’s Climate Protection Division during the Clinton Administration. He lives with his family in a solar-powered home in Washington, D.C.
- Sylvia Ventura, Dan Barahona and Dave Llorens are co-founders of 1BOG: One Block Off the Grid. This revolutionary solar innovation helps communities and neighborhoods go solar cheaply through group buying. 1BOG is a prime example of solar power’s grassroots nature, showing the power of the people when they’re organized. 1BOG is now managed by Virgance, a San Francisco consortium of social activist campaigns. 1BOG has inspired group buying and collective solar bargaining across the country.
- Anya Schoolman is the founder of the Mount Pleasant Solar Cooperative in Washington, D.C. With the help of family, friends and neighbors, she is setting another example of how communities can collectively succeed at going solar – independent of government or business aid. A longtime activist, Schoolman got the idea for a solar cooperative from her teenage sons. The Mount Pleasant Solar Cooperative recently celebrated its 50th solar home in the Mount Pleasant district. Schoolman is working to help develop cooperatives in Washington’s other eight wards.
- Adam Raudonis represents the new generation of solar activists. The 17-year-old from Westlake Village, CA is the founder of Students for Solar Schools and is already giving speeches and traveling the world in the name of solar power, hoping to take his organization national by inspiring other children to open their own chapters. Students for Solar Schools managed to get a solar system installed on Adam’s own high school, as well as several others. The group now has a website and began fundraising in 2009. Adam is one of two high school students chosen to represent the United States in Copenhagen at the UN Climate Conference. He was named a California Climate Champion in 2008.
- Elad Orian and Noam Dotan are co-founders of COMET, Community, Energy and Technology in the Middle East. The two are Israeli activists and physicists who install solar power and wind power systems for Palestinians in South Hebron Hills communities. The two see renewable energy as a path to peace in the war-torn region, as well as much-needed aid for Palestinian families forced to live without electricity.
- Daniel Jacobson is legislative director for Environment California, a citizen-based environmental advocacy and research organization based in Sacramento. Jacobson led efforts to pass the California Clean Energy Act that helped make California the national and global solar leader it is today. He has even braved The O’Reilly Factor in support of solar power. Before moving to California, he worked to stop offshore oil drilling in Florida. Dan Jacobson is yet another solar proponent in Copenhagen.
- Barbara Kerr founded Solar Cookers International (SCI) with 16 other solar cooks in California’s Central Valley in 1987. She and long-time partner in solar activism, Sherry Cole, literally wrote the book on solar box cookers in the 1970′s and have had a profound effect on stopping hunger around the world with solar power. Kerr and her cohorts are widely acknowledged as founding the solar cooking movement. She co-founded the Kerr-Cole Sustainable Living Center in Taylor, Arizona. In 2006, Kerr received the “Women in Solar Energy” award from the American Solar Energy Society. Since its founding, SCI has provided over 30,000 families with solar ovens to cook food safely and cleanly.
- Denis Hayes is another major solar activist. Way back in solar’s first boom under Jimmy Carter, Hayes was the head of the Solar Energy Research Institute. Unfortunately, that agency was defunded and squashed by Ronald Reagan and the Department of Energy, but not before Hayes slyly published a study pointing to solar power as a viable energy resource. More prominently, Hayes organized the first Earth Day celebration in 1970. He also helped found Green Seal in 1989, which has since become a trusted label for verification for green products. Hayes has been honored with top awards from such organizations as the Sierra Club, Humane Society of the United States, National Wildlife Federation, the Natural Resources Council of America and ASES. Time magazine named Hayes a “Hero of the Planet.” He now lives in Seattle and is president of the Bullitt Foundation. Hayes is still an avid activist for solar power and renewable energy.
- Al Gore may not be a solar advocate specifically, but his work in the name of energy efficiency, renewable energy and curbing climate change has made him a figurehead for every environmental cause. He needs no introduction; His Nobel Peace Prize and Oscar-winning film, An Inconvenient Truth, speak for themselves. Gore’s seemingly tireless dedication to environmental causes has made him a global eco-hero. As you might expect, Gore is a high-profile figure in Copenhagen, and it is hard to keep him off any list of noted activists.
Ten down, thousands to go. The solar power movement is active on a growing number of rooftops in America and thriving today in thousands of hearts, minds and chants on the streets of Copenhagen. Big corporations (even oil companies), banks and politicians are finally embracing solar power openly and financially, but it is only through solar activism that it has risen once again. And the truth is that as COP15 rages on, big and small economies fight over climate responsibility, and chants of “350″ and “Climate Justice Now!” ring out in Copenhagen. The solar movement is just heating up.
More on Solar at Copenhagen
Solar activism is at a historic crossroads right now, with world leaders and hundreds of thousands of activists converging on Copenhagen, Denmark for the COP15 United Nations Climate Change Conference. The increasingly troubled conference was intended as a forum for global agreement on addressing climate change. Unfortunately for people and planet, instead of high hopes and international collaboration ruling the day, disappointment, dissent and demonstration are running themes through the two-week conference.
Inside, developing countries have pitted themselves against developed nations, demanding they accept responsibility for harmful effects of climate change that will hit the world’s poor the hardest. Outside the Bella Center in Copenhagen, those feelings are reflected by thousands of protesters and NGO members unable to enter the conference.
Yet even as frustration and clashes with police have come to define the conference, the very existence of the event and the passion exuded there is a result of activism. Our leaders are still making a difference. Many are currently in Copenhagen continuing their life journey as solar advocates. Solar is a powerful force for combating climate change, especially in Africa and Asia, where the developing world is struggling to develop industry without polluting on the scale of its industrial predecessors.