A Spark Lights a Fire: Thoughts on Oregon’s Early Solar Movement

By Doug Boleyn

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John Reynolds’ early book about Solar Energy for Northwest Buildings, including the part about Henry Mathews house, fed my desire to go solar in 1973.

Having just returned from a stint in the Air Force, the first “energy crisis” was upon us. Folks were scrambling looking for solutions to get energy that didn’t flow through a pipeline from a remote hostile country. My wife Emily and I, wanted to build a house and start a family. I worked for BPA and was driven to read all I could about solar and was determined to build our new house with solar on it.

In 1973, on a road trip, I stopped to visit Henry Mathew in Coos Bay. Henry showed me around, and that visit “sealed the deal”. If solar works on the coast in Coos Bay, then it will work in Portland! We built our house with a large unshaded south-facing roof, which was completed in October, 1974.

At the same time, PGE looking for a solar project, and in early 1975, I received an offer from PGE to install a solar heating system on our house. PGE’s motivation to do “solar” was ironically, the new Trojan Nuclear Plant being built, which was a public relations nightmare. The solar system was installed in 1975, and in Spring, 1976, PGE hosted a Sunday “open house” of our solar home. To our surprise, over 2,500 folks came through our home that afternoon.

Because of the high interest in solar, PGE offered me a job being their “solar person”. With John Reynolds’ mentorship and encouragement, I accepted the job in March, 1976. By that same summer, 1976, other entities and individuals from around the region were ready to organize to spread the solar word. On a summer day in 1976 at my house, a small gathering of folks from Oregon, Washington and Idaho, laid the groundwork and structure to form a chapter of the “American Section of the International Solar Energy Society”. John was elected the first President of the Pacific Northwest Solar Energy Association — PNWSEA. [Pronounced P’-NOO’-zee]

Driven by the construction of new nuclear energy and coal power stations in Oregon, bringing with them huge 15%-20% per year rate increases from the utilities (PGE and PPL), solar organizations throughout Oregon were forming up to answer the clamor for alternatives. Technologists, advocates, do-it-yourself pioneers and others exclaimed the key message: “We know solar works in Oregon”.

The newly formed PNWSEA along with local solar groups of champions, advocates, and citizens organized Solar 77 Northwest. This first major regional solar conference brought together solar folks from all over the Northwest. Held at PSU and the “old” OMSI, the three-day event brought technologists and the public together to see solar working.

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Solar ’77 Steering Committee

Solar water heating was really the only “solar” that was economical in the late 1970’s. But the growing science of passive solar heating was also gaining attention. The elegance of designing a house that is a solar collector, saving 30–40–50% of heating costs, with little or no additional cost was very attractive.

Between 1977 and 1980, the solar groups throughout Oregon expanded, driven by a public tired of high energy costs and faceless, remote energy sources. Solar advocates successfully led the Oregon legislature to pass a solar tax credit bill in 1977, which quickened the pace of solar installation. WVSEA, CSEA, KSEA, Portland SUN, SON, SOL, and a host of other solar organizations organized meetings, conferences, educational classes, legislative lobbying — all focused on answering key questions: “does solar really work here?”, is it “cost-effective”?. Thousands of people were educated and “seeds planted” by these solar organizations.

Following on the success of Solar 77 Northwest came Solar 78 Northwest and Solar 79 Northwest, all very successful. In 1980, PNWSEA went “international”, joining the Canadian Solar Energy Society to put on Solwest 80 in 1980 in Vancouver, BC.

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By 1980, led substantially by John Reynolds’ leadership role in ASES, and Oregon’s growing reputation as a solar leader, Portland won being the site of ASES’ 6th National Passive Solar Conference in 1981. This National conference brought experts from all over the world to Portland. And at this National Conference, the solar groups throughout Oregon met to formalize an Oregon Chapter of the American Solar Energy Society. The Solar Energy Association of Oregon (SEAO) was born, voting Lynn Youngbar of Portland SUN as its first president. Because of Oregon’s size, all the local groups would still maintain their own identities and programs.

1981 through 1985 was the most active, growing years of SEA of O and the use of solar. By this time, Oregon and Federal tax credits, combined with some local incentives (PGE’s WHIP program) paid for 2/3–3/4 of the cost of a solar water heater.

In 1980, with Congress’ passage of the NW Conservation Act, SEAO embraced energy efficiency and conservation as part of its educational agenda. SEA of O was one of very few public organizations actively marketing these incentive programs to the public. Starting in 1980 also, PGE enacted the first “feed-in tariff”, allowing customers to interconnect small scale renewable electricity generators. Small wind and micro-hydro generators were the only feasible renewable electricity technologies at the time. SEAO continued to expand its portfolio of educational subjects to include renewable electricity. The first whisper of “cost-effective” solar electricity and inverters didn’t arrive until the early 1990s. SEAO’s mission grew and came to promote all renewables, especially those customer-owned.

SEA of O remained in the center of solar and conservation-related education and advocacy throughout the 1980s, and members played a key role in keeping solar alive in the public’s consciousness. Oregon was among the top 10 states for solar energy installations up to and through the early 1990’s, not in small part due to SEAO’s programs. Despite the expiration of the Federal Tax Credits in 1986, solar in Oregon kept up a smaller, but steady pace of solar water heating installations, still aided by Oregon’s continuing state credits. SEAO and its members played an important role in convincing the legislature to keep the solar tax credits.

For myself in these first 10-years of solar, we enjoyed a house that received 50% of its heat from solar, and 75% of its water heating, and through SEAO events, we told thousands of Oregonians that solar works in Oregon. In 1982, I installed our first little 2-module solar PV system, with a battery, powering a small black and white TV and 12V lights. We lived in that house for 35 years, installed two more PV systems. Then in 2009, with all we learned over those 30 years, we built our new 100% solar home, now enjoying that home for 10 years.

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Boleyn House

The Boleyn house’s initial solar heating systems outlived the Trojan Nuclear plant, which was closed in 1992, which was also the year we installed our first home-scale grid-tied solar PV electric system.

Guess who won.

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