When J. W. (Bill) Yerkes resigned abruptly from Arco Solar Inc. in January to start his own company using a new solar technology, the fledgling photovoltaic industry buzzed like an aging transformer.
Yerkes, 51, was already widely known as an individualist who had combined the presidency of the Chatsworth-based photovoltaic company, a subsidiary of oil giant Atlantic Richfield Co., with a life style faintly reminiscent of the 1960s counterculture.
While serving as Arco Solar president, he and his wife, Sara, lived for nearly two years in a 24-foot house trailer in which all appliances, including an electric composting toilet, were powered solely by photovoltaic cells, despite the presence of adjacent power lines.
She wrote of their experiences in Mother Earth News, which has a readership distinctively different from that of Fortune or Business Week, where high corporate executives more commonly turn for news.
So it was not Yerkes' move to throw off the corporate traces that surprised the industry. Rather, it was his decision to embrace a new solar technology.
For more than a decade, photovoltaic enthusiasts have predicted they soon would be able to produce electricity as cheaply as do conventional power plants.
But just as the industry seemingly had reached a consensus that amorphous silicon was the right material from which to fashion the next generation of photovoltaic cells, Yerkes threw his reputation and his fortune behind cells made with cadmium and telluride.
His move came less than two months after industry-leader Arco unveiled its Genesis module, the largest amorphous silicon cell so far offered for sale, and announced it hoped to produce amorphous silicon cells almost exclusively by 1990.
Yerkes said he expects his new firm, Industrial Design Inc. of Chatsworth, to market cadmium telluride cells by June.
In its February edition, the Dallas-based Photovoltaic Insider's Report said Yerkes' plan, if successful, would represent the "first commercialization of thin-film PV modules made from cadmium telluride, long considered a promising material for PV devices."
Robert Carbone, a Berkeley photovoltaic investment adviser, said industry reaction was, "Hey, if this guy, with his background, made such a move, he must sense a tremendous opportunity in cadmium telluride. It got everyone's attention."
Yerkes' reputation as an individualist led some in the industry to conclude that his move was prompted mainly by a desire to be his own boss, said Robert O. Johnson, photovoltaics researcher for Strategies Unlimited, a Mountain View, Calif., market researh firm.
"But, based on Bill's long years of experience and the high regard everyone has for his technical skills, I wouldn't want to say anything pessimistic about cadmium telluride," Johnson said.
In recent years, the industry has been rife with reports that large firms, including several Japanese companies, were conducting research into cadmium telluride.
At Arco, Yerkes said 5 of 100 researchers were working on cadmium telluride.
Participation in that research convinced him that cadmium telluride was more efficient than amorphous silicon at converting sunlight into electricity, in addition to being a cheaper material,Yerkes said.
"It also is far easier to make into PV cells, and therefore should be cheaper than amorphous silicon."
But Yerkes said he was not surprised when Arco halted cadmium telluride research and committed to amorphous silicon.
Yerkes, who was a senior vice president when he quit Arco, said the firm was under strong pressure from the parent company "to make good on promises to get into production with a new generation of photovoltaic cells. It's not a good idea to promise something to a board of directors like Atlantic Richfield's, and then not follow through."
James H. Caldwell Jr., Arco Solar president, said the firm was "faced with the problem that industries come up against all the time. At some point, you have to stop research and begin production."
He wished Yerkes "the best of luck" but added that he was "personally convinced that amorphous silicon was the way to go."
Yerkes, who has a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University, became one of the earliest pioneers in the photovoltaic industry more than a decade ago when he was president of Spectrolab Inc. of Sylmar, then a leader in building photovoltaic cells for use in space.
Convinced that photovoltaic cells had a future on Earth, he quit Spectrolab in 1975 and, with $80,000 of his own money, founded Solar Technology International in a 4,000-square-foot shop in Chatsworth.
The company's name was changed to Arco Solar Inc. in 1977 after Yerkes, unable to expand without cash, sold it to Atlantic Richfield.
He stayed on with Arco Solar for nearly eight years, serving in several posts, including two years as president.