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COLUMN ONE

He's still following the sun

Gary Gerber has pushed solar power for 30 years. Now that it's no longer the domain of hippies, he's really plugging in.

January 03, 2007|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

Berkeley — IN the beginning, to explain the concept of a solar water heater, Gary Gerber toted a homemade graphic of a black hose sitting on a lawn.

"Do you ever go out in the summer and turn on the hose and the water is hot?" he'd ask potential customers. "Well, that's how it works."

In those "stone age" days of the mid-1970s, there was no solar energy industry, Gerber says, only a small collection of "experimenters, forward-thinking people, inventors." Even eking out a living was an impossibility: Gerber survived, courtesy of a side gig selling cheese from his Volkswagen van.

Three decades later, his Sun Light & Power can barely keep up. A frenzied demand for solar power, or photovoltaic, installations has eclipsed the water heater portion of the business, and since 2002, sales have ballooned by about 66% annually -- to more than $11 million in 2006.

Once the domain of hippies, whose off-the-grid escape doubled as an anti-establishment rebuke, renewable energy is now a pillar of California politics. In recent months alone, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed the California Solar Initiative, which aims to help bring solar power to a million rooftops, as well as a landmark greenhouse-gas reduction law.

Cities in the Bay Area -- California's alternative-energy hotbed -- are tricking out public buildings with solar panels, outfitting municipal vehicle fleets with the latest plug-in hybrids and tweaking building codes to require energy-efficient features in new construction. Large companies are scrambling to certify their buildings as "green."

And across the state, in locations not at all off the beaten path, solar installations on homes and small businesses have soared, thanks largely to rebates for systems tied into the state power grid.

While 1998 saw 87 installa-tions of such systems -- which relieve strain from conventional users in peak heat by feeding excess solar juice back to the grid -- the number exploded to more than 5,600 in 2006, with the Bay Area well in the lead, California Energy Commission data shows.

FOR Gerber, 53, it is a head-spinning state of affairs.

Curly-haired and soft-spoken, Gerber today looks the part of a steady engineer in his pressed khakis and checkered button-down shirt, four pens aligned in his front pocket. But he remains at heart a zealot, committed to renewable energy down to the solar watch on his wrist.

Though he is by no means the biggest player in the increasingly competitive industry, he is among a handful of believers who came of age in the mid-'70s boom, survived the gloom of the '80s and '90s and emerged to thrive in today's market.

"Gary's experience mirrors the industry's experience overall," said Brian Gitt, executive director of the nonprofit Build It Green, which promotes energy-efficient building in California. "Here's this pioneer who's been doing this for 30 years and weathered the hard times. Now, he's able to take advantage of the insane growth we're experiencing. It's equivalent to the beginning of the Internet boom."

Solar power has had previous brushes with the mass market: In 1891, Clarence M. Kemp designed the first commercial solar water heater.

"The Climax" was the wealthy household's alternative to heating water on the stove, and six years later, nearly a third of Pasadena homes sported one. But by the 1930s, use of plentiful natural gas had killed the Southland industry.

Interest revived after 1973 oil crisis.

The then-nascent industry focused on water heaters and passive thermal features to keep houses warm.

A company of young architects formed by Tom Butt -- now a Richmond city councilman -- hammered together homemade solar panels for testing in Butt's backyard. But they could find no contractors willing to build the projects they devised.

Word got to Gerber, who, one project shy of a master's degree in mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley, queried fellow students in 1974: Did anyone want to go into business?

The ragtag Sun Light & Power worked under Butt's contractor's license and built solar collectors from scratch, with redwood framing and fluorescent tubing. The first customers: Gerber's parents.

Ideas were hardly proprietary. Extra copper for one of Gerber's early projects came from the "Integral Urban House" on Berkeley's 4th Street, a utopian experiment of the Farallones Institute, the renowned ecological-design center. (As Gov. Jerry Brown's "state architect," Farallones founder Sim Van der Ryn would soon craft pioneering state energy standards and the nation's first energy-efficiency program for government offices.)

With a zero advertising budget, referrals to Sun Light & Power came through Butt's company or word-of-mouth. A $5,000 loan from Gerber's uncle served as the company's "little pot of operating capital" for five years. "I really didn't know how I was going to make the next payroll, and then a check would arrive," Gerber said.

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