That Neighborhood Solar Nut is Now a Keynote Speaker


As a longtime advocate for sustainable building design, I have spent decades listening to people associate solar energy with ugly black boxes on the roof of the house that belonged to the neighborhood nutcase. I’m here to tell you those days are gone forever. I now find myself sharing the dais with the owners of those early solar systems. That nutcase is now a keynote speaker, and we’re finally beginning to appreciate the beauty of that vision.

Nowadays we’re bombarded with images that convey a different aesthetic of solar technology. Brilliant, elegant black solar panels gleaming in the sun against a perfect clear blue sky. Political candidates and even petroleum companies are parading their green initiatives with these beautiful images. Solar now means a sustainable future, clean energy, clean air, and a solution to global climate change. It might seem unusual, but in this case, the image matches the reality.

Historically, architects have translated new structural and functional technologies into elements of expression. We’ve done this with virtually every material we build with: stone, wood, concrete, steel, and composites. Our palate of materials has expanded throughout history for functional reasons, but as designers we use them to express shape, line, texture culture—and in the case of renewable technologies, powerful societal changes, values and aspirations. Now leaders in the architectural and construction communities are thirsting for new elements that express progressive aesthetics, elements that imbue meaning and value to the clean and sustainable energy movement.

We now have designers and architects using clean technology—solar energy, wind generator units, and other products and materials—as their preferred palate of expression. This is helping elevate early renewable energy enthusiasts to visionary status. And this contemporary connotation of clean and sustainable alternative energy is coming to your neighborhood and mine.

What needs to be understood, taught, and reinforced is that we already have reached a tipping point. What was once a slow and gradual change in energy consciousness is now turning to rapid adoption. Of course, it helps when gasoline sells for more than $4.60 a gallon, as it did in Southern California last summer. In fact, a new energy mindset is gathering momentum at an amazing rate.

Consider these events:

—The Building Integrated Photovoltaics (BIPV) Summit held at the Del Mar Hilton in April revealed that solar roof tiles and wall paneling are now commonly being included in new home construction. Why? Developers understand their market value.

—Every $1 invested into solar technology by a builder increases the value of the home by $20, according to Mark Fischer, CFO and senior vice president of Grupe Homes.

—Grupe Homes built a “zero energy” community of 150 solar homes in Rocklin, CA. Each residence cuts energy use by about 60 percent. Typical energy costs range from $10 to $20 per month.

—According to at least one press report, the Grupe homes were sold “at double the rate” of conventional homes built by other companies. 

Is this a neighborhood of “nuts?” Do these home buyers see an increased value in energy efficiency that just wasn’t a significant consideration previously? Or have they simply embraced the inevitable? Obviously, the argument that solar energy and other clean sustainable technologies are cost-prohibitive is a thing of the past. Yesterday’s news. And Tomorrow another “zero energy” community will rise. Maybe this time you—and your neighbors—will flock to the auction.

The day has come for “clean technology” because the phrase is now pregnant with implication. It suggests breathable air, safe environments, toxic-free zones and a sustainable quality of life. It also has economic undertones. Arguably, the vast majority of new technology innovations are related to cleantech, and therefore, new economic activity and opportunities as well.

Corporations that wish to emerge whole from today’s dark economic tunnel cannot wait to convert. The change that is upon us now is happening at a ferocious rate. Make or break may take on a whole new meaning for companies that wait too long to join the move to solar and other forms of renewable energy.

Still not convinced? Consider feng shui. When the Chinese art of creating harmonious environments was first introduced to Westerners, there was curiosity—and skepticism. Late-night comedians surely had fun mocking the new fad. Yet architectural firms that do business overseas eventually learned that the Chinese take this philosophy very seriously. Want to design a multi-million dollar complex in China? Time to study spatial arrangements and energy-flow patterns, the “chi” of architecture.

Pragmatism is a tough master. What seems far-fetched today may very well be accepted common wisdom tomorrow – if there is intrinsic benefit and value in the new trend.

Or if there is desperate need. Our nation can no longer rely on fossil fuels. As citizens we can no longer accept living and work environments that are “sick” with toxins and fumes. Conventional thinking must adapt to innovations and to new depths of perception, invention and courage. That’s the American way.

A “nut case” in the neighborhood? Not anymore.

Robert Noble is the founder, chairman, and CEO of San Diego-based Envision Solar International, Inc. and Chairs the California Center for Sustainable Energy. He is an architect, environmental designer, industrial designer and environmental technology entrepreneur. Follow @

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7 responses to “That Neighborhood Solar Nut is Now a Keynote Speaker”

  1. Until solar is a cost-effective and day to day viable alternative in the North East we’ll be ignoring the “nut cases” in the sun-filled west coast.