Pioneering solar power entrepreneur Williams (Chasing the Sun: Solar Adventures Around the World, 2005) chronicles how he left journalism to become an advocate for the distribution of solar energy around the world.
In 1979, the author was invited to join President Jimmy Carter's newly formed Department of Energy to help promote the use of solar power. At the time, nuclear power was still in the ascendancy, and the program did not take off. Nonetheless, five years after Carter left office, “the country was using 15 percent less electricity…[due to] government sponsored energy saving programs.” This was the beginning of the author’s dream to transform the lives of the billions of people living in the developing sector who lacked access to electricity—by making it possible for them to purchase individual solar installations. Since the cost of extending the electric grid to these remote villages was prohibitive, photovoltaic cells would be competitive, and they would not “[destroy] the global environment.” Williams developed a plan to set up a nonprofit organization that would be a pilot program to demonstrate the feasibility of his vision. His job would be to solicit funds and then look for countries where he could apply his “concept of small-is-beautiful solar power for householders” and recruit locals to run the project. In 1990, he launched the Solar Electric Light Fund, which sold solar installations at cost, with grants from the World Bank, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and other major philanthropic institutions. This pilot project succeeded brilliantly in proving the viability of a commercial market for solar energy in the developing sector, and it laid the basis for major government-sponsored programs in India and China. Today, with the reduced cost of photovoltaic cells, “America is now the world's fifth-biggest solar market, after Germany, Spain, Italy, and China.”
An engaging state of the union by an important leader in solar power.