Arizona Solar Center Blog

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What a long strange solar trip it's been. . .

The modern era of the solar energy movement can be traced to the late 1970s.

As one of those who was involved in organizing solar fairs and exhibits at the time, I am struck by how much has changed since then.

Passive solar architecture (orientation, mass and glass) was well-established. The solar equipment industry as we knew it then was essentially a backyard do-it-yourself industry consisting of homemade solar water heaters, cardboard solar cookers, and attached solar greenhouses.

Residential solar electricity was in its infancy and was overshadowed by the clamor for solar electricity in the form of large-scale solar thermal farms.

Yet while that is a snapshot of the solar mainstream 40 years ago, it should be noted there was an offshoot group that recognized the independence solar offered by allowing people to live off-grid.

Last week more than 100 of these solar pioneers from the off-grid movement, along with the beginning of today's grid-connected rooftop solar industry, gathered for a party in Redway, California.  The gathering was organized by Jeff Spies of Chandler, Arizona. Spies, a board member of CalSEIA and several other national organizations, has dedicated himself (like many of those in attendance) to making solar the leading form of electric power generation.

While the solar market has changed since the days most of these pioneers became involved (before solar became corporate and a global industry), their enthusiasm has not.

The passion of this group was evident from the photos that emerged through social media over the weekend. One person in the photos stood out the most to me--Debby Tewa.


Debby was part of the NativeSUN team, a Hopi-owned photovoltaic company that traced its roots back to the 1980s and early 1990s. It was dedicated to bringing clean electricity through solar panels to thousands of families that never had electricity before, and to whom utility wires would never reach.

NativeSUN's Solar Electric Enterprise served as a model for other Native American business plans for solar electrification in rural communities everywhere. Back then it was only one company in an isolated community without a technological base--and yet it was able to create a lasting legacy of hundreds of end-users who successfully adopted and integrated solar electricity into their lives.

Their success was due to an innovative financing tool: a revolving loan fund to help finance the purchase and installation of solar. But perhaps even more importantly, their success was the product of understanding the need for educating the end-users so they understood how to operate and maintain their off-grid solar systems.

NativeSun served the people of both the Hopi and Navajo reservations, where nearly 50 percent of the homes did not have electricity.

I had the honor of working with Debby from 2006 to 2010 on the Tribal Rural Electrification Program we initiated under Arizona Governor Napolitano's administration. With thousands of donated solar panels from the ASU Photovoltaic Testing Laboratory, Debby delivered truckloads of panels to Native peoples in isolated communities throughout northern Arizona. She also took the time to educate them on what the panels could, and just as importantly, could not do.

With help from organizations like Grand Canyon Trust and other non-profits, funding was provided to obtain the balance of system costs and pay for installations.

It was from this history of bringing light to people living without it that Debby became known as "Light Bringer".

The last 40 years have been a long strange trip for those of us who have dedicated our professional careers to an alternative future. And, when the photos of the solar pioneers started flooding my news stream last week, I was pleased to see Debby's presence among this group. When the book of solar pioneers is written, it will be incomplete without a chapter about her and her contributions.

Jim Arwood
Communications Director
Arizona Solar Center

Question: Do you have a story of a solar pioneer that you would like to share?

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