5 week trip, day 3: Solar Living Center, Photos and History

This is one of the most inspirational stories I have ever come across. See ORIGIN STORY below.. What put me onto the story is the serendipitous fact that I happened to sit down next to the founders, John Schaeffer, and his wife Nancy, last night at dinner, without having any idea who they were! Little snippets came out in our conversation, which made me want to go back and see if there was anything on the website about the origins of the Solar Living Institute. Well, yes, there was!

But first, here’s some photos I took yesterday on my first full day at the Permaculture Convergence which inspired me in many ways, especially concerning the synergy between art and permaculture, and the ways that Californians, in the midst of  long term drought, have been inspired to create grey water systems. Hey Green Acres podmates! Check out Guerilla Greywater Girls Guide to Water. Here’s one photo of a woman, about my age, who became a plumber a long time ago, and hooked up with the Guerilla Girls. She is also an artist who works with land and water scapes, and came with a slide show that inspired me.


It turns out that because of the illegal grey water systems that the guerilla girls designed and installed, a new code (not sure whether city, county or state) was created that legalized it. Had the illegal actions not been taken, there would have been no demonstration sites to show what greywater systems can do! The Guerilla Girls have since changed their name to the more proper Greywater Action, and are now sought-after consultants!

The man on the left in the above photo had a number of great quotes. Here’s one: “We need ego system restoration. Think like a watershed.”

Otherwise, here’s my photo stream from yesterday of the place itself. Below that, see the Remarkable, continuously transformational story of the Solar Living Institute.


John Schaeffer told me that construction of the ponds was the very first thing they did when they bought the acreage, an old ruined brownfield. And they piled up the dirt next to Highway 101, to help mask sound.


Water to the ponds start up here, from an overflowing tank. Not sure where the water is sourced, or how it’s pumped uphill, most likely solar.


Water (and the wonderful sound of flowing water) then flows down in curving channels through the property . . .


. . . to end up here, in the ponds. See how it flows out of the old wooden channel on the left.


Hanging grapes above! (Signs ask visitors not to pick the ubiquitous fruit, because their fruit feeds the interns.)


Cob oven reminds me of the one we had to take down. We never did get to the cob seating area, though that’s still in the back of at least MY mind . . .


One of a number of cob structures.


The workshop yurt where I spoke with two others on the topic of “resilient neighborhoods” yesterday morning.

overview-2 overview-1

Now to the ORIGIN STORY.


1971-1978: John Schaeffer, 21 years old, graduates from UC Berkeley and moves to a back-to-the-land commune on 290 acres in Mendocino County. Real Goods (RG) is founded in Willits, CA by John to serve the needs of the local back-to-the-land community and to promote a more sensible, sustainable, and self-sufficient lifestyle. The very first solar panel in the United States is sold by Real Goods.

1980-82: An instant success, RG expands and opens stores in Ukiah and Santa Rosa.

1986: The new mail order business expands quickly and reaches $1 million in sales its first year.

1990: The 20th anniversary of Earth Day jumpstarts the environmental movement; solar, conservation, recycling suddenly become a national phenomenon.

1991: RG launches the first ever “Off-the-Grid Day” and coins the phrase “off-the-grid.” Over 10,000 people shut down their power for two hours all around the U.S. to understand their dependence upon the utility grid. RG pioneers the first “Direct Public Offering” and raises $3.6 million from its customers with the purpose of constructing the Solar Living Center (SLC) to create a demonstration site for practices of renewable energy, sustainable living, and the products sold by Real Goods.

1992: RG launches the “National Tour of Solar Homes” nationwide. Tens of thousands tour hundreds of solar homes. RG runs the tour for three straight years and then gives the program to the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) who runs it to this day.

1993: John Schaeffer and Jeff Oldham (project manager of the building of the SLC) are invited to meetings at the White House by President Bill Clinton to help in the “Greening of the Whitehouse.”

1994: The 12-acre property for the SLC is purchased. The barren site has only one tree, no water, and was previously utilized by the California Department of Transportation as a dumping ground for highway rubble. The first of over 40 consecutive Solstice Celebrations takes place on the site (see picture inside the store).

1996: Over twelve thousand people attend the three day grand opening of the SLC. RG is mailing seven million catalogs annually to educate people about the wisdom of solar living.

1998: With the SLC now completed, RG founds the Solar Living Institute (SLI) as a nonprofit organization. More than 5,000 students have completed SLI’s educational workshops and trainings, with over 30% securing jobs in the solar industry. Over 200 young idealists from all over the world have graduated the inspirational SLI internship program with many going on to secure important livelihoods in the sustainability and solar industries.

2000: Solar 2000, the 132 kilowatt solar array located along the south end of the site, is completed in just 8 weeks and becomes one of the largest arrays in Northern California.

2001-2003: John sells RG to Gaiam, a yoga and media company in Colorado, but stays on as President of RG for 15 years. RG launches its solar residential installation division, acquires smaller companies, and becomes a full service solar installer with 15 offices around the U.S. (2003 – 2011)

2005: The SLC endures the worst flood the site had seen in 150 years with over $150,000 worth of damage. RG customers and SLI members and supporters step up to help fund the complete site rebuild and a brand new intern village.

2014: John and his wife Nantzy Hensley buy the SLC back from RGS Energy in Colorado, making the business locally owned once again. Twenty years after being purchased, the site has gone through a complete transformation and rejuvenation.

2015: The new locally owned site and the new vision are launched in early 2015. An Observation Bee Hive is installed in the Real Goods store as the newest educational aspect of the site. A pollinator garden is built to help save and promote the bees up against colony collapse disorder. The Pedal Power Bicycle Generator station is finished and quickly becomes the SLC’s most popular attraction for visitors. Plans are underway for the new Cannabis/Solar Museum scheduled for 2016 to educate visitors on the healing properties of CBD Cannabis and how its history is synergistic with solar in Mendocino County. Construction of Emerald Pharms CBD Dispensary begins and has scheduled an opening in August 2016. The landscape is fully rejuvenated. The sculpture garden begins. And the employees are happy and fulfilled!

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