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Real Goods Founder John Schaeffer Interview with Greener Living Today

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John Schaeffer has been exploring renewable energy and sustainable living since graduating from UC Berkeley in 1971. He is considered a pioneer in the solar industry and founded Real Goods in 1978. John and his wife Nancy Hensley live in a passive-solar Rastra-block home they named Sunhawk. The house is built mostly from recycled materials amid a permaculture oasis powered by solar and hydro-electric.
He recently agreed to be interviewed by Greener Living Today.

Greener Living Today:
Can you fill us in on your background and how you started Real Goods?

John Schaeffer:
I started Real Goods in 1978. I graduated from UC Berkeley in 1971 and moved to an archetypical ‘hippie commune’ in the hills of Mendocino County in 1972 where I learned basic living skills. The commune was off all grids: electrical, water, sewage, social. We learned to grow vegetables, build houses from local materials, develop water systems, and to live in community with urban refugees from the SF Bay Area, LA, New York, etc. all seeking a simpler life in the country where they could make their own rules. We all came to believe that the USA would soon fall apart, that oil would go away, that economic systems would collapse, and that we needed to grow our own food for sustenance and create our own energy. This was 37 years ago. Fast forward to 2009 and see that much of these paranoid fantasies have come to fruition.

I got a job in 1976 as a computer operator for the County of Mendocino, at the County seat in Ukiah, back when one megabyte of storage took up a 400 square foot room. I printed welfare checks, tax bills, and accounts payable for the county. As I drove home each night from Ukiah to the commune after a day of buying basic living supplies for my community at a multitude of stores in Ukiah (supplies like chicken wire, kerosene lamps, books on composting, wood stoves, candles, etc.) I began to fantasize opening a store where all these new country living supplies could be purchased at one location to serve the burgeoning needs of the urban refugees who made up the new ‘back to the land movement.’

Real Goods was born in 1978 in Willits, California and did $1M in sales in the fist year. We opened #2 store in Ukiah in 1979 and #3 in Santa Rosa in 1981 which both did $1M their first years.

Greener Living Today:
We recently learned that you were the first company to sell a photovoltaic solar panel in the United States. That’s pretty impressive. Who bought it and in what year?

John Schaeffer:
In 1978, about six months after we opened our first store, we discovered a new technology called photovoltaics that heretofore were available only for the space industry when the utility companies could not figure out how to extend their wires into space. We bought about 100 each 9-watt PV solar modules and sold them for $900 each or $100 per watt (now PV is around $3/watt at cost). It didn’t need to be the cheapest technology, but it was the only technology that allowed the back-to-the-landers to electrify their homes as they were very tired of squinting with kerosene lamps as they read to their children at night. The panels sold like hotcakes and we garnered a wide reputation for them and began to advertise this new technology widely. There were many companies who followed suit after us and many would be competitors were seen in our store copying down names of manufacturers from our new ‘Alternative Energy’ department.

Greener Living Today:
It’s been over thirty years since everyone began considering solar and renewable energy options. In your opinion, why has it taken so long for the “Green Movement” to finally catch on?

John Schaeffer:
Our country and our species are pretty much addicted to instant gratification and have a very hard time recognizing long term benefit. Denial is the key human condition. Over the years as one environmental disaster or another from Three Mile Island Nuke meltdown, to the Exxon Valdez oil spill, to the early worries about global warming gradually penetrated group consciousness, our sales would temporarily spike as people began to see the need to ‘go green’ to save the planet. We sold solar from 1978 to 1999 as pretty much the lone ranger, or as one of only 10-25 companies. It was a thankless task, proselytizing constantly about the need for solar, recycling, composting, energy efficient lighting, and everything that made sense to a hard headed population stuck in denial. All of the solar we sold was ‘off-the-grid’ for necessity only for homes more than a mile from the utility, solar direct water pumping, and other remote applications.

In 1990 I recognized that global warming was the greatest threat to our species and we took on an initiative to prevent the production of one million pounds of carbon dioxide through our customers’ purchases of energy saving products by the year 2000. We publicized it on every catalog cover and everywhere possible including a thermometer at our new Solar Living Center. The idea was consistent with the adage “nothing measured, nothing managed.” By calling out the goal and the consciousness, we made a small but significant contribution to raising consciousness about global warming. By 1998 we succeeded in eliminating one billion pounds of CO2 three years ahead of schedule.

Greener Living Today:
Do your sales and installations mostly consist of solar or are you finding that there is a demand for other alternatives such as wind power?

John Schaeffer:
98% of our renewable energy sales are for solar power. Wind and hydro amount to 2% of overall sales. It is true that if you have enough wind and hydro electric potential these technologies are much cheaper than solar, but not many have this potential. I, for example, live in an off-grid with 17 kW of solar and a 1,500w hydro-electric plant. The hydro plant produces over 40 kWh per day when the seasonal creek runs, which is twice what the average American home uses, all for a total investment of less than $5,000 (including penstock, wire, hydro plant). The 17 kW solar array would normally cost as much as $100,000, so you can see the advantages to using hydro. Wind is similarly cheaper.

Greener Living Today:
What tax credits are available right now for consumers and are there any new credits on the horizon that we can look forward to?

John Schaeffer:
The incentives for customers are better than they’ve ever been. In October 2008, as part of the TARP bailout, the US congress approved 30% tax credits for renewable energy systems. This means citizens in every state of our nation can take 30% of the cost of their installed solar system off of their taxes. This is huge. On top of that many states like California, Colorado, Arizona, Oregon, New Jersey, New York and others have their own incentive programs to further reduce the cost of solar where together with the federal tax credit typically reduce costs down to half or less of retail price. This means that frequently the system pays for itself on day one because the value of the property increases more than the out of pocket cost. Also Real Goods has financing options which allow customers in some states to buy solar for no or very little money down and pay back at a lower monthly fee than they currently pay their electric company. This makes putting solar on your home pretty much a ‘no-brainer!’

Greener Living Today:
Your company has some very solid and ethical business principles in place. Can you go into that a little bit?

John Schaeffer:
Since 1978 when I founded Real Goods, it has always been of utmost importance to me that we treated our employees fairly and ethically. Also it’s critical that as a company we ‘walk our talk’ and don’t just preach the environmental gospel without living it. This is why we created the Solar Living Center in 1995, which puts all our environmental principals into practice with a 12 acre permaculture site that demonstrates renewable energy’s benefits and ease of use. Over two million visitors have come to the SLC and over 250,000 come every year to learn about renewable energy, permaculture, organic gardening, alternative transportation, and alternative fuels. Also we spun off the Solar Living Institute, a nonprofit, whose mission is to provide inspirational environmental education. The SLI delivers training in solar, alternative fuels, green building and is a leader in ‘green jobs’ development. It puts on Green Career Conferences and trains over 3,000 students every year.

Greener Living Today:
Do you think the new Obama administration will have a positive impact in regards to renewable energy here in the United States?

John Schaeffer:
It can help but being better than the previous Bush administration. The new administration talks the talk. The new stimulus package has lots of money for renewable energy, but we have not yet figured out how this can directly benefit us or our programs, but we’re working hard to figure it out. Even if the new administration only promotes and inspires us to free ourselves from oil, that will have a tremendous effect for us all. If it can do something serious about global warming, it will make its mark.

Greener Living Today:
When we interviewed Ed Begley, Jr. he mentioned your name a few times. How long have you known him and how did you meet?

John Schaeffer:
Ed and I met at an early renewable energy fair in Willits back in the late 1980’s. I’ve always admired Ed’s commitment to the renewable energy and sustainable living movements. Early on Ed refused to fly as it used up fossil fuels at an alarming rate and he would drive his electric cars or hybrids very long distances to make his point. He was one of the first to solarize his house. Ed was on the board of the Solar Living Institute for many years and we collaborated frequently with him coming to SolFest many times. He will always be the ‘greenest’ actor in Hollywood in my book as his is the only authentic one who is truly green in his heart. We’re putting Ed on a few of our catalog covers soon. It’s great to see the world catching up to his ideas with his popular TV show and new found fame!

Greener Living Today:
In closing, for people who want to start making green changes, what recommendations or suggestions do you have?

John Schaeffer:
It’s all so simple. Start by reading our Solar Living Sourcebook, the 600+ page bible of renewable energy and sustainability. It will get you started. Examine the way you live, the way you eat, the way you get around, the way you create and use your energy. Take the simple conservation steps first. For every $1 you spend on conservation you save $5 on your solar system. Always better to address your demand side before your supply side. After you’ve done all the simple steps like recycling, light bulb conversion, eliminated drafts in your house, converted to rechargeable batteries and to a demand-type water heater, then think of big steps like buying a hybrid or biodiesel car, putting up a solar hot water heating system, and converting to photovoltaics for your energy production. The average American emits directly or indirectly 40 tons of carbon dioxide every year. Scientific wisdom says we’ll need to reduce that by 80% if we have a prayer of getting global warming under control. The steps I’ve outlined will get you there and will get you there right away. It’s so simple; there just can’t be any other way.  Now go out and turn inspiration into action!

More information regarding Real Goods can be found at their website located at:
http://www.realgoods.com

To find out more about Real Goods Solar, visit:
http://www.realgoodssolar.com

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