Published on
the New York Times

For a Devotee of Solar Energy, a Shot at Earning Respect

J. Michael Kennedy

TACOMA, Wash. - The sun was shining for a change, which was good news for Richard Thompson, known throughout these parts as Solar Richard. 1027 02
"Pennies from heaven," Mr. Thompson said as his electric meter spun round - in reverse.

Not that a shining sun is required for the meter to spin backward. An overcast sky does the job. The meter just spins a bit more slowly.

That would be the meter attached to Mr. Thompson's house, painted sunshine yellow with a large solar panel out front next to the bedraggled remains of giant sunflowers - "organic solar trackers," he calls them.

In the driveway sits Mr. Thompson's ancient diesel-powered Volkswagen, with "Electricity From the Sun, Duh" emblazoned on one side. A solar-powered motor scooter sits next to two decrepit phone booths that are reminders of his past.

Not that many years ago, Solar Richard was simply Richard Thompson, a working stiff trying to make a buck. But since he began powering his home completely with solar power in 2001, he has been transformed into a certified character in this port city just south of Seattle. He is recognized on the street. He gives talks on solar energy to grade schools, and last February he traveled to Nigeria to address a conference on solar matters. His message is always the same: solar energy will save the planet, but the planet needs to get going.

"We could take out all the dams because we wouldn't need them," he said. "We could take out the nuclear plants and the coal-burning plants."

At Mr. Thompson's urging, the new mile-long Tacoma Narrows Bridge is on its way to being lighted with solar power, a project toward which the state has contributed $1.5 million. And if all goes as planned, there will be electricity left over to feed back into the city's power supply.

Then, Mr. Thompson said, maybe he will get some respect. Maybe people will stop asking for free advice, like how many panels it would take to heat their house, and instead pay for his expertise. Maybe he will not have to eke out a living powering strawberry festivals and beer fest bands.

After all, he is not getting any younger, having, he said, passed the 60 mark a few years back. "If these are the golden years," he said, "oh, man."

As the bridge was being built, construction workers put up electric work lights, then added to their handiwork with multiple colors for the holidays and blue for the Seattle Seahawks' trip to the Super Bowl last year.

The idea of lights on the bridge took hold in Tacoma, which led to a meeting of well-heeled activists. Mr. Thompson showed up. And while he was widely known in solar circles by then, he was not exactly a household name in Tacoma, solar panels in his front yard notwithstanding.

"I didn't have a clue" who he was, said Desa Gese Conniff, a lawyer who has become the group's spokeswoman. "But once he started opening his mouth, you found out the passion he has for green sources of energy."


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Since then, the scope of the bridge lighting project has expanded, including the idea of generating enough excess solar power to contribute to a requirement that 10 percent of the energy produced in the state be green.

"I get to build something that will put Tacoma on the map," Mr. Thompson said.

His father was in the Air Force, he said, so he grew up with a somewhat itinerant life. He spent some time in college in Florida, tried his hand at installing solar-heated pools, moved to Tacoma two decades ago and for years made his living installing and collecting money from pay telephones, a business that failed.

"It was fun until the advent of cellphones," Mr. Thompson said. "Now I've got pay phones in the garage. I've got them in the basement and the attic."

But he never lost his fascination with the power of the sun, and in 2001 he succeeded in running his small three-bedroom Craftsman-style home on solar energy, using the huge panel he plopped down in the front yard.

He has traded small solar systems to Brazilian missionaries in need of a dependable power source, getting plenty of good coffee in return. And to make a little money, he began selling low-voltage Christmas lights and providing electricity for events using solar batteries.

His work brought him to the attention of David Gilmour, a retired professor at the University of Puget Sound who was planning to build a home in Idaho.

With some trepidation, Mr. Gilmour said, he hired Mr. Thompson to equip the house for solar energy. After spending $70,000 for parts and labor, Mr. Gilmour's home also has reverse meter readings, along with plenty of hot water and a heated floor.

"It works very well," he said, adding that he had learned Mr. Thompson's strengths and weaknesses, including a generous nature, a short fuse and terrible business acumen.

"He's an old hippie," Mr. Gilmour said. "He's irascible and can get angry quickly at people's lack of information.

"It's because of so many years of frustration," he added. "But he's only concerned about the world finally getting savvy."

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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