It isn’t very often that one gets a chance to talk with the people who started an important movement. I found the opportunity to interview Steven Strong, founder of Solar Design Associates (SDA), a memorable experience.
Steven, you founded SDA in the mid-1970s. What got you started so early?
I got interested in electricity early. My father was an electrician, and he took me to work with him. At eight years old, I was helping him rough wire homes. In high school, I took as many shop courses as I could, as they were the most interesting. This included four years of electronics as well as engineering drawing courses back when all engineering drawings were created on a drafting table. I then chose a college engineering program with a co-op work program that put ‘book learning’ into practice.
This provided me with a marketable skill set early on, and I landed a ‘to-die-for’ job as a junior engineer on the power systems engineering team supporting the Alaskan pipeline. We were responsible for powering the remote gate-valve equipment stations: essentially two-story-high, automated faucet valves that can isolate sections of the pipeline in the event of sabotage or a seismic event. There were 52 stations, each requiring stand-alone power systems.
The pipeline experience paid very well, and I learned a lot. However, going to the end of the earth to extract the last drop of fossil fuel wasn’t really where I wanted to be. I read about advances in photovoltaics (PV) and the vision of a renewable energy future became very compelling. I returned to Massachusetts with a bit of money and a lot of enthusiasm, started SDA, and enrolled in architecture school.
How did you get started? What were your early projects?
I started with solar thermal and stand-alone PV applications while also designing ultra-efficient residences with passive and active solar.
In 1977, SDA was asked to design a large-scale solar thermal system to supply domestic hot water to a 286-unit housing complex. The project developer was also keen on trying PV so we fielded one of the first grid-tied PV systems beyond the fence of a government lab to power the solar thermal pumps and controls. Since there were no guidelines on interfacing PV with the grid, I suggested that we reach out to the local utility for guidance. The project developer was not interested. After confirming the installation was complete, he threw the switch starting up the system. Afterward, he shared this: “Steven, something you should learn early in your career: It’s much easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.”
When the ribbon-cutting event came, the developers invited the usual dignitaries, the Mayor, Governor, Senator Kennedy, as well as executives from the utility. All speakers, including the utility representatives, went on about how innovative the project was. The utility folks made no mention about grid-tying the PV.
Shortly thereafter, the U.S. DOE was looking to field the first occupied solar residence fully powered by PV. SDA was retained to design the highly efficient house, integrate the solar systems and work with a builder to construct it. The Carlisle House – as it became known, received worldwide attention. It differed from earlier ‘behind the fence’ demonstrations as it was to be built on a private parcel and sold to a family after initial monitoring.
Boston Edison, the utility that served eastern Massachusetts, noticed all the interest the Carlisle house received and, in 1983, reached out to us to design and build another solar-powered residence. The “Impact 2000 House,” as it became known, was to be representative of how we would be living 20 years hence. In addition to a roof-integrated PV and solar thermal, features included passive solar gain, super insulation, internal thermal mass, air sealing, high-R glazing, ground-coupled heating and cooling and earth sheltering. It became the subject of a national TV series on PBS. Subsequently, Rodale Press invited me to write the book: “The Solar Electric House.”
New England Electric, the utility that served central MA, had seen all the notice the Impact 2000 House received and reached out in 1985 asking SDA to help them field the first solar-powered neighborhood. Their research engineers were interested in studying the impact of multiple small generation sources on their distribution network and selected Gardner, MA for the project. In addition to an entire neighborhood of rooftop PV, the initiative also included solar for the city hall, library, community college, a furniture retailer and the local Burger King. The ‘Gardner Project’ was well-publicized drawing interest, and tourists, from all over the world.
As we completed Gardner, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) was persuaded by citizen opposition to shut down their nuclear power plant – a clone of the infamous Three-Mile Island disaster. The citizens’ campaign promoted solar power as an alternative. In response, SMUD asked SDA to provide technical support in developing their solar program that included everything from residential rooftop to commercial, industrial, and utility-scale applications. After the SMUD solar effort got underway, multiple utilities asked us to help them to incorporate solar into their plans – including LADWP, TVA, NY Power Authority, Austin City Electric, Seattle City Light, So Cal Edison, San Diego G&E, and PG&E – among others.
That’s quite a start. You were responsible for a number of other solar firsts. Could you tell us about some of those?
With my interest in architecture, we focused on the integration of solar in buildings. We were responsible for the design of the first solar-powered Olympics. That was the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games. When complete, the system was the largest solar rooftop in the world.
Other notable firsts followed, including:
- 1st energy-positive academic facility (Oberlin College, Environmental Studies Center),
- 1st Major League Stadium to go solar (SF Giants’ AT&T Park),
- 1st Network TV studio to go solar (PBS),
- 1st zero-net energy college academic laboratory (UMass system),
- 1st solar- and wind-powered campus (MA Maritime), and
1st energy-positive multi-story office building (Bullitt Center, Seattle)
I understand you were involved with some other truly unique projects. What are some of those?
- There were the “Electric Sunflowers,” an early dual-axis tracer field, custom-designed for Robin Williams for his place in Napa, CA in the mid-90’s.
- A building-integrated “solar skin” for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Geneva – America’s first solar powered embassy.
- The giant Solar Cube for the Discovery Center in Santa Ana, CA.
- Powering the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia with solar, the first university planned from the ground up to be fully powered by solar.
The nation-wide rollout of BP’s solar powered gas stations from coast-to-coast, including early electric vehicle charging ports.
Looking back on your career, what other highlights stand out?
President Carter invited me to the celebratory ribbon cutting of the first solar system on the White House. I was very discouraged when it was removed by the next administration and promised myself, I’d work to get solar back on the White House. It took me two decades to secure the window of opportunity. In the end, we installed three solar systems – all in one week while the residents were away on summer holiday. We roof-integrated one of the systems making it difficult to remove.
Another high point was being appointed by the Clinton administration to serve as the U.S. representative to the International Energy Agency’s Expert Working Group on Solar – an appointment I held for seven years.
I was surprised and honored to be named “An Environmental Hero of the Planet” by TIME magazine.
And another was receiving the Abbot Award from the American Solar Energy Society and, subsequently, being made a Fellow of ASES.
Looking back to our humble beginnings, I’m pleased that SDA has been able to complete work in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, Canada and across the U.S. from Maine to Hawaii.
What do you see for the future of solar power?
The industry is rapidly expanding integration of energy storage with solar and wind. The advent of cost-effective storage is changing everything!
Much of our work incorporates storage. One of our early projects was a solar+storage plus generator hybrid system for a barrier island off the coast of Belize in 1994. Another was a solar/wind+storage hybrid that powers a private island in the Caribbean in 2006. We powered Cuttyhunk Island off the south coast of MA with a solar+storage plus generator hybrid system. [See GET’s article, “Cuttyhunk Island’s Microgrid,” in June 2018, https://bit.ly/3h9zalu.] We’re currently powering another Caribbean island as well as fielding two industrial micro-grids of 10 MWh each – one in Oregon and the other in Mexico.
We’re always looking to push the envelope. Another exciting current project is a solar plus storage micro-grid to power another island off the New England coast. The island’s been supplied by an under-sea cable nearly 40 years old that’s had issues and could fail at any time. We’ll couple this micro-grid with a novel new storage technology employing super capacitors in lieu of traditional battery technology. Their micro-grid will cost far less than a new cable and their island will be self-reliant.
When I started SDA, I hoped to see the day when renewables would become the lowest-cost option making a strong and compelling case for a clean energy future. The rapid ascension of storage has now made utility-scale renewables more attractive than all modes of conventional generation including gas plants. In areas with abundant renewable resources, the total capital and operating expensesof new utility-scale renewables is now lower than simply keeping fully depreciated coal plants open. In many applications, storage alone is even deferring or eliminating the need for new generation. Further cost reductions along with continued technical improvements in both renewable generation and energy storage are making renewables the best choice in the majority of utility-scale applications.