The Train Has Left the Station: Solar Power is Here to Stay

STEWART, Ohio – My last GEO outing before the shutdown was a visit to Athens, where I sat down at Little Fish Brewery with Gary Easton, Owner and President of Appalachian Renewable Power Systems.  Neither of us knew what would transpire in the coming months, the changes that would take place for companies and nonprofits across the state.  Solar installations were delayed, and GEO events were postponed.  Gary and I reconnected by phone last week, as he was planning to ease back into business.

Living the Environmental Ethic

Gary has always had a strong environmental ethic and has lived accordingly.  Before he moved to Athens in 1998, he was living in a cabin off the grid in northern Ohio, working in the family construction business.  His first home in Athens was powered exclusively by a 300-watt solar system.  It wasn’t until six years later, in 2006, that he upgraded to a 3000-watt grid-tied system. The house was featured on the 2005 Ohio Solar Tour – the Tour program described it as “a hybrid system of 300-watt panels with a 1500-watt inverter and a wind turbine.” It went on to say that “this family of four is able to enjoy a fairly normal lifestyle, including a computer run solely off solar/wind power.”

Building a Business

Gary continued to work construction and founded a small business called the Sustainable Shelter Co.  Gary also began working for Dovetail Solar and Wind, earned his NABCEP certification and, in 2008, founded Appalachian Renewable Power.  In the 12 years since, ARP Solar has grown to 15 employees servicing Ohio, West Virginia, and western Pennsylvania.  Gary attributes the company’s growth to the quality of their product and their relationships with clients. He has never advertised heavily, engaging in “modest marketing campaigns” and relying on customer referrals and social media to spread the word.

In a highly competitive business, Gary believes that collaboration can be beneficial.  He explains it this way: “I have always felt cooperation is very important since more solar is better. I have never looked at other solar companies as competition because I feel this work is truly critical and there is no time for that or for short sided profiteering. We are on the front line of the revolution.”

When asked about the role that public policy plays in the solar industry, Gary admitted that government support for the industry is a huge factor, especially at the federal level.  “We need political will in the response to climate change” he said, and too often that has been absent. 

Taking Solar Worldwide

Just as he sees the benefits that solar energy can bring to Appalachian communities, Gary understands the difference that safe, cost effective, and reliable power can make in developing nations.  In 2016, he embarked on his first overseas project through the Ohio-based and mission-driven organization Sonlight Power.  Sonlight Power has worked in 19 countries and installed more than 200 projects through the work of over 350 volunteers. Gary’s group installed solar panels on schools built for the children of sugar plantation workers in the Dominican Republic.   Sugar plantations are much like the old coal towns of Appalachia, where workers are housed together and dependent on the company for services like education. Through Sonlight Power, they were able to improve the learning environment for hundreds of children.  

More recently he joined with Pickering Energy Solutions and Global Health Ministries to bring solar power to remote clinics in Liberia, replacing expensive and environmentally harmful diesel generators at some sites and installing at other clinics that had previously had no electric at all.  Hospitals have been forced to add a “diesel charge” on to patients’ bills, which further reduced the likelihood that local citizens would seek medical care.  A major goal is to leave behind a level of expertise needed to maintain to the systems.  “We have a team of locals that we train to do most of the work and keep the systems working. That is a big part of the vision. The ‘teach them to fish’ concept.” He has spent the bulk of his time both in the country and later remotely engaged in training and helping to trouble shoot issues.  They were able to completer three hospital systems on the last trip.  “We have some larger 3-phase systems (micro grids) planned for installation in September that are larger versions of the systems we currently have in country. They will provide power to three larger hospitals.”  Although his plans to return earlier this year were changed by the pandemic, he still hopes to make the trip this fall.   

Gary believes that “the train has left the station” on renewable resources, and that the clean energy movement will continue to spread in the US and around the world.  The question is whether it will happen fast enough for those who see climate impacts coming more and more quickly.

By Jane Harf