Friday, June 13, 2014

How did the PV Bulk Buy start?

In the 1970s, I was living off-grid in the Boston Mountains of the Arkansas Ozarks. I did some PV module group purchases in 1979, but the first PV Bulk Buy was August 1980 when I bought 58 Arco Solar 33-watt modules from Steve Baer at Zomeworks. 4 modules were added to my PV system and rest were for a few other people in northwest Arkansas.

In 1981, I presented a paper about my PV powered home at the International Solar Energy Society (ISES) Conference in Philadelphia. At that conference, I met Paul Maycock, Karl Boer, Stephen Strong, and several other PV pioneers. I also met Rodale Press editor, Michael LaFavore. In the Summer of 1981, Michael visited my home and wrote an article about it in the November 1981 issue of Organic Gardening magazine. See http://www.solarsolar.com/solarog.html

Michael’s article encouraged more than 900 people to write to me asking how they could start using PV. Hundreds more people wrote to me after reading about my PV system and the PV Bulk Buy in Solar Age magazine, Christian Science Monitor, Progressive Architecture, Mother Earth News, and other publications. By the end of 1981, I was organizing regular PV Bulk Buys and shipping more than 100 of the “new high-power" Arco Solar 35-watt modules at $375 per module including UPS charges. By today’s standards, this would be a small order of very expensive solar modules, but in 1981 less than $11/watt was the lowest price for do-it-yourselfers.

My supplier, Steve Baer, told me to buy directly from his distributor and introduced me to William Lamb. Bill Lamb was friends Bill Yerkes who founded Solar Technology International in 1975. Atlantic Richfield bought Yerkes PV company in 1978 and renamed it Arco Solar making Wm. Lamb Company the world’s first PV wholesale distributor.

By January 1982, my PV Bulk Buy mailing list had grown to almost 3,000 people and I had switched from mailing almost monthly letters to everyone to publishing The PV Network News on newsprint to announce regular Bulk Buys and share info with do-it-yourselfers.

The PV Network continued to grow as word spread about the PV Bulk Buys. March 1982, Bill Lamb invited me to California to tour Arco Solar’s factory located in Chatsworth at that time. Bill and the Arco Solar people were big supporters of the PV Bulk Buy and gave me an Apple II computer to facilitate publishing the PV Network News. I couldn’t resist opening the computer chassis and connecting my home’s 12-volt DC PV system directly to the computer’s DC circuitry. In those days, PV pioneers were opening radios, tvs, record turntables, tools and other 120-volt AC equipment to bypass input transformers and connect equipment directly to their PV systems.

By the Fall of 1982, I was regularly shipping more than 1,600 Arco Solar modules to do-it-yourselfers all over the United States but mostly in California. I wanted to offer another brand solar module so I contacted John K., who was working for Photowatt, a French company with a PV module assembly factory in Arizona. John liked the bulk-buy idea as did David K., a PV equipment distributor, so we did a Photowatt module Bulk Buy shipped from David’s shop in northern California. Later, I also offered Kyocera modules.

My Ozark home was off-grid with no phone and the only way to communicate with me was by mail. I didn't to deal with personal checks so people had to pay for their PV modules with cashier’s checks or postal money orders sent to my Pettigrew, Arkansas General Delivery address. This was old-style mail-order. (Remember the ads in magazines and back of comic books?) People were very trusting. I don’t think this could happen nowadays because rip-off artists have just about killed people’s trust.

I lived several miles from the paved roads or as locals would say “so far back in the woods that I used hoot-owls for roosters.” Once a week, I would drive my truck or ride my horse to the post office in Pettigrew to get my mail and the PV Bulk Buy orders. Back then, Pettigrew was just a 12x12 feet post office where the spit-and-whittle old-timers met, a general store, a few houses, a repair shop with a trailer home out back, and a junkyard full of rusting cars and trucks. Pettigrew is still just a little settlement on Route 16 near the mouth of the White River in the beautiful Arkansas Ozarks.

Once a week, I would drive to the bank in Huntsville, Arkansas to convert Bulk Buy checks and money orders into one big cashier’s check and then mail it along with people's shipping addresses to Bill Lamb in North Hollywood (not "Hollywood") California. Bill would ship the modules promptly and everyone was happy. Back then Huntsville, the Madison County seat, had about 1,200 inhabitants and the county was the 2nd poorest in the 2nd poorest state (they use to say "thank god for Mississippi"). Today, Huntsville has about 2,400 people and Arkansas is the 3rd poorest state. Madison County remains poor.

Interestingly, those early PV Bulk Buy modules are still producing solar electricity. See http://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/blogs/dept/musings/testing-thirty-year-old-photovoltaic-module

In November 1982, after living in the Ozarks for 10 years, I decided to give up subsistence living and do what I could to make society better. Bill Lamb encouraged me to return to Los Angeles where had lived 1966 when I got out of the Army until 1970 when I moved to Oakland, California. LA in the 1960s was fantastic. I had a wonderful time. I liked the weather, the beaches and the people so I returned to LA LA Land and worked as Bill’s sales manager until he died in 1987. During that time, the PV industry grew rapidly thanks to Jimmy Carter’s pro-solar policies. Ronald Reagan’s anti-solar policies killed the federal tax credit for solar December 1985, but PV had taken root and nothing could stop its growth.

George Orwell's 1984 did not happen as predicted. In fact, 1984 was a great year for me. I was so busy selling PV that I asked Paul Wilkins, a New Mexico PV pioneer, to take over the PV Network News. Paul continued sharing PV information until he died in 2010. Also in 1984, Fran and I got married and we bought our home. That same year, the defunct National Energy Journal awarded me Solar Man of the Year and Greg Johanson and I built the solar vehicle that established the Guinness World Record category and started the international pastime of solar car racing. See http://www.solarsolar.com/suncar.html


I was fortunate to have caught the PV wave of the future at the right time and have worked on a lot of interesting PV projects with some wonderful people. I no longer sell PV equipment, but I still like to work on interesting solar projects so email if you need a PV expert.

Joel Davidson
solar@solarsolar.com

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