INTERVIEWEE: Gary Vliet (GV)
INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT) and David Weisman (DW)
DATE: February 22, 2008
LOCATION: Austin, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Melanie Smith and Robin Johnson
REELS: 2396 and 2397
Please note that the recording includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Numbers mark the time codes for the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera conversation or background noise, unrelated to the interview.
DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. We’re in Austin, Texas and we’re at the home of Gary Vliet, who worked with the University of Texas as a professor of mechanical engineering and has been a leading proponent and a teacher of solar energy technology there and—and as well through the Texas Solar Energy Society that he helped found and lead and through textbooks that he’s written and we’re looking forward to learning more about that today.
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DT: I wanted to thank you for taking time to—to talk to us.
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GV: Thank you for coming.
DT: Sure. I think it’s interesting that solar energy is a free thing that is often neglected as a good source of energy and I was curious if there is a place in your childhood where you might have gotten some sort of attitude that gave you respect for not wasting things or that gave you some sort of instinct about conservation ethic. Where would you think you started to have an interest in these kinds of issues?
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GV: Yeah, you were—I—I was—that was a question you’d asked and I had written down and I got thinking about it. I think probably from a—really probably from growing up in—in a rural community, on a farm and a ranch, and my father was a fairly frugal person—I think our family was fairly frugal—just sort of maybe the frugality. We—you know, we weren’t poor, but—but we were just sort of frugal, I guess. And maybe I think the discipline that it—I went into in mechan—in engineering, chemical engineering first and then mechanical engineering and we learn a lot about thermodynamics and the limits of things and I think that probably fostered my, you know, my being conservative in that re—in that respect.
DT: I understand that you went to the University of Alberta and then later to Stanford. Were there professors or colleagues or other students there that might’ve shared your interest in this same sort of attitude about the environment and about technological solutions to…?
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GV: Well, I—I can’t really think of anybody—anybody specific, but I do remember that in—in high school and in college, you know, I really had great—great teachers. So—but I can’t really single anybody out, any particular person. But I think I—I—I mean, it’s fortunate having—really having good teachers and going to good—you know, I think I went to a good high school. We had good education in Alberta and—and Stanford and the University of Alberta were both good—good places to go to school.
DT: You joined the Department of Mechanical Engineering at University of Texas in 1971 and then in ’75, I understand, you offered your first course that touched on solar energy. Is that right?
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GV: Yes, actually, I—I’m in—I’m in the—in mechanical engineering, a lot of people have a sort of misconception of it being—as being mechanics, but in—one of the divisions of mechanical engineering is the—is the solar—is the—not the solar, but is the thermal sort of thrust and thermodynamics and heat transfer and fluid mechanics. And so, you know, solar energy wasn’t such—such a strange things for—thing for me. But they had the Arab oil embargo in 1973 and—and, you know, there were long lines at the pump and I’m not—thinking back, I’m not sure exactly why I decided to offer this course, but—but I did and there really wasn’t much available. There were, you know, there’s smatterings of things in newspapers and journals and
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there were some—some books, but not really good textbooks out there. And so I sort of cobbled things together and—and made, you know, and offered the first course, which looking back at it probably wasn’t that good. [Laughs] But anyway, I taught it.
DT: Well, tell me about the outline of the course back then and the sort of students that might have signed up to take it.
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GV: Well, I think the first time I taught it, I taught it as a graduate course, to graduate students and so they were graduate students in either mechanical engineering or electrical engineering, as I recall. And some undergrad—some—it was sort of a s—graduate, senior level course and—and really, I spent very little time on—on solar cells or panels, you know, photovoltaics. At that time, you know, of course, everybody knew about that but it was really not a very—it wasn’t a very affordable technology. And so mainly it was solar thermal, like solar water heating and pool heating and house heating and—and, of course, just about the nature of
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solar energy itself. I think people have to recognize that solar energy, you know, when you build or design a solar energy system, you have to be very—you just have to understand what their so—what your so—what your source is because the source has got certain characteristics. It’s not like an oil well, you know, where you can just keep pumping until it runs out, of course. But, you know, the—the—the sun is—is—has seasonal variations, it has, you know, nocturnal ar—variations, day to night. It—it varies due to weather. So it has all those kind of characteristics, plus for example, solar energy has, you know, there’s the parallel beam, parallel light. We call it beam energy or direct energy and then there’s diffuse energy coming from the sky and all these things tend to affect the devices or systems that you’re going to use to try to
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capture it and use it. So I spent, you know, a fair amount of time just talking about the solar resource, but then the rest of it was on—the rest of it was on solar thermal. And I would spend a few times on some related things. You know, I’d maybe have a—a lecture or somebody come in and talk about wind energy. I had—I have—there’s a fellow from West Texas A & M, Vaughn Nelson, who is very knowledgeable about that. He’s—he’d spoken to my class a number of times. I’d often have an architect come in, talk about passive—passive design. I think I had some—one time I had somebody come in and talk—talk about biomass. But I really didn’t stress much about photovoltaics. There was a fellow in my first class, Bob Gunn, who was in electrical engineering, and he knew a lot more about photovoltaics than I did. But I didn’t really spend much time on it at that time. But then I did later on.
DT: Well, maybe you could just walk us through briefly the, I think there are three or so major ways to capture and convert solar energy. I think you mentioned them earlier when we were visiting. The solar collector and then the PV panels and then some of these power tower arrangements. Maybe you can talk about some of the tools of the trade that you had.
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GV: Well, first of all, there’s sort of, you know—the—I guess there’s a—I’d just say there’s classical solar energy, which I’ll talk more about to answer your question. But then there are other forms. You know, wind energy is driven by the sun and plants are grown by the sun. Hydropower, you know, that—that’s—comes from rainfall. Evaporation, all those things are solar driven. Wave energy. But in terms of classical solar energy, there are a number of—you know, a lot of different ways you could use it and the way that most people think about solar energy now is they’ve got—they think of solar panels or photovoltaics or PV cells and—which are the most common things now you see on roofs. But there—there’s the other way
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you can use solar energy. You can—you can heat water, for example, in a flat plate type of collector and use that for washing or you can heat air in air collectors. But then what you are referring to are some other, more advanced types of collectors, like the power tower or central receiver, and what this is is basically a—a—a—it’s typically a tall tower, maybe a couple hundred feet tall, with a receiver at the top where the energy—where the solar radiation impinges. And then scattered on the field all around this is—are a bunch a what they call heliostats, which are basically just mirrors—sometimes they’re slightly curved—but you can sort of think of them as flat mirrors and you got literally maybe thousands of those, you know, one, two,
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three thousand of these heliostats all reflecting energy to the—this central spot on the top of the tower, which would be called the power tower or central receiver. And then that energy’s absorbed and then you can either boil water with it directly in the tower, which is the first way they did it out in California, or later on, they ca—they circulated molten salt up to the tower to absorb the energy and then—and produced the steam down on a—in a generator down below. But then the steam tur—the steam goes to a turbine and the turbine drives the generator and you produce electricity in that way. So that’s—that’s one of the—that method is—is one that requ—typically, you’d think of it as a central power station because, economically, it
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becomes—the economics get poorer and poorer as you make it smaller and smaller. So typically those—those systems would be, you know, possibly hundreds of megawatts, something like that. Tens to hundreds of megawatts. Then there are other methods, for instance, what they call a parabolic trough collectors, where you have a, you know, a parabolic reflector—linear in this direction but parabolic in this direction—and you run a—an absorber down the focal line and you orient these collectors to—to—to track the sun so the sun’s rays are impinging on the absorber. And then you run fluid through the absorber to—either you could run water through it and boil it or you could run, say, typically in California, the one they typically use some kind of hoil it—an oil, heat transfer oil and that’s heated up and then it goes to a generator and—and steam is produced and that s—that steam drives a turbine
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which drives a generator and produces electricity. And I should mention on the power tower—on the power tower, the first one I talked about, the central receiver where you have all these heliostats, they are all—as the sun goes across the sky, they’re all oriented, they’re all tracked or moved so that all of—all of those beams fall on the central receiver at the top. There are a number of other—there’s lots of other methods. There’s a thing called dish sterling, a sterling engine is a type of—of engine that runs on—a heat engine, runs in the—typically sometimes called a hot air engine or a sterling engine. And the dish sterling is different in the sense that typically you’ll have a sterling engine at—a sterling engine at the focal point of a circular receiver, reflector. So you have this huge, large circular mirror that has a
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parabolic shape to it and then it’s actually tracked so that it—so that it follows the sun so that all the rays are focused into the—into—into the throat of the—of the sterling engine. There are other methods, which have been talked about. There is one that’s sort of interesting. It’s ca—I don’t think—the exact word—the wor—the (inaudible) the word is, excuse me, but—what it—what it really is is a tall—it’s a tall chimney. It’s like a—just a really, really tall chimney, could be couple hundred feet tall. And then surrounding the chimney is like a—is—are acres of—of essentially a glass roof. And then what happens is the sun passes through the glass roof and (?) the glass, heats the surrounding soil and the air in it and the air then moves towards
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this—to—towards the tower—to the—this—this tower and in the tower, you have turbines. And so as the air rushes up the tower, these turbines turn and you can generate power that way. Th—there’s lots of different ways to do that and, of course, the—but the most direct way is photovoltaics, or solar cells.
DT: And can you outline how those…(misc.)
DT: When we left off earlier, you were just telling us about photovoltaic cells. I was wondering if you could talk about some of the theory and the practical aspects of how those are designed and made?
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GV: Mmm hmm. Well, c—photovoltaic cells, or PV cells are—I—I’m not an expert in that area, but you know, I basically understand them and know how to use them in systems. But, well, effectively, what—what a photovoltaic cell does is the cell, as a—it’s a semiconductor material with a—with a—with a so-called junction region in it that creates an elect—that—that creates a static electric field. And then when the photons in the sun impinge on the device, they free electrons. And then these electrons, since there’s a static electric field there, the electrons actually are—migrate through the cell into the external circuit and then through the lode and that’s where you get your power. And they are—well, they’re probably in—in the fifteen to
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twenty percent range in terms of efficiency nowadays and they’ve really been pretty much like that for—they’ve gradually—it’s gradually—efficiency’s gradually gone up. And when I talk about efficiency, I’m talking about the commercial efficiency with the kinds you buy, that are sold commercially. Now you’ll find that—you’ll read articles where—I think there’s a recent one about a Sandia Laboratories cell that came out that’s like forty or forty-five percent efficient, but these are small laboratory devices and some of them, you know, some of them will end up—they’ll be able to get the cost down, but usually when you hear about these things, these are not—they’re—they’re s—several years away from—from being commercial, if they ever are and—because the question is really—is really economics. To give you an example, when—
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when General Motors participated in the World Solar Challenge in 1997 in Australia, they built the solar car and it’s called Sunrayce and—and—or Sunraycer, I guess it was. And they built the car and they used gallium arsenide cells and gallium arsenide c—m—most cells are silicon based, but this is gallum ars—gallium arsenide cells. And those cells were, I think, somewhere in the tw—twenty-five or maybe even a little bit more percent efficient. So they were twenty-five percent efficient. The cost of the cells for the car was something in the order—it was more than a half a million dollars. So now some of—there were other cars that were there, that were competing that had silicon cells on them, that—where they—people probably paid
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ten thousand dollars or five thousand dollars. So you can see that there’s a big difference between—even though the gallium arsenide are twenty—were twenty-five or so percent efficient, you could still get fifteen percent efficient cells for, you know, one hundredth the cost or one fiftieth the cost. So the economics is—is—is—is very important.
DT: I guess the last kind of technology I was hoping you could explain to us, at least in general lay terms, is the solar collector, this basic idea of having this box with some sort of heat exchanger.
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GV: Oh, yes. Well, actually I have—I have something here that sh—this is sort of a s—a model of one, but when we talk about solar thermal applications, typically all we’re really doing is taking the sun’s rays and absorbing the rays on a surface and transferring that typically to a fluid, air or water or gly—a water glycol solution and then circulate it maybe to a storage tank. Or if it’s a—a space heating system, you could—you could heat air and—and deliver it directly to the living space. Anyway, this is a—this is a sample of it and—and all you do is, typically, this shows the four or five components. First of all, you have a black surface, a blackened surface, which usually it—a—a good thermal conductor also. And in this case, I think it’s a piece of
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aluminum with some black paint on it and—and you circulate water or a fluid through this, it comes up through these—through these passages and comes out the top. And—and so cooler fluid comes in the bottom and warm fluid comes out the top. You have it glazing on the front or a gl—piece of glass, transplant material called gl—we call it glazing or covers. And—and then on the back—on the back, we have inner box and then you have some insulation on the back. So typically it consists of the absorber panel, fluid passages, glass or a transparent cover on the front, a box and some insulation. And so these are typically—these are typically what’s used in a, say, a solar water heater, which I have on my roof and a lot of other people have.
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And that’s actually fairly cost effective, probably the payback period for solar water heating, probably in the ten to fifteen year range, something like that. And with a—for example, with a federal tax credit of, say, thirty percent now, and Austin Energy has some very attractive credit also, a rebate actually. This brings the cost down to—to what would be, you know, acceptable, a reasonable payback for people, so.
DT: I’d be intrigued to know how some of these technologies have changed since you started being involved in the field more than thirty years ago.
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GV: Well, some of them have changed. You know it’s—there’s a lot of change and yet there isn’t much change. It’s—depends on the technology. The basic solar water heater, for example, is, for all practical purposes, has not changed very much. What has changed in that regard is I think the products are better. They’re more reliable. You know, somewhat more efficient, but I think the reliability is the big thing. They’ve got better materials, better glazing, better adhesives, better insulations and things like that. And so there’s—they’re somewhat the same. The thing that changed a lot—the thing that’s changed mostly has been the photovoltaics or solar panels, the quote solar panels (inaudible) produce electricity. And when I started teaching my class, as I’d mentioned, I didn’t really even spend much time on that. I
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had one of my students in the class actually talk about it, he was electrical engineer. I didn’t—and there really wasn’t—partly because the photovoltaics at that time was pretty expensive so it wasn’t really—it wasn’t really economical for people to buy them and use them. Now actually they’ve—the efficiency has gotten consi—you know, significantly better. It’s up in the fifteen percent, twenty percent range, but the main thing is the cost has come down due to the number of just better manufacturing techniques, more mass production, although it’s still—it’s getting to be—it’s getting to be the point of—it’s getting to sort of the point of mass production now. But it’s still, when you think about it, it’s still pretty small, you know, compared to some of the other things that we make—bicycles and cars and things
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like that. It’s still—it’s still a pretty small industry. The—but that’s changed a lot, so that’s probably the biggest—been the biggest change. And when you ask most people about, you know, what—what do they think about solar energy or solar—solar collectors, they mainly think about photovoltaics. They think about electricity, I think partly because, you know, our society is very electricity based and the other thing, I think there’s something just a little bit technically cool about photovoltaics. It’s, you know, it’s a little bit—it’s a little sexy and I think people sort of like that. You know, it’s basically—it’s a simple device. You know, it’s got no moving parts, you know, the solar energy comes in and electricity comes out and—and it does have a lot of good features. So—but that’s what most people think about when they—they don’t think of solar water heaters or solar space heating or solar cooling or even
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some of the other things that we could do. Like we could, you know, dry clothes on a line like we used to do, which—and—and the other thing I should mention is—is—is the whole area of buildings. The passive design and building buildings properly. Some of these—some of these involves di—solar energy directly, for example. Orienting a house so that you have an overhang. For instance, in our part of the—the world where we—in the South, we have a—a big overhang in the summer—on the south side to shade south facing windows. Don’t put too many windows on the west side where you get a lot of direct gain in the late afternoon. Have a good ventilated attic, possibly. Shade trees. Some of these things work against some of the other—other technologies. For example, y—you liked a—if you have a tree that’s ver—very valuable to you, if you put a solar collector, a photo—PV collector or a
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solar panel on your roof, a little bit of shading will really—really knock—knock its performance down. So what do you do? Do you cut down the tree and put a PV panel on your roof? Absolutely not. You keep the tree and—and—because you can save—you know, it’s more valuable to you for shade than it is—than—than in that—in any area you could put on the roof to produce electricity.
DT: You’ve told us a little bit about the different technologies, both the active solar and the passive solar ideas that you might find in a green built house. Maybe you could talk now about trying to pass on these ideas to your students, either in class or through the textbook that you wrote. I’d be curious to know, you know, what you’re trying to teach them and what sort of response you got from them over the course of teaching this more than thirty years?
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GV: Yeah, the—the enrollment probably varied from—from probably up in the thirties in a class—you know, the low thirties maybe in a class to the—I remember one time it got down—we—we typically have a requirement you have to have ten to make a class and I think one time it got down to eight or nine and—and—but they made an exception for it and went ahead and did it because there’s—those students were interested in taking it. I think it was—it’s sort of a mixed thing. A lot of people—a lot of students were just sort of taking it just because it was a—it was a—an elective and it was sort of something different and it was—they were—had a curiosity about it but not—didn’t have any real—didn’t really—I don’t think they had
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thought of it as a vested interest, whereas other students really—they really—they really, you know, they took the class because they thought they—that’s—that’s what they wanted to do or they wanted to work on that area. Unfortunately over the last thirty years, except for a couple of periods, but most of the time over that time, there hadn’t been a lot of jobs in solar—in solar energy. Back in the period from maybe the late seventies to maybe mid-eighty-five, which was a fairly area of high interest in solar, there were, you know, not a lot of jobs, but there were—there were a number of jobs out there. But then there was a big decline in the late eighties and—and—until just recently and there haven’t been a lot of jobs available for solar. But a number of students that I’ve had have—well, not just solar—gone on and done a lot of other great things, too. But I can think of—there’s a—a woman, Leslie Libby,
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who’s with Austin Energy who is a—a graduate student of mine and she’s been working in solar energy in—now entirely in pretty much all of her time and spends—is spent in solar energy at Austin Energy and she’s a great person. Also is a—is a—is a black belt in Aikido, so I joke with her that—and told her that I probably wouldn’t have passed her except that she would’ve busted my arm. And Mike Sloane has a small company in town called—it’s a—it’s called Vertis Energy. He’s—it’s a consulting company, mainly in solar and wind energy. And another fellow, Mike Hart, has a company called Energy Engineering Associates in town, which is not in—not solar, but it’s in—it’s in building archa—architectural engineering or it’s, you know, looking
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at building energy needs and—and delivering energy to buildings and trying to do it conserve it—in a conservative way. He has a company with, I don’t know, sixty or seventy people here in town and so he’s been very successful. And just al—there’s a lot of students out there, I—I think that that’s probably one of the good—that’s—that’s one of the good feelings I have is that there’s—there’s students out there that, you know, that have sort of the—some basic knowledge of solar energy and—and so there’s a lot of latent—there’s a lot of latent information out there and so. That’s a good…
DT: I guess when you were speaking earlier you had told me that when you first taught the course, there was very little literature about it and there was maybe one textbook, I think you mentioned, The Direct Use of the Sun, that had been sort of cobbled together from a number of lectures. Maybe you can tell us about how you came to write a textbook and then now you’re amending it. What drew you to do that and how the subject matter might’ve changed over the period that you produced it?
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GV: Yes, the—the book you’re mentioning is called—by Farrington Daniels—is called Direct Use of the Sun’s Energy and Farrington Daniels was from the University of Wisconsin and that—by that time, I think he’d—he’d done a—a lot of lectures and he was a solar energy person and he’d lectured all over the world. And this book, Direct Use of the Sun’s Energy, was—was—was really just a—a compilation of a lot of these lectures that he’d done around the world and in just a variety of things—solar thermal, not much on photovoltaics, but a lot of passive stuff, biomass, you know, agricultural things, desalinization. And there were—there were two or three other books. I think there was a book by the Mynells, by a—a
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husband and wife team called the Mynells. But the re—and—and that was close to a textbook. Farrington Daniels’ book was not—it was not a textbook. It was a very interesting book to read and there were—there were a couple of others, but there really weren’t any—maybe the Mynells’ book was the only one and—and—but it was very much of the physics oriented book and I was looking for more of an engineering oriented book. So there really wasn’t much available and so I sort of cobbled together, you know, things from the literature and wherever I could and—and got speakers in and things like that. And then a current colleague, who’s now at the University of Texas, Jack Howell, was at University of Houston and he had a colleague there called Rick Banerow and so we got together—I can’t remember it exactly—it actually happened—but we got—the three of us got together and started,
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you know, putting together the material for this book, which came out in 1982 or something—‘81 or ’82. And it was a—a—so it was—and by that time—by—by the early eighties, it turns out whereas there were essentially nothing textbook wise, or very little textbook wise in 1975, in the early—in—by the mid-eighties, there were—there were, I don’t know, you know, fifteen or twenty books around that were, you know, not all of them were good, but some re—really very good books. And one of them was—one—a—a very good one’s been—is still used a lot is by a couple of other
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people from Un—Uni—University of Wisconsin that’s been—that’s been used a lot, so. It—it—it’s interesting that—that there was very little good literature available in ’75 but there’s—there was a lot in the early to mid-eighties. And now it turns out a lot of these—those texts—now the solar ener—there’s a lot more interest in solar energy and there’s relatively few of those textbooks around anymore. And they’re—they sort of—they went through their first edition and then they weren’t—they weren’t—they didn’t go through a second edition and so they were just sort of—become a little bit obsolete. I mean, the material’s really not obsolete, I think the style of writing. The—the material is not obsolete but the style of writing and—and for example, having good—good problem assignments and having a solutions manual and good graphics. You know, that—that’s the part that changes the—the—the real content
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hasn’t changed a lot. Course—of course, certain technologies have changed, like photovoltaics, for example, has—has—has improved a lot. So—but—but still, in essence, the—the basics have not changed and like you had saying—or before, you know, the sun is still shining and it was shining then. So—so—and the character of the sun has not changed—character of the resource.
DT: I think it’s interesting that you’ve tried a lot of different ways to convey these ideas. I mean, classroom, of course, teaching, you know, person to person, and then also writing a textbook that you could distribute, that I understand that you were also the faculty advisor for these efforts to design, build and race solarly powered cars. I think they were called the Sunrayce competitions back in the early nineties. Can you talk about that effort?
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GV: Yeah. The car was called—actually the Texas Native Sun, turns out. And Matt Cranor—wa—well, we have a very active Society of Automotive Engineers group in our—in the student chapter in—in our—in our department and they’ve done a lot—they did a lot of building of various types of cars. You know, a—a—a—a lot of different types of vehicles and they are very familiar with suspensions and engines and wheels and, you know, all that sort of stuff. And so the—the real—the real impetus for the team came out of the Society of—of Automotive Engineers and Matt Cranor was—was sort of the team captain. And looking back on it, they were really a—really an exceptional group of guys in terms of—well, their—their hard work and—and knowledge, et cetera. And keep in mind that this was like—this was 19—this
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was 1990. At that time, there had been the World Solar Challenge in Australia who—that General Motors won with their Sunrayce vehicle, Sunraycer. And they came back, then after that race they decided that, you know, they’d won the—the world—the world race and by entering it again, the only chance would be to possibly lose it. So I think they came back and decided well, they would sponsor—with the Department of Energy, they would sponsor a university, uh, competition among—a competition among university teams. And so they sponsored what was called Sun Race USA—G—it’s called GM Sun Race USA. General Motors Sun Race USA. But it was General Motors and Department of Energy and it was a race from—from Epcot
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Center in Florida to Warren, Michigan, which is the headquarters for General Motors. That’s sixteen hundred miles and it was ele—it was sixteen hundred miles, it was eleven—eleven days. So it was about roughly a hundred and fifty miles a day and so they competed in that. We did fairly well, every—you know, everybody—you know, everybody—they—every team, of course, expected to win and on co—only one person can win. But the team, I think, was very disappointed afterwards, but they really did a really good job, considering they’d really started from—from scratch and, you know, they—they just—that was really the first race in the United States and they did really quite well. We ended up—I think there were thirty s—thirty s—some cars—maybe around thirty cars and we were like twenty—we ended up, I think, in
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twenty-second place or twenty-first place. And we covered about—just about two-thirds of the—of the race. The—the way the race works is they would have a—like we start off from Epcot Center and I think we went to a—can’t remember—the first—the first leg of the race was like seventy-five or eighty miles. You know, and the next race, the (inaudible) leg might’ve been two hundred miles. So they had these—we would be racing from one—from one point to another point and we had—they had a window you could race—you could drive this in. So the race would typically start at nine o’clock in the morning and we’d go to about an hour before sundown because the—the cars did not have running lights. They had brake lights, but not running lights so you couldn’t—couldn’t race after dark or when it was getting dusk. So you have a driving window from—maybe from nine in—in the morning till six in
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e—in the evening. And if—and—and you—it—it—you—you would try to complete that leg of the race in that time period. If you didn’t compete—if you didn’t complete the whole leg, then each—each team—each—each—each team had a—had a—had a sort of a judge driving along with them and at six o’clock, you know, he would say okay, we got to stop and they’d pull off the side of the road. They’d put the vehicle in a transport—in a—in a—in a transport truck, some kind of a truck, haul it to the—haul it to the—to the—to the destination to get ready for the next day. And so you’d sort of just do this. So it turns out, we—you know, we completed some of the legs and—and quite a few of the legs, we didn’t compete. I think the University of Michigan car won the race and completed every leg of the race and they were the on—it was the only team to complete every leg of the race. So it was a—it was a really interesting event. It was interesting. But it was a great team of guys.
DT: What was the vehicle like? How it is…?
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GV: The—the—the—the vehicle looked like a Texas cockroach. It was sort of like streamlined like a cockroach, you know. It sort of had a—sort of a—sort of a—sort of a nice rounded aerodynamic nose and then sort of a sweeping tail like that. And a cockroach is probably a good—a good model.
DT: And did the students build it? Chassis, the drive train…
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GV: Everything, everything, yeah. They even built a—they even built a—Matt Cranor, or one of the students had found—he’d—he’d—he’d heard of a—of a patent by a fellow from somewhere up in the Northeast for a variable speed transmission and—and they became enamored with—with—with building this variable speed transmission. And this transmission had never been built—well, there might’ve been models of it built before, but as I understand it, a working—a really working model of it had never been—you know, a—a—a really—I mean, a demonstration model, as I understand, had been built, but a really working model that’d been running a car had never been tested before. And—or built and tested before. And so they—they were very aggressive and they contacted this fellow and they had a hard time convincing
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him to let him—let the students, you know, build his transmission because this fellow had a patent on it and didn’t want to release the rights and stuff. But they finally talked him into it and so they built the transmission. And while it was a—an innovative thing, in—in—in the end, it really was—it was—in the end, it was really not a good thing for the car because it turned out there was so much—there was so much emphasis put on getting this novel device in the car that it slowed a lot of other things down. And in the end, the—the actual transmission went out like in the—on the first day of the race and so—so they had—we had to trailer the car in and then take the transmission out and sort of modify it. And it—in—in—in—sub—subsequently, they’ve had a number of races. They had one—that one, they had—we went in another race in ’91 and one in ’93 and then I—I—that’s as long as I was
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involved. And then—but since then, there’ve been a lot of races and essentially none of the cars have ver—have—have—have transmissions in that—have variable speed transmissions because you can do it electrically easier than you can do it mechanically, basically. So.
DT: So has there been some progress in the design of these vehicles that has sort of refined it and gotten rid of the things that didn’t—weren’t quite so reliable?
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GV: Yes. I think I—that’s—that’s a good question. One of the things that—well, there’s all kinds of different vehicles. There were, you know, four-wheel vehicles, there were tricycles—there were three-wheel vehicles. There were—there were vehicles that were three-wheel vehicles with one vehi—wheel on one side and two on the other side, which is a little hard to describe. That one had—had two cockpits—one with a guy facing forward and the other facing backward and—and the car could run either backwards or forward, so when the sun direction changed during the day, they could actually turn the car around and—and the other guy would drive the car. That was a Western Washington car. The biggest thing, I guess, that—that changed
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that was—that—early on, if you look at the first race, there were a lot of cars that had—had obviously put a lot of effort in to sort of gad—like sort of like gadget stuff. Well, I wouldn’t call it gadget exactly, but for instance, exam—they would actually—there were a number of cars that had—that had panels that could be oriented or rotated to track the sun. So like for instance, if you’re—let’s say you’re driving north and you start out at nine in the morning, you’d like the panel to be facing the sun over here and as the day went on, late in the day, you’d want the sun to be, you know, the panel to be facing the sun over here. So there was—there was efforts by a number of teams to have what you’d call articulated panels so that the panel could be moved as the day went on and—and all kinds of other things like that. Well, what happens is these—these caused a lot of aerodynamic problems. They were, you
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know, just—just to be able to articulate them, that it add—it added more weight to the car. They become—they became more unreliable and the aerodynamics was—was really bad. And so that was—I think that was—of—of all the things that I can think of, that was the one thing that—that’s the biggest change I—I’ve seen since the first race until later race. You—you don’t see that anymore in—in any of these vehicles.
DT: It sounds like there’s kind of an analogy with green buildings that, you know, you may want to have a solar panel or a solar hot water collector on your house, but you want it to be as efficient as possible to take advantage of that device. In other words, the aerodynamics and maybe the weight of the vehicle was as important as the panels were. Is that fair to say?
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GV: That’s a good analogy, yes. I think that, you know, that—that if, you know, if you have a house, you know, the—or a dwelling, the first thing you want to do is try to make it efficient. You know, insulation, orientation, windows, things like that, a—even, you know, a programmable thermostat, things like that. So, you know, the first thing you do before you put a—a s—solar on your roof would be to make your—your a—your—and your—your building efficient. But I think there’s a tendency—I think there’s a incorrect understanding that—or feeling that—that okay, if you’re going to go solar on your building, if you’re going to put in a solar water heater, you’re going to put in photovoltaic cells, then you want to make sure building—you want to make sure—sure your building is—is econom—is economical, is con—is—is
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energy conservative. But the building should be energy conservative whether or not you have solar energy on your roof or not. I mean, if we get to the point—if we are—if—solar energy’s not quite cost effective yet. It’s really—solar energy can—a lot of solar approaches, you know, solar water heating is close to cost effective. Photovoltaics are not quite yet. But so—but if we get to the point where solar energy is cost effective with other ways we do—other ways we do it, whether we use natural gas or elec—or electricity from the grid or whatever it is, then it’s just—if—if we get to the point where they’re—where they’re—both of them—or when they’re equally competitive, then it’s just important to make a have—have a well insulated
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house with a conventionally heated building as with a solar heated building. So you know, buildings ought to be—ought to be built properly to begin with and then you—you—you put on solar or an electric heater or whatever it might be.
DT: Well, I guess it’s part of a package. We’ve talked a little bit about your work at the university, you know, teaching and writing and doing these demonstration projects with the Sun Race competition. I thought it was also interesting that you’ve had time to do some research as well and that you’d worked hard on this inventory to try to show where solar radiation was and what intensity it was in Texas and I was hoping that you could tell us about that. I hear that sun is a great resource.
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GV: Yes. There—we—well, there are a number—I was involved in a number of research projects and—and spent quite a bit of time for several years looking at various ways you could try to—you can use solar energy to cool, you know, where—solar thermal. Now you can do cooling by—for instance, you can have—have photovoltaic cells and you can produce electricity and then you could use that electricity to drive a conventional air conditioner—vapor compression air conditioner. So that’s certainly one way to do it. The other ways you can do it is sol—is thermally, where you actually absorb energy thermally and you use the heat to produce cooling, which I’m not going to go into how that’s done, but—and that is—there’s two or three ways you can do that. And we spent—Doctor Howell and I—it’s
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at the university—spent, you know, several years working on various types of—of—of solar cooling. But the other project that you—which you asked about was this solar inventory or I call it the Texas Solar Radiation Database. We started, actually, when we were in the old building at—at—on campus. We started doing—taking solar measurements to try to doc—to try to get a record of how the, you know, what the solar energy resource is on—on the campus and that started in 1985, I think. And then we kept doing that until we moved—when we moved into our new building and—let’s see, I can’t remember now. That was—no, we started earlier than that. We started—it must have been in—in—in late—late seventies because we moved into the new building in 1983. Anyway, moved into the new building and we kept doing
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that. And then, I’d been—there are—there—there is a—there are resources of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, NREL, in Colorado has a—has a solar radiation database. But the data—the data they have is—there’s relatively few places in the United States where data has been take—solar radiation measurements have actually been made for reasonable periods of time. And—for example, in the new—in the new database that they’ve put together, there are only thirty-eight places in the United—in—in the continental United States where solar energy radiation measurements have been taken for, you know, consistently, you know, minute-by-minute, day-by-day for a—a reasonable number of years and, you know, they feel, well, you should have—you know, if you go out and make re—measurements for a month or so, you know, that’s—things change from month to
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month and year to year so much that that doesn’t really mean too much. But you really have to do it for an extended period of time, long-term and I—you know, longferm—term means different things to different people. But you know, I would say that’s five to ten years of—of data. And so ba—so in 1995 or so, I wrote a—a—a—a proposal to the State Energy Conservation Office, SECO, to—to do a statewide assessment where we would install solar monitoring equipment at a number of places in the state and then we would record that data and—for to—to—to get a good—a good database. And—and so we installed—I think we had—we had fifteen da—we had fifteen stations. We had one in—I can run through them
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quickly—we had one in McAllen, down at Edinburg, the University of—UT Pan American. We had one at—in—in Laredo. We had one in Biggs. You know, we had one in Del Rio, in Sanderson, Presidio, El Paso, U—UTAP, we had one at Pecos, at a Texas A&M agricultural station. We had one at Big Springs Municipal Airport, we had one at Canyon, at West Texas A&M, we—a very good site. We had one in Menard at a high school. The one at Presidio was on a high school, by the way, the new high school. The one in Del Rio was in a high school. And we had one in here at UT Austin, of course. We had one at NASA down at Clearlake. We had one in Overton. And I’m seeing, maybe, missing one or something, but there were fifteen of them
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and so we recorded data for—from about 1996 to 2002, about six years. So I got a chance to l—to see a lot of Texas and I really sort of enjoyed driving around. So I’d get in my little truck and I’d drive out in West Texas, it’s great. Anyway, and that’s actually been a—been a r—and it ended up being a really good resource. It turns out in the latest—in the latest national solar radiation database that’s been put together by NREL, National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colorado. In their database, there are thirty-eight s—there are thirty-eight stations where they actually have measurements. They’ve actually taken measurements which has been used in the database and ten of those thirty-eight are the ones that we had. So—so there’s like ten of their thirty-eight are—there—are going into the—that database. So
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proportionately speaking, you know, ten of them are in Texas and the other twenty-eight are around the country, so. And there were actually five others that they didn’t use for some reason, I’m not sure why. The one at Pecos, they didn’t use which was a very site, so. But that’s another issue, I’m not sure—I’m not sure why that happened, but. So that’s been a really good sort of archive.
DT: Well, I’d be curious about a few things that came out of that study. One would be, did you find that there’s a lot of variation between year to year and, you know, would they have maybe a year with more rain, clouds or more smog? I mean, is that a factor?
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GV: Yeah. The—well, there’s some in—interesting thing. Actually, I would say from year to year, overall, you—you know, from if you take the total radiation for one year and the total radiation for next year, doesn’t vary very much. But from one year to the next, you know, November one year can be like you can get maybe half as much radi—almost in, you know, there’s one—there was one November where it was—I remember where it was maybe half as much as the average—as the average. So there are certain times of the year. We know that, for example, the wet times—the wet times of the year in—in central Texas are mid-April—mi—mid-April through mid-June, that, you know, A—May is the big wet time and another wet time is in September. So—and September, October. So those times, typically, when you have
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a lot—a lot of rainfall, those will be your times when you have big variations. There are—there are—I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Mount Pinatubo, but Mount Pinatubo was the—was a volcano that—I guess that it’s in one of the eastern—we—western Pacific Islands, I’m not sure of where it is. Maybe it’s in the Philippines, I don’t know. Mount Pinatubo blew and for a long period of time, that dust circled the—circled the—the globe. We weren’t able to notice it here but people in Oregon could see it very distinctly because—just because that’s where the—the—the—the—the w—the winds carried it. The one—the one in—one or two incidents that we’ve noticed where it was a—a big effect was when they—when they had the fires down in Mexico and Central America and that smoke—I don’t know if you remember, ’88? ‘88 or ’89, they had these large fires down there where they were burning, what,
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sugar cane and brush or whatever, they—which they do regularly and sometimes more than others and sometimes the winds are different than others. But there were times when it was just—you’d look up, you couldn’t—you could see the sun, but it was just like a big sort of blob up there. And—and for example, our s—our—the data we took down in Edinburg at—at UT Pan American, which is, you know, essentially down near Brownsville, it was really—really dark down there. So there are certain periods of time when it varies a lot. But anyway, year to year total, not too much. Month to munch—month to month, from—from one month one year to a month the next year could vary a lot. Day-to-day, of course, you know, it can rain one day and it can be sunny the next, so.
DT: Well, and when you aggregate it and average it out, did you find that solar energy is a sizable resource for the state?
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GV: Yes, it is. If you were to—okay, if you were to—in terms of the total energy, if you were to cover—okay, the question would be how big an area would you have to cover, say, in a—in a good pla—in a good solar area, like, say, Pecos, for example. How big an area would you have to cover with, say, photovoltaic cells to produce the energy for Texas or to produce the energy for the United States? Turns out if you covered an area about a hundred miles by a hundred miles and you converted that at fifteen percent efficiency for, you know, averaged over the year, you could produce all the energy for the United States. So in terms of the—the—the—this resource is huge. I mean, it’s like hundred miles by a hundred miles is—is—is a big
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area, but still it’s—it—if you look at the—at the United States, it’s a pretty small area. That would produce all of the energy—all of the energy needs for the United—electrical energy needs for the United States. Now the question is you’d have to transmit it. You know, that’s—that’s—I—Pecos is sort of an ideal wh—location for the solar resource and so, you know, most of our demand is in the Gulf Coast, along the Gulf Coast, the Eastern Seaboard, and—and say, California. So, yeah, you’d have to transmit—you know, trans—transfer that energy long distances. So these are not practical. But if you were to look at—for example, if you were to look at the rooftops. If you look at the rooftop areas in the United States that roughly—if you were to cover all the rooftops in the United States of commercial and—and—mainly commercial buildings, institutional buildings in the United States, that would
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provide—if you covered all those with PV cells, that would provide roughly half of the electrical needs of the United States. So, you know, the resource is huge and the question is—is really the economics. I’m not saying it’s economical, I’m saying it’s—the energy’s there and—and technically, practically you can—you can recover it.(misc.)
DT: We’ve talked up to now about your efforts in education and research at the university and I was curious if you could talk a little bit about your work in more of the public realm and your efforts to formulate or lead the Texas Solar Energy Society, which I think was begun in ’76. Maybe you can walk us through that now.
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GV: Yes. That was in 1976. I think it was like I can re—remember fairly distinctly the first meeting we had. It was at—it was over at the Empire Suites Hotel over on—on I-35 and a number of people (?) got together. I think the impetus for this was probably Russell Smith, who you’ve—I think you’ve met and interviewed. And—and there were a number of other people. There was Bob King, who’s now with Good and Associates in town. Mac Holder and Vaughn Nelson and Ro—Warren Cole, who had a solar business in town, a former student of mine and myself and Pete—Peter Jenkins from A&M and I think there were maybe some more, but there were like, as I recall, eight or ten people that were there. And the idea was what about forming a—a—a state chapter of essentially the Texas—of essentially the American Solar
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Energy Society. And—and I would say probably Bob King and maybe—and Russell Smith might’ve been the real—the—the person—people who really sort of suggested this originally. Anyway, we had this meeting, late ’76, and it was formed—I think we were incorporated in ’77. I may be off by a little bit there, either ’76 or ’77. And—and since it’s been a really great organization, so it’s been around for, you know, a little over thirty years. I’ve been on the board a number of times, president a couple times. I would say that Russell Smith is the person who really—who really held that organization together. He was executive director for—from ’77 or whenever it was to—through, I can’t remember exactly, late eighties or so. And he—and then as—
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during the late seventies, early eighties and into the late eighties, you know, a lot of their—they—the—the solar industry in—in Au—in Texas sort of grew to—to a fair degree and Texas Solar Energy Society is a 501(c)3. We’re a essentially non-lobbying educational organization and Russell saw a need—I guess we saw a need—he—mainly he saw a need for there to be another organization. Now in the United States, you know, we have American Solar Energy Society, which is really an educational type of organization like we are, as a State Organization, TEX SES [Texas Solar Energy Society]. There is the SEIA—is a Solar Energy Instru—Industries Association, S-E-I-A. It’s a national organization and so that’s a—an association of industries. And so Russell decided that (?) thought we ought to form a—the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Association. Changed the name from Solar Energy Industries to Renewable
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Industries to—to include wind and, you know, solar and wind and biomass and everything. So he—he basically formed that organization and be—and he was executive director of it—both it and Texas Solar Industries Society at the same time. And I can’t remember what year it was, but it was maybe the late eighties, he—or maybe early nineties, he decided that it was, you know, time for him to move on and get somebody and—and step out of—out of Texas Solar Energy Society because—and devote his full time to, we call it TREIA—Texas Renewable Ener—Energy Industries Association. And it’s become very successful and you’ve interviewed Russell and, you know, he’s a—he’s a real—he’s a key person. He’s been a key person in the Texas Solar Energy Society and also he’s certainly a key person in the
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Texas Renewable Energy—Energy Industries Association. And he’s been very active in—he’s been very active in state issues, you know, in—in terms of lobbying for legislation and things like that, both at the state level and in Austin.
DT: And I understand that the Texas Solar Energy Society is more of a public education group and then TREIA is more of a trade group, really trying to develop the (inaudible) those firms, corporations.
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GV: Yeah. And—and as far as like—we—we have a lot—we have a lot of cooperative things together, the two organizations. For example, the two big events that we’ve had, and these—these were the—one was started by Russell and that was a—a—the Renew—the Texas Renewable Energy Roundup in Fredericksburg and that was started in about—I think it’s a little over ten years old, maybe 1996 or so, something like that. And we had been having, you know, our—our in—our meeting—our annual meetings where we would, for instance, usually have them in Austin because that’s where most of the activity was and we’d try to attract people to Austin. And—and then we’d maybe have an El Paso and—and we were also—always sort of talking to our—talking to ourselves, you know. We were—we were preaching to the converted and—and Russell really pretty much on his own and, as I understand it—I wasn’t on the board at the time—but pretty much on his own and
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against the resistance of some of the other board members decided that they ought to have, you know, get rid of this annual meeting and have—and start a fair at—in—in Fredericksburg. And so the idea was rather than try to attract people to our annual meetings, go where the people are. So you’ve probably been out to that and seen the Platz there in—in Fredericksburg and it’s been very successful. Three day—three day ev—three day event where you have workshops and talks, things for kids, demonstrations, you know, just—it’s a great event. So that’s one thing. And it—it’s similar. There’s a Midwest fair in Wisconsin, I think a Midwest Something Fair in Wisconsin, which actually maybe predates ours and is large—it’s is—is probably larger, but it’s similar to the—they’re—they’re very similar. The other thing, and
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I’m not sure, I think the person that started this was a woman by name of Kathryn Houser, who was our—our executive director for a number of years. She started the Cool House Tour and basically the Cool House Tour is a tour of houses in the Austin area that are basically green houses. I mean, houses that are not greenhouses but green houses. Houses that are, you know, are—are well built for energy conservation, use of low toxicity materials and wherever possible, if they have solar—solar features on them like solar collectors for water heating or photovoltaic (?) panels. Buildings are oriented properly and all the other things, but—you know, the passive stuff as well as the—the active. And that was started, I think, in about maybe a year…
[End of Reel 2396]
DT: We’re starting again. It’s still February 22nd with Gary Vliet and we’re speaking about solar energy. We left off on the last tape talking about two nonprofit groups, one a trade group, TREIA, and then the second, the Texas Solar Energy Society, a more general, public education group and I thought that this might give us a lead in to talk about what sort of policies these two groups were pressing for to try to promote solar energy and other renewable forms of energy here in Texas. And I think that you mentioned off tape that there are a lot of good examples here in Austin of policies that can help gin up the industry and make it more feasible.
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GV: Well, you know, the—Texas—there’s a certain amount—Texas Solar Energy Society is not a—can’t do a lot of lobbying, but you know, we—our—our members have been active. I would say probably, thinking of the people who’ve been most influential in—in getting—making Austin as progressive as it is is Russell Smith and Mike Sloan and Smitty and they have been very active in—very active in—in lobbying, in trying to get the city—well—well, the state, you know, but particularly the city to implement progressive programs. Another person I should mention is John Hofner and John Hofner was with the—he was with the city—yeah, came to the city of Austin and Austin Ener—not—it wasn’t Austin Energy then, it was City of
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Austin Electric Company in—back in sometime in the eighties. And John is probably—John is probably largely responsible for a lot of the programs that the city started. There was a three-hundred kilowatt photovoltaic project out near Dec—Decker Lake, which is not anymore operational. That was the first major thing. And a lot of other—a lot of other projects and John is not—left the city, oh, several years ago and is with a consulting bus—a con—consulting firm. But I would say John was really instrumental in—in getting a lot of this started with the city of Austin. Anyway, the—John was probably involved in this, too, but I think—I think probably Sloan and—and—and Smitty and Russell. In terms of lobbying, getting—getting the
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ci—getting, you know, I—an active organization in the City of Austin—Going Solar Austin is a very active organization and I’m sure you’re familiar with them and they have been basically sort of a lobbying group to try to get the city to be more progressive in renewable energy. And one of the things that they—they’ve done is—and you’re aware of this and it’s well known in Austin and Texas and around the country about their PV rebate program. And the PV rebate program—I’m not sure what the rebate is now, but it’s something like four dollars or four dollars and fifty cents a watt rebate from the City of Austin—Austin Energy for PV panels that are installed. So the way it works is, let’s just say you—a—a—a person gets a—first of all, a person has to have the ri—a house with the right exposure so that when you
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put PV panels on them, the—they’ll work—they’ll work efficiently. Not—not a lot of shade, prop—has to have the proper orientation, et cetera. And so say a person goes out and gets a contract for—to install a PV system, photovoltaic system on their house for, let’s say, six—six dollars and twenty-five cents a watt or—or—which is what? Six thousand two hundred and fifty dollars a kilowatt, typi—sizes of these systems are typically one and a half to say, three kilowatts. So that might be like a total cost of—of, you know, maybe ten thousand to twenty thousand dollars or something like that. Okay, at—at six thousand two hundred and fifty per kilowatt or six dollars and twenty-five cents a watt, the city would give a rebate at—at one time; I think it’s still four dollars and fifty cents a watt. So that means that instead of paying the six dollars and twenty-five cents, effect—effectively the person pays the
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difference between six twenty-five and four fifty, which is what, dollar seventy-five. And so that probably is easier to think about. Let’s say—let’s say four dollars and fifty cents a watt and then let’s say six dollars because that’s a little easier to say because that’s like—that’s like the city is paying three quarters of the cost of the system. So another way of thinking about that is that if you put in a photovoltaic system and pay for it entirely yourself, it might have a payback of—let’s say it had a payback of forty years. Okay, with the city’s rebate, it has a payback of ten years to the—to the—to the customer. So you’re getting the—you’re getting the payback down to a reasonable period for—that most people think of as acceptable in terms of
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payback period. So that’s been a really progressive—progressive program and it’s known all over the United States and Austin has, you know, have gotten—has been—you know, it’s—it’s recognized as being a very progressive city for that and—and other things. The oth…
DT: Why would the City of Austin be inclined to—to make those investments? They’re expensive and is it—is it the idea that it’s politically popular or is it an idea to try to jumpstart a renewable energy industry here in Austin? Or what do you think was convincing to do this?
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GV: I—I’d say all of those. I think just fundamentally I think, you know, people in the Au—people in Austin are a little different than people in Texas overall and I think—and I think they tend to be a little more progressive and—and I think, you know, I think a lot of us, a lot of people in Austin sort of recognize that—that, you know, we can’t—we can’t operate on oil forever. And that—you know, and we look now what oil—just the last day or two are—exceeded a hundred dollars a barrel when it was, you know, not too—just a few years ago was down in the tens and twenties. So I think there’s been—I think people just been forward looking and—and th—but there’s some other things. So there’s—but two—two of the things that I
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think Austin Energy has sort of decide—people in Austin Energy have said you know, eventually we’re going to have to move this way. Let’s get educated. I think that’s—that’s part of it. I said let’s get educated. What’s the education? Well, for example, let’s put some systems in to see how long they last? How reliable are they? Do they require a lot of maintenance? Not so much just the straight economics because you can calculate what the economics are, but you know, you know, do they really last for twenty years or are there a lot—are there a lot of—there’s a lot of maintenance associated with them. That’s one thing. The other one is that I—the other one, I think, is that—that—that southern based utilities all have
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peak periods in their—in their—in their power—that their power plants have to meet and in—for southern based utilities, the peak—the peak times typically be are—are the ho—are the hottest, brightest days of the year, between three in the afternoon and seven in the evening, okay. So if you put in a photovoltaic panel on your roof, for example, while it—it—it—it produces most of its power at noontime—which would be noontime is really one o’clock, you know, because we’re talking about, yeah—yeah—it’s (inaudible) essentially solar noon occurs about one o’clock because—because, you know, because of Daylight Saving Time. So you—then when you think about the summer when it peaks from three to seven, it’s really—that’s—that’s—
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that’s—that’s—that’s Daylight Saving Time. So it’s really—so noon solar time would be twelve but noon in Daylight Saving is really about one, okay. So—so it—solar energy panels or PV panels are actually producing energy—tend to produce energy not exactly at the peak demand, but close to the peak demand. So there are some advantages to that from the city’s standpoint. I would say it’s education, looking to the future and the fact that it—they really do help—they really do help out, to some extent, the—the peak in demand for the city. Now solar water heating is another type of way you can use solar energy and for a number of years, the city had a
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rebate of like three hundred dollars for a solar water heating system. Solar water heating systems typically cost, well, they’ve gone up now, but say three to four—they were like three to four thousand dollars. So a three hundred dollars rebate was like a ten percent—a ten percent effect. Okay, the PV rebate is a seventy-five percent effect, right. A PV rebate is four dollars—four fifty out of six dollars is like seventy-five percent. So they’re—the city is paying ten—seventy-five percent of the cost for solar water heating, the city pays ten percent. They’re going to give a three—three dol—three hundred dollar rebate. Well, ten percent is really not enough to get people’s interest, okay. And they had that rebate for a long—they’ve had it for a long time, yeah, but nobody really subscribed. I think partly the city didn’t
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push it, either, but nobody really subscribed. Then partly through my efforts, I’ve gave a number of talks to the—the—the Energy Conservation Commission for—for the city, John Hofner was on that and some other people, and pushed and said you know, you really need to have a better rebate. And so—so they changed it and got it up to six hundred and fifty dollars—they got it up to six hundred and fifty dollars per system—per system, which is better. And—but—and—and I prob—and I didn’t push for—I—I pushed for at least six hundred and fifty but I kept saying look, solar water heating is—it—solar water heating is more beneficial to the city if you have an electric house than even PV, for reasons I’ll explain. So it ought to have—you really ought to be encouraging putting—people to put in solar water heaters in—in—in
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houses that are all electric. Well, then eventually, it turns out, you know, so the—my—my efforts, I think, pay—paid off and now the city has—now the city, this last summer, changed it and they have a two thousand dollar rebate for solar water heating. So two thousand dollars and systems maybe cost now five thousand dollars, so—so that’s like a forty percent rebate. So it’s up to where it really does make a significant difference. The question is why—what’s my argument for why a solar water heater helps the electric utility? Well, back in the eighties, I think 1985 or so, we did a s—a project with the City of Austin. I’d been interested in—in what the impact solar water heaters would have on—on—on the utility in terms of electric. So in other words, for people who have electric houses, who use electricity for water heating, what would happen if you replaced that—that heater with a solar—with a
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solar water heater with electric backup. Okay, so you still—you still use el—electricity when you absolutely have to have it, but solar energy’s providing it, say, most of the time. So we got—we identified fifteen houses in Austin that were all electric—that had electric water heaters and then we found another fifteen houses that were—that had solar water heaters on them that sort of matched them. For example, we’ve—if—if—if the house with a solar water heater, if one solar water—you had a family of four with both man and wife working, we would try to find an electric house with an electric water heater that had similar makeup. You know, if there’s a single per—if there was one person living in a house, we’d try to find an
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electric one house. So we had similar houses and—and so then we instrumented all these how—each of the—each of the water heaters to determine what the demand on the water heaters—of the electric water heater was and the solar water heater with electric backup, what they were and they were logged every five minutes. They kept a re—a record of this over a year. We did that for a year. So for fifteen houses electric, fifteen houses solar. And what we found was that on the—wh—when we looked at the peak demand days and not in—in wintertime necessarily, but if you looked at the peak demand days for Austin, which is typically those—those days occur in Ju—July and August, typically on the hottest, brightest days of the year,
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those are the days when they had the peak demand. It turns out those are the days when solar water heaters almost—also work the best. So early in the morning, the sun comes up, the—the solar water heater gets charged up and you don’t really need much electricity. And one of the peaks—the peak demand for the City of Austin occurs in the late afternoon, so if you think—and that occurs on the brightest, hottest day, on those day—a solar water heater gets completely charged up by mid-afternoon. And so by—by evening, you have a—you have a tank of hot water there and you essentially don’t need any electricity. So—so solar water heater—solar
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water heaters are more peak shaving even than PV systems. And so it’s—it’s really to a ben—it’s a benefit to the univ—to the utility to have solar water heaters replacing electric water heaters.
DT: Well, that seems persuasive.
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GV: I hope so.
DT: Yeah. I was curious if you could tell us a little bit more about some of the policy aspects that might’ve come out of the Solar Energy Society and TREIA and, maybe to put it in context, if you could tell us why you think there’ve had to be these incentives and rebates and education programs and what is the alternative, the option that you’re trying to argue against? Whether it’s fossil or nuclear and why is that so embedded in our economy and way of thinking about energy?
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GV: Well, a couple things I guess I could say about that. One is, you know, there’ve been a lot of—there’s been a lot of, in the past—not so much recently, but I remember back in the seventies and eighties, there was—you’d hear a lot of people talk about the conspiracy of big oil and the conspiracy of nuclear. The fact that there’s a conspiracy to not allow solar energy to have its place. I never—I never subscribed to the conspire—I don’t think there’s any—any conspiracy, but I think there is, just by the nature of things, I think for example, s—nuclear power, coal powered plants, oil—oil, gas turbines. These all tend to be big systems and they
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tend to be central—central power plants, like you know, the Fayette Power Plant or the—or the South Texas Nuclear—these are big plants. And I think it’s—I think, first of all, when you have some—when you have one entity like that that is big and involves a lot of money, you can do a lot more effective lobbying than you can if you have a distributed source. You know, if ten thousand people are out there building solar water heaters or putting in PV panels for a house, you know, you don’t have—you have a lot of people out there, but you don’t have—you don’t have a large—you don’t have a big nucleus for lobbying. So I think that the—I think that the—you know, the—the conventional energy technologies have had—have—have had a big
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foot up in that—in that regard. Now in—in addition, I must say, that, let’s face it, solar energy—nuclear and coal and oil are all very intense concentrated energy sources. You know, a pound of coal or a—a barrel of oil can put out a tremendous amount of energy, but it’s limited, of course. And on the other hand, solar energy and wind energy, for example, it tends to be very distributed, a low intensity sources. So for example, to put out a—a plant in West Texas, like I mentioned earlier, you have—you could have—you have covered this large—you have to cover a large area. You have to cover a large area to intercept this energy and just the—just the need to intercept that energy involves area. Whenever you’re talking about area, you’re talking about structure and—and materials and so the—the costs are—tend to be large. But I think that—I think that there’s some big advantages to them.
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I think, for example, having a distributed energy source rather than having—you know, when you have a central power plant, you really can’t use the energy that efficiently. A typical coal fired power plant might be, depending on what the—the efficiency might be thirty or forty percent efficient. Let’s say—let’s say it’s thirty-three percent efficient. You say if a power plant’s thirty-three percent efficient, it means that—that for every hundred units of energy in the oil or coal that it uses, only thirty-three percent goes to electricity and sixty-seven percent is dumped out in cooling water. So that—all that energy is—is—potential energy’s wasted. Now if you have a—if you have a more cen—not a central plant, but a—but if you have plants that are more centrally located in urban areas, they can use some of that waste heat for other purposes. For example, the city—the—the University of Texas plant, for
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example. University of Texas is sort of unique in the sense that it—it provides all—it provide—it generates all of its elec—all of its electricity, essentially all of its energy needs with plants on—on campus. That plant that’s on campus, they can use—they can use some of the—the waste—they can use some of the waste heat, for example, for heating buildings. They can, you know, they can pipe hot water around or steam—they can pipe low pressure steam around to heat buildings. They produce distilled water. They have—they can poose—they can use electricity to drive their cooling—their cooling units and—and things like that. So the University of Texas system power plant is much more efficient than a central plant like Fayette, because once—when you have a central plant like that, you—there’s very little population
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area out there. There’s not very much need for energy in the Fayette area, right? So you can’t—you can’t pipe low temperature, whereas on the UT campus, you can pipe—you can pipe low—low temperature, low grade energy around reasonably efficiently because you don’t have to t—take it very far. But in a—if you have a plant in Fayette and it’s providing energy for Austin and San Antonio and Houston or wherever it is, you know, you can’t pipe that—you can’t pipe that low grade energy to, you know, a hundred miles or whatever it is. It’s just not economical. So I think there—the advantage—the advantage of, say, some of these renewable energy ideas, for both solar water heating and PV is you can put these—you could put these
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on the roof of a building and this—this negates the need for transmission and distribution. In other words, if every house in—in Austin had a solar water heater and everyone had a little bit of PV, the distribution—the distribution requirements would be a lot lower. Now…
DW: To follow through on that same argument, what would you also—you talk about distance and capacity. How would you relate that, though, to time of intermittency versus baseload delivery?
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GV: Right. So the—the other—the other disadvantage that both solar and wind have is they tend to be—well, there’s seasonal aspects, there’s day/night aspects and then there’s the intermittency. And that’s—that’s—therein lies the rub in terms of why, for instance, solar and wind probably cannot penetrate—they cannot penetrate our demand to a large extent, maybe twenty percent or thirty percent unless you come up with some kind of a good storage. So—so both wind—both wind and solar would benefit a lot from having some—some—some type of—of relatively inexpensive storage. You know, whether that might be compressed air, pumped hydro—course you can’t have pumped hydro in Texas. We don’t have much
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elevation change, but you know, but compressed air, flywheel storage. You’re fam—heard of the, you know, the inertial storage. So there—there’s various—or—or batteries, but battery technology tends to be, you know, it’s—it’s—it’s good for small applications but tend not—not for large, you know, relatively large applications. But…
DT: What about PV hybrids?
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DT: What about using PV hybrid cars as a way to store energy?
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GV: It’s—certainly could. Yes. There are plug in hybrids and you could have—for example, in my house, I could use the—the energy from my PV panel to re—recharge a hybrid car, if I had one. And—or I can—as I do now, I essentially pump it back into the grid when I have excess energy. So the—essentially the c—City of Austin Utility is providing the storage for my PV system. I mean, it’s not costing me anything, so I’m, you know, I’m benefiting by them—by the City of Austin being the storage and whenever I produce elec—excess energy, I just pump it in—pump it into the—into the grid and run the meter backwards.
DT: We talked a little bit about some of the, I guess, advantages and disadvantages of fossil fuels and nuclear power and against the renewables. Why do you think there is in the last couple years, there’s this resurgence of interest in the alternative forms of energy?
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GV: Well, I think there’s been a latent interest all along and—but I think it’s clear—it’s—it’s—it’s—I’d say it’s national—it’s national security is one. The concern about—the concern about terrorism and the con—and the concern about cutting off our oil supply. And then just simply the availability of an oil supply. Plus global and environmental concerns. I think the difference between 1973 when you had the Arab oil embargo and now is then there was actually an artificial embargo curtailment of oil. You know, we weren’t really concerned about national security per se, we weren’t concerned about global warming very much, except for Rachel Carson and a few other people. And—but now, it’s actually—it’s actually threefold. It’s
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like—it’s like—it’s oil prices, the availability of oil—we’re running out of oil—national security and global issue—and global environmental issues. And I think sometime I—I mentioned this to you before—but I think, for example, Al Gore, when he ran for president against Bush the first time—the first time Bush ran, it’s pretty clear that—that Gore was—was—you know, at least had a—an interest in the environment. I used—I remember he would get criticized—in fact, that’s probably one of the reasons why he didn’t say more about it. He went out to Oregon, you know, and he got criticized for being a tree hugger and a—and a spotted oil—a spotted owl lover and all that sort of stuff. And—but when he was running for president, he essentially
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said nothing about—about, you know, renewables or the environment. He—he—he just—that was very—very low key. I think, I don’t know, I think it was his—I think his managers probably gave him bad advice and allowed some of those votes to go to Ralph Nader.
DT: Well, what do you think the way to sort of instigate a little bit more interest in solar and other renewable forms of energy might be? The political system is kind of unpredictable. Do you think that there’s more interest in the private sector where you have these rebates and incentives available for private folks to take advantage of it rather than having big public programs? What would you think?
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GV: Well, I think the—I think—I think the da—the evidence is out there that really—it—it’s—it’s—it’s a ground up, it’s a bottom up kind of thing. I mean, people who—communities, you know, individuals, you know, a lot of individuals have their own houses. They’ve decide they’re going to build a house that’s—that’s—it’s—it’s energy efficient, you know, in spite of the fact that, you know, there’s not much interest by the federal government—no, I shouldn’t say there’s not much. And there’s not any big impetus in that re—direction. Or—or small—or cities, for example, if you look at the City of Austin. You look at the City of Sacramento, the Sacra—Sacramento Municipal Utility District—SMUD. You know, I mean, if you think of Sacramento and Austin, they’re probably two of the more progressive cities in—in
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the country. And then you hor—have certain states, like California’s been—been very progressive. Florida’s been pretty progressive. Some other—a number of other—Mis—Minnesota, some other—there’s a number of states that have been progressive. I’d say the federal government has not been very progressive and I think—I don’t know what the reason for that is. I think people are getting elected, you know, there’s elections every two years for Congress, there’s elections every two—four years for president and whenever the—the administration changes from one party to the other, you know, there’s often the big change in—in—in—in policy. For instance, previ—the solar—for example, the solar—when Reagan—when Reagan
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over—when the Reagan administration overhauled the tax system back in 1985-86, prior—at (inaudible) prior to that, there was a—there was a thirty percent—there’s a thirty percent—no, the forty percent income tax credit for solar. [Telephone ringing]
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GV: So what that really meant was that—what that really meant was that, for example, if you had a three thousand dollar system in December of 1985, you got a forty percent tax credit, which is twelve hundred dollars, which really meant that you really paid eighteen hundred dollars for this system, okay. In—in January of 1986, the credit was gone. You paid three thousand dollars for the system. So if you compare eighteen hundred dollars to three thousand dollars, that’s a sixty-seven percent increase in effective cost. So in the—in that short period of time, you know, from—essentially this was a—you know, this is a—a policy of the Reagan administration, I’m not saying he singled out solar. He did a lot of other—there are a lot of other tax change—changes in the tax laws. But that—that just completely killed the industry, the—you know, from—from being a viable industry in the early eighties, it just essentially died. This fellow that I knew here in town, Warren Cole,
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who was one of the people who met with us the first day we started the Texas Solar Energy Society, he—he—he did not sell—he—he did not sell one system in 1986 and yet he was one of the largest manufacturers and sellers of solar equipment in the United States in 1985. So you know, the policy—the policy just killed it. I mean, instead of having a sunset law and saying okay, we’re going to—we’re going to get rid of the tax credit but we’re going to get rid of forty-five—you’re going to get—it’s going to be forty, thirty-five, thirty and we’re going to faze this out over seven or eight years, you know, the solar energy—I think the solar energy would’ve survived. But when you—when you—when you—when you eliminate it, essentially, you know, businesses just can’t stay—just can’t afford to stay in business. So I—I think that—I
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think that’s one of the problems with the federal government. I think the other one is probably just large, you know, I think large companies are able to lobby better than distributed companies. (misc.)
DT: We’ve talked in some detail about your work on teaching about writing about advocating for solar energy and other renewable kinds of energy. I thought this might be a chance to talk more generally about how you might convey that same interest in conservation and environmental matters to the next generation. What would you tell them about why it was important to you and why it ought to matter to them and what they can do to continue that sort of work?
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GV: Well, I—I guess I would—I’m not sure how, exactly—I—I would—I would tell them it’s extreme—I feel it’s extremely important and—and I guess I would say that I hope that we eventually have the insight and the will and the action to do whatever’s necessary to—a lot of people say, you know, leaving the place better than you found it. I’m not sure we can do that, but at least we can leave the place—leave the planet to them in a way that they can enjoy and hopefully that they can do the same. In some respects, this is maybe a little bit of a negative thing because you know I have to put all this stuff on anyway, but I—I really have thought that I’ve lived in—and this is—this is maybe sort of a bad way to look at it, but I feel that I have lived in mo—probably one of the best periods in history. You know, I was born
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in 1933 after the depth of the Depression. I went to a—you know, I got—was able to go to good schools, had good parents, lived in a—Pinja Creek, it was a neat town in southern Alberta. And I went to Stanford, lived in Palo Alto, great place to live. Moved to Austin and Austin’s a great place to live and had great colleagues at the university. And—but also I think just beyond all that, just, you know, we’ve had all the energy we needed, we’ve had all the land we’ve needed, we’ve had all the good air we’ve needed pretty much. We’ve had all the water we’ve needed and I’m not so sure that that’s going to be quite as nice in the future. And just a little bit of a—little depressing, actually.
DT: I think we’re running up against some limits.
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DT: Some constraints.
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GV: But you know, hopefully—hopefully, if people take action fast enough, we can resolve at least some of those. But you know, we are on a finite—we really live on a finite planet and we’re certainly los—using things up a lot faster than they’re being replenished.
DT: How do you convince people of that? I mean, it seems like there’ve been studies and talks and sermons about it for many years.
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GV: You know, it’s—there’s some—there’s some—there’s some—there’s some good—good things going on. Some of the—some of the, you know, religious organizations, for example, are not noted for being, I say, progressive in that—that way. But there’ve been some—for example, there’s the—there’s a—it came out of the Episcopal, the church in San Francisco, the Episcopal Church in…
DT: Grace Cathedral?
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GV: Grace Cathedral, yeah. Come out of that, it’s called the—there’s a woman priest that was in there that—that talked at the—at the Renewable Energy Roundup here about four or five years ago. And she has actually started, you know, a thing (?) what they call it’s—what it is, but it’s—but it’s an organization to—it’s an organization to try to get religious organizations to be more attentive to the environment, energy, et cetera. And what’s her name, Bee…
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GV: Moorhead, yeah. Bee Moorhead in town is associated with that. There’s also some—there’s also some ministers from rather fundamental Baptist organiz—Baptist congregations that have really taken issue with—with some of the policies of, for instance, the present administration. I mean, they’re—they’re basically still as Baptist as they ever were, but they have—but they have real strong feelings about the environment. And social issues, too, you know, how we treat homeless and things like that.
DT: So maybe if the message is coming from sort of unlikely sources and not from the choir.
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GV: I think—I think, right. I think when these messages come from sources like that; they’re probably more effective than—than coming from tree huggers.
DT: Well, speaking of tree hugging, are there spots in the outdoors or special trees or special water or special scenery that you like to visit, that gives you some solace?
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GV: Actually—well, actually, I’ll—first of all, I’ll mention something that’s not environmental, but the Alamo is a—I don’t know—I always get an interesting feeling when I go there. Sort of like Stonehenge?
DT: Mmm hmm.
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GV: But the area, I think in Aust—the—the area that’s really neat is Westcave Preserve. Have you ever been to Westcave Preserve? And—and it’s—I don’t know, it’s just a neat place.
DT: A box canyon.
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GV: Yep. Mmm hmm. And you go down there and you walk into that cave and there’s a—inscribed on the—on the floor of the cave is a—is somebody—Joe Blow something—I think it’s 19—or 1837. (inaudible) got scratched into the—into the cave there. It’s a neat place.
DT: You’re not the first person to enjoy being there, maybe.
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GV: They have a analemma there, too, you know, in the—in the—in the—in the bill—in the building. You know the—you know what a analemma is? (inaudible)
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GV: It’s—well, analemma is a—is a—it’s sort of like a graph or a chart that—that the sun, like if you—if you put a pinhole—if you put a pinhole in a—in a building—if you put a pinhole in the roof of a building and let the sun shine on a spot, as the sun goes across—cross the—across the sky for different seasons, it will trace out a pattern on the floor. And—and—and those positions on the floor can be sp—specified by date. For example, you know, the first week in September or the first week in January, the last week in February and like that. So the analemma is basically sort of a—a figure eight kind of thing that’s traced out on the floor and they have one of these in the—in the roof of the—of the main building there at the—at the—at Westcave. Neat place.
DT: Well, it sounds like we’ve come full circle in the sense that we talked about the sun again and a special place. Well, thanks very much. I really appreciate your time.
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GV: Glad to meet you all and I hope everything goes well.
DT: Thank you.
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GV: Thank you.
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GV: Go solar.
[End of Tape 2397]
[End of Interview with Gary Vliet]