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A New Solar Power Deal From California

Photograph Source: minoru karamatsu – CC BY 2.0

I met Devon Hartman a few years ago in Claremont, California, where I have been living since 2008. He is tall and lean, wearing glasses and a pointed small beard. He grew up in Kansas. And for thirty-five years, he presided over a successful architectural firm, building and renovating expensive houses with little awareness of the carbon footprint of those houses.

The reasons I came to know this energetic member of my community had nothing to do with architecture or construction. Rather, I kept seeing him at City Council meetings and activities of Sustainable Claremont, a small local environmental organization. He used to encourage homeowners to insulate their homes. His company had a flourishing market in exactly that useful house improvement. However, I used to tell him, better yet, put solar panels on the roof of your house. I did that the moment I bought my house in Claremont in 2009. He would smile, saying I was on the right track.

China and ecological civilization

Hartman was also a friend of a friend of mine: John Cobb, a Claremont theologian with intense interest in China and ecological civilization. That – the ecological idea — caught my attention immediately. I met Cobb and realized he shared my concerns about industrialized farming and climate change. Both of us also have a healthy distrust for things large: corporations,   agribusiness companies, militaries, polluters. He and I hit it off, agreeing that China could probably move to the promised land of ecological civilization through its ancient traditions and peasantry.

Meanwhile, I kept asking myself, is ecological civilization feasible? Was it ever practiced anywhere? Why are the Chinese so interested in ecological civilization? And why is there no discussion of ecological civilization in Europe and the United States?

The Chinese love Cobb. In fact, they treat him like a head of a state. His idea of process philosophy (that everything in this world is connected to everything else) is winning academic followers at Chinese universities. In addition, Cobb is openly critical of American power. He brought Hartman and I together, greasing the wheels of Chinese institutions that invited us to China.

I went to China in 20142017, and 2019. In each case, I spent some of my time in rural China, talking to peasants and listening to them describe their agrarian practices and hopes. That unforgettable experience was partly magical and partly real. Looking at the peasants was like looking at my Greek father who worked his strips of land for so long and with so much passion. I returned to America from China feeling as if I was coming back from a secret rural society on the other side of the world. Nobody paid any attention to the work being done there.

Hartman and I found ourselves in conferences in Claremont discussing the nuts and bolts of ecological civilization — and China. He nodded his head in my often critiques of industrialized agriculture infesting America and moving rapidly in China. He probably remembered his family farm in Kansas and, more than that, the takeover of rural America by ecocidal and anthropocidal agribusiness.

In all likelihood, he was struggling with the contradictions of the United States: claiming global supremacy in nearly everything but ignoring that nearly half of the adult population of the country lives in dire poverty: some 53 million workers ages 18 to 64 earning on the average about $ 18,000 per year. In addition, official America (federal government, politicians, large media, colleges and universities, scientists and medical doctors, and state governments) ignore the plunder of 450 million acres of public land in the American West by oilmen, loggers, cowboys, and miners. This preposterous reality is mind-boggling. How can citizens of the United States allow this medieval practice of turning their own land to feudal estates? Moreover, official and unofficial America have written off the tragedy of rural America, and the systematic destruction and poisoning of the natural world here at home.

Hartman and the Chinese professors listening to me probably puzzle over the facts I have been citing for a long time: the enormous contributions of greenhouse gases from agribusiness going hand in hand with the large concentration of power in rural America: a few large farmers and giant agribusiness companies producing most of the food; and neurotoxic chemical pesticides being sprayed often over the food we eat. No doubt, the Chinese probably sympathize as their country is rapidly becoming like America.

Embracing solar power

Then something happened in 2010. Hartman sold his lucrative architectural business and started a new company with the telling name: Community Home Energy Retrofit Project (CHERP).

Hartman said to me:

“As I became more aware of the climate crisis and began to research it, I realized that buildings were the number one contributor to greenhouse gas emissions on the planet. Further, I realized that most homes are built like cardboard boxes and, therefore, they are energy inefficient. Style trumps substance. I wanted to devote my time to addressing this problem by educating the public about energy efficiency and completing energy retrofits on homes. So selling the business came down to a shift in where I wanted to devote my time. My partner in the business, Bill Baldwin, still runs it.”

In 2019, Hartman hosted an open-air solar power public meeting at Pomona College in which he broke the news of his change of heart in moving full speed towards harvesting the boundless energy of the Sun. He’d it with all the dismal news on climate change. He would fight it alone, if necessary. But he was not alone. He convinced the State of California to give CHERP Locally Grown Power a $2.1 million budget allocation to back up his fantastic proposal to reenergize and electrify California from the free energy of the Sun.

He spoke about his director of manufacturing: Jason Flejter. This is a man with extensive manufacturing experience. “His job,” Hartman said,  “will be to set up all systems and procedures in our prototype factory in Pomona, right next door to Claremont, and then help us replicate these procedures in factories all over California.” On January 1, 2020, Hartman hired Flejter.

But the technical genius behind Hartman’s solar power is Kent Kernahan, a prolific inventor with seventy-four solar panel patents under his belt. Kernahan made a very intentional decision to license his solar panel technology  only to nonprofits within the United States after watching all of his previous patents be monetized overseas. He felt partially responsible for the last recession and vowed never to let another one of his inventions outside the United States. He is confident his solar panels are the most advanced in the world.

Non-profit micro-factories for a solar age

Hartman is advocating no less than the reindustrialization of communities in California by manufacturing advanced solar panels in micro-factories at the center of towns.

This is fighting a climate war for Hartman. He started thinking of WWII and how America armed itself for that epic struggle.

In a small conference at Claremont, February 7, 2020, he let us read his mind. He said:

“We have 10 years to limit climate change catastrophe. Now we are in a similar race. We are capable to solve the problem of climate change if we start acting today: in 1939, we built 3,000 planes each year. But in 1944, we built 3,000 planes each 11 days! What a focused community can do: all the wood behind one arrowhead.”

Hartman left no doubt that renewable energy was the war planes of today. Solar power would do more than giving us non-polluting electricity. It would help us redress the balance of power between our democracy and the oligarchy of fossil fuels magnates and their political supporters in Congress and the White House. “There are powers,” he said, “that are dead set on us not solving the [inequality and climate change] problems. Solar power allows me to withdraw my support from systems that support proliferation of greenhouse gases. A very, very big deal.”

I asked Hartman to reflect on his dream of giving solar panels to all. He said to me:

“The dream of solar panels for all is a big dream. But we know we will never achieve our sustainability goals if we leave out 60 percent or more of the population. There is no separation between our environmental crisis and our social / humanitarian / justice crisis. The solar panel industry as it stands currently — like many other industries — is an unjust system because only a small percentage of people can actually afford them. We are trying to turn this on its head. Our vision for the factory in Pomona (and every subsequent one) is that it will not only be a place where panels are made — and people are paid a living wage to do it) — but also a workforce development factory that trains people in both technical and soft skills (such as finance, interview, interpersonal etc.).

“Our focus is on those who’ve been hurt most by the America’s economic system, including the homeless. In California, 250,000 homeless people are living under bridges. In addition, we will help  veterans, at-risk youth, jobless, and those coming out of prison. This means we will have social workers and counselors to help these people get back on their feet and into jobs. We have a team of people ready to help us design and implement such a program.

“In regards to solar itself, we’re not focused solely on putting panels on top of houses because one, many low-income people rent, and two, for those who do own homes, sometimes their roofs are not structurally sound enough to hold panels and would require retrofitting before panels could even be placed. We’re developing ways to send energy saved through solar on one house or building directly to low-income meters as well as ways to develop community solar projects.

“The dream of solar panels for all is also a dream of environmental justice, a dream of bringing vibrancy back to our local communities, a dream of reestablishing connections and relationships in a time where this seems to be lacking.”

I was amazed Hartman never spoke about the green new deal, the dream of Senator Bernie Sanders of reviving the government policies of the Great Depression to restore a balance between the oligarchs of the early twentieth century and the impoverishment of the vast majority of Americans. Nevertheless, the result is the same: train poor people to the techniques of advanced technology and pay them a decent wage to fight both poverty and climate change. He is right that “the misdirection of economics and culture” in the last fifty years triggered climate change. So, like a warrior, he starts from the center of the storm, the towns devastated by the oligarchic grab of power. He explains:

“The factory we are planning for Pomona is the first non-profit solar panel assembly factory in the world. Venture capitalists think ‘non-profit’ is not possible. We gave up the belief that we in the US can create a solar panel. All have to be manufactured in billion dollar plants. US has no solar panel industry, but a solar installation industry. We simply install what the Chinese, Philippinos, and others are creating.”

Hartman cited the following footprint statistics of the prototype micro-factory scheduled to open in Pomona in August 2020: supply solar panels for 6,000 lowest income homes. This would mean that 26,700 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year would no longer reach the atmosphere: the carbon equivalent of 2,600 trips around the Earth every year. Second, the micro-factory would create 763 direct and indirect jobs paying living wages.

Hartman insists that each town hosting a solar panel mini-factory would do its own hiring of local people. “A city,” he says, “must think like a system and act like an entrepreneur. We can no longer solve problems in little silos on parallel paths. We need to think together.”

Epilogue

There’s little doubt climate change is defining the twenty-first century. We spent the twentieth century in doubt largely manufactured by oilmen and their scientists and politicians. Now credible studies are driving the message home: that this anthropogenic crisis is indeed an existential environmental and political threat. Do nothing, keep filling your brain with the propaganda of the fossil fuels industry and their White House spokesman, Trump, and the effect is likely to be catastrophic.

It’s for this reason that Hartman’s non-profit new solar power deal is and could become so vital in waking Americans up and preparing them to defend themselves, both against poverty and the calamity of a petroleum and coal civilization.

Hartman is convinced his mini-factory of solar power will become viral. I hope it does.

More articles by:

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of 6 books, including Poison Spring with Mckay Jenkings.

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