I meet Joe Jordan at his Westside home a little after sunrise for an hour-long journey up into the redwoods, through what he calls “the land that time forgot” to the off-the-grid community of Last Chance.
As we set off in Jordan’s electric vehicle, a Chevy Spark named “Sparky” that has remarkable pick up (which he loves to demonstrate for his unsuspecting riders), he says, “We’re off on the greatest adventure of our lives.” It’s a saying he got from UCSC Natural History professor Ken Norris, and one that Jordan fully embraces.
Jordan is an astronomer and a proponent of what he once called in a TED Talk “sky power”—his favorite designation for renewable energy that originates in nature, like solar, water and wind power.
“They are all clean, limitless, homegrown and democratically distributed energy sources. What’s not to like about that?” he asks.
We’re there to visit Don Harris, a self-taught tinkerer who isn’t afraid to experiment with electricity, and invented a micro hydroelectric system that he managed to manufacture for distribution entirely off-grid back in 1979. He was also the first person in Santa Cruz to install solar panels.
After Harris, Jordan will go on to introduce me, over the course of the next couple of weeks, to Bob Stayton and Chris Bley. Not only does the expertise of this small network encompass a range of elements in Jordan’s sky power—solar, wind, hydro, biomass and geothermal—it’s made up of four individuals who represent a local nucleus of alternative-energy activism. Jordan, Harris, Stayton and Bley have spent decades innovating, educating and pushing for Earth-friendly solutions to our energy needs, and they are seeing the movement pick up. They feel now is the time for a sky power revolution.
“Enough hand-wringing already,” says Jordan. “It’s time for ass kicking!”
Joe Jordan: The Renewable Glue
As we drive to Last Chance, Jordan fills my ears with non-stop information that includes a crash course on how electricity is generated by wires and magnetism through the processes of burning and turning. In my few hours with him, I learn way more than I did sitting through years of science classes, but in particular I’m drawn to his love of nature and unending wonder at the magnificence of the universe. His nickname, which he earned on a Big Sur trip with Norris and his students, is “Cosmic Joe.”
Jordan has been leading “true tall tales of the universe” astronomy and stargazing hikes around the area for decades. He points out Sparky’s window as we near Swanton Road. “It’s what I call ‘Rapture in the Pasture,’ he says. “It’s my Rapture in the Pasture hike.”
Jordan is also the co-host of a weekly radio show on KSCO called Planet Watch. Together, he and Rachel Anne Goodman, a journalism professor and radio producer who earned a Peabody award for her work as managing editor for NPR’s DNA Files radio series, provide an entertaining balance of reality and theoretical solutions.
After we stop to take a look at Big Creek, near the starting point of his popular group hikes up to a 100-foot waterfall, Jordan returns to his favorite topic: energy solutions.
“In the U.S., it’s strictly policy-lagging, on purpose,” he says of how long it’s taking alternative energy to catch on in this country. “I mean, the fossil fuel industry is behind it, no question about it. It’s now been proven that they knew back in the ’60’s what a horrendous mess burning carbon was creating. Exxon knew. There’s a whole thing, ‘#Exxonknew.’ They knew this stuff and they kept it secret, just like the tobacco industry. It’s the exact analogy.”
Jordan’s “sobering sense of reality,” as he calls it, anchors his genuine enthusiasm for the potential of a new way of looking at energy. In Jordan’s view, if we were able to make renewable energy a focus, we could solve a lot of the world’s problems, both social and environmental.
“If we were enlightened, and knowledge actually ruled, along with truth and virtue, the whole world would be solar-powered now,” he says. “We would have done the research and development that’s going to get done, because it’s just in the cards of nature. Whatever nature has for us, we can find it if we try. But we need the money to try.”
That’s where political organizations like the Monterey Bay Regional Climate Action Compact and Citizens’ Climate Lobby come in, he says.
“If it’s really expensive to do the bad things, and cheaper to do the good things, that will get a whole bunch of people to do the good things without a dictator,” he says. “Somebody has to set that price on carbon, and that’s what the Citizens’ Climate Lobby looks into. They’re really savvy about how Congress works, and doesn’t.”
Jordan, who recently attended both the Climate March and the Science March in Washington D.C., has his eye on the lobby. “They’re building up this thing called Climate Solutions Caucus in Congress, which is growing two by two. Every Republican that comes in has to bring a Democrat. Every Democrat brings a Republican. They’ve got 1,000 people in Washington D.C. right now. They are lobbying more than any other organization in history, even the NRA,” Jordan says.
After spending decades doing atmospheric and space research at NASA/Ames and the SETI Institute in Mountain View—studying what he describes as the two largely unrelated problems of stratospheric ozone depletion and tropospheric climate change—Jordan turned his attention to his Santa Cruz community. He served on the Board of Directors of Ecology Action of Santa Cruz, where he helped to implement the first solar PV installations on public facilities in Santa Cruz—at the City Hall annex building and Mission Hill Junior High School. Jordan worked alongside many of the solar gurus of the area, including Roger DeNault, Doug Brown, Geoff Shuey, Jack Schultz, Dave Burton, and Dave Woodworth during the years that Cabrillo College had what Jordan calls “one of the first and very best solar programs in the whole U.S.A.”
Jordan pushed Santa Cruz schools to go solar in 2000, helping to install solar panels at all of the Santa Cruz high schools. He hoped doing so would provide educational opportunities for teachers and students.
In 2014, Jordan was the keynote speaker at a conference held by the Committee for Sustainable Monterey County. The goal was to convince local governments to go solar through collaborative procurement, a system that reduces financing prices for mass buys of solar. This effort is being led by Monterey Bay Community Power and the international solar consulting firm Optony.
For Jordan, sharing ideas and stories over the radio waves has been a longtime means of educating the public. During his undergrad years at Oberlin in Ohio, he started his first radio show, Output. “It was a crazy show about science and nature and all kinds of stories,” he tells me. “At one point, I made the analogy of economic growth. Way back in the ’70s, I said all this devotion to economic growth, it could be a cancer. And I’m afraid that’s what we’ve got going on. That really needs to be examined,” he says.
When it comes to opinions on climate change, Goodman describes the Planet Watch audience as including skeptics on both ends of the spectrum. “We launched this show, not coincidentally, after the election,” she says. “Both of us individually were thinking, ‘I’ve gotta do something. Even if it’s one hour a week, at least I’m doing something.’ It’s become sort of a banner of resistance just to hold up facts to people and have them deal with it.”
Don Harris: Water Powered
We coast down a dirt road that leads to Harris’s off-grid hydropowered home. It is tucked in a lush land of redwoods, fresh water springs, and a stream that provides him with enough energy to power his home, and at one time, an entire factory of hydroelectric systems.
Harris is standing there to greet us with his friend, Bliss, who made the wax castings for his hydropower hub. Harris shows us the first house on the property, which he built without any prior construction experience. He learned from his mistakes on that project, later building the home he lives in now.
Before joining the Peace Corps, Harris was a drag car racer—“we all have our polarities,” he says—but his father, who was a physicist, fueled his intellectual curiosity. He felt drawn to the back-to-the-land movement building in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
“It was exciting, the first time I stepped outside of a conventional matrix, and I loved it. Renewables were just beginning to pop in. It was the time for that to happen,” Harris says about his 20 acres that he bought for $600 an acre in 1976.
“There was a time when people didn’t even want to use metal tools to cook with. I mean, there was a real revulsion against societal norms at that time,” he says. Over time, environmental activists have kept the better practices and let a few of the more impractical ones go, he says. But the motivation for those like Harris to live simply and in tune with nature has outlasted the challenges they’ve faced in doing so.
After years devoted to developing micro-hydropower, Harris has turned his hopes toward the rapidly growing solar power movement, because it has less of a potential for interfering with natural life, he says. But he still sees the potential for using hydropower as a means of energy storage, one of the challenges for the solar industry. As we walk down to his stream, where the system that powers his home is hidden under a five-gallon paint bucket, Harris tells me, “Solar is so benign, I don’t see any downsides to it at all. It’s made out of sand. Solar panels are essentially made out of sand, silicon. It’s not a scarce commodity.”
Harris then walks us up to the workshop where he built thousands of hydroelectric systems. He shows us the magnetic alternator he developed as he tells the story of how it came to him through an unexpected insight. He was traveling near Area 51 on his way to Utah, and he had what he calls “an experience.”
“It was like boom,” he says. “The whole picture of this rotor popped into my head all at once. Not only did that happen, but my understanding of magnetism went up in magnitude. I didn’t really understand how flux lines flow and everything, and all of a sudden it got real clear at that time.”
This was no small feat, according to Jordan and others.
“This guy is widely respected throughout the world as a genius with electronics,” Jordan says. “He invented the system for a permanent magnet rotor, which had been an elusive goal.”
Bob Stayton: Solar Shifter
A few days later, Jordan arranges a field trip up to Bob Stayton’s off-grid, solar-powered home on Branciforte Drive. Stayton—a professor of physics, energy, and solar energy at Cabrillo College, and the author of Power Shift: From Fossil Energy to Dynamic Solar Power—has invited his students to his home for years, and he was ready for the group that Jordan had assembled, which included both Harris (a longtime mutual friend), and Chris Bley, whose passion for wind energy has led him to develop a renewable energy inspection startup.
We pull up in Harris’ Prius to Stayton’s home, which sits high up on a sunny, south-facing ridge, and Jordan reveals that he helped install the first solar panels on the garage roof 20 years ago.
Stayton explains that when he and his wife, Mary, first started planning for the passive solar house on the property they had purchased, the recently deregulated PG&E offered only 30 feet of service, which wasn’t enough to cover the steep, wooded 700 feet of distance between the road and the site. Installing power would have involved cutting a large swath of trees and installation of poles for a price tag of $15,000 to $20,000—“just for the privilege of getting a PG&E bill,” Stayton says with a laugh.
Having taught courses on solar at Cabrillo College, Stayton assessed the option and decided he could do it. Remarkably, he says, they only needed to provide two pieces of information to the county: Assurance that all of the equipment was UL listed, and that it would be installed by a licensed electrician. “And they were cool with it, they just signed off on the plans, no problem,” he says.
The City of Santa Cruz still has one of the lowest solar photovoltaic (PV) permit fees in California, averaging around $140, as well as a quick turnaround process for the permitting, which solar contractors usually handle. Santa Cruz is home to several competitive solar companies, so Stayton recommends getting at least three bids before deciding on one. The City of Santa Cruz recommends checking installation references and the Better Business Bureau. Contractors should have a C-10 (electrical contractor) or C-46 (solar contractor) license. Three different manufacturers have provided the solar panels for Stayton’s home, and while each are a little different, he says they all require very little maintenance.
As Stayton shows us his panels, he tells us that the best thing about solar PV is that it’s completely modular. You can always add to it. Every five years, the Staytons have added a row of panels. “It got so cheap,” he says. “We have a plug-in Prius, which is our half-electric car, so we needed more power for that.”
Most recently, they have added a heated swim spa to their backyard, defying the belief that solar living means missing out on luxuries.
Stayton, however, discourages the typical homeowner from going off grid, as it involves storing energy for nighttime use in lead acid batteries—a hazardous material. And with the advent of net metering, which allows solar users to sell excess energy back to the grid, it makes more sense to remain connected, he says. “They just need to keep that going. It is under threat around the country,” Stayton says of net metering. “Hawaii cut it back, and the result in Hawaii is that people started putting in batteries to store their excess energy, stimulating the battery industry,” he says.
Storage is one of the primary challenges of solar energy. Harris has one possible solution, though, and it involves his specialty: hydropower as pump storage. He explains, “When you have surplus water, you pump it up into a higher reservoir, and when you need the power, you run it back down as power. Any place you have two reservoirs of water, one above the other and not too far apart below, you’ve done the work. You’ve got the infrastructure. All you need is a pipe and a turbine and some wires to hook it to the grid. So there’s an easy way to make solar not just daytime power, which is what it is now, but make it baseline power.”
Stayton applauds communities who have turned toward increased renewable energy, whether it’s wind or solar. He says there’s an important connection to be made by seeing where your energy is coming from. “As a human, you put those two together,” he says, “and you feel good about driving your electric car, or you feel good about your dishwasher working, all that stuff, but you have to have that connection.”
Chris Bley: Gale Force
“This is not just idle hope. It’s hope based on reality. Hope and heroics,” Jordan says, about the leaders in the renewable energy industry, like Chris Bley.
Bley first got involved in wind energy 18 years ago, after graduating from UCSC with a biology degree, when his rock climbing interests led him to East Germany. He and his friends were interested in the field of rope access, where workers use their rope skills to access difficult-to-reach locations. They found that Germany’s tall wind turbines were a lucrative playground, and thus their company, Rope Partner, was born.
When he got started in the field of wind energy, the first 80-meter wind turbine was being installed in Tehachapi, California. “Now,” he says, “you can stand in many points in Texas, and look 360 degrees around, and it looks like trees.”
Although wind energy may have started here, California is quickly being surpassed by windier states including Texas, Iowa and Oklahoma. Kansas, Illinois and North Dakota are catching up quickly in the Midwest.
“The communities are really making out,” says Bley, who travels widely on his large- and small-scale wind and solar inspection trips, “because they get tax money that goes back to the schools. All these stats are there, but they get lost in the noise.”
Bley, whose company InspecTools maps wind and solar systems to monitor them, says one of the best ways to see how widely distributed wind turbines are is to look at them on a map. “It’s almost like chicken pox,” he says. “It’s a movement.”
According to a recent report by the Energy Information Administration, for the first time in March, energy from wind and solar accounted for 10 percent of U.S. electricity.
The American Wind Energy Association reported that wind energy is now the number one source of renewable energy capacity in the U.S. Last year, the U.S. produced 8,183 megawatts of wind power, enough to power 24 million homes. The first General Electric manufactured wind turbines can now be seen along Highway 101 near Gonzales and the City of Soledad.
For Jordan, wind, sun and water are all part of the larger sky power vision. Despite his frustrations with the power and influence of the “oil boy network,” he’s enthusiastic about the future of renewable energy.
“There are glimmers of hope that people are getting the message that there is a better way. And it’s exciting that there is enough work to go around for everyone to get involved,” he says. “The people can take charge with solutions and let a thousand flowers bloom. The sky’s the limit.”