My Solar Story - John Patterson

In 1979 at the ripe young age of 30 I built a new home in Northwest Portland. I installed a solar water heating system in May 1980. Proudly standing next to my solar collectors, on May 18th I watched Mt. St. Helens erupt. I was a real estate broker, having just started my own company selling a condominium project misfortunately called “Ash Creek Park”. As the region was covered in ash, and with interest rates climbing to 19% nothing was selling and I had a big mortgage to pay. I called the solar company who’d installed my system and asked them if they could use a part time salesman. I told them I could sell anything I believed in.

I had become a believer in solar the previous fall when I was raking leaves on a cool, overcast November morning when I heard my system click “on”. I first thought something was wrong because I couldn’t imagine solar would work on such a dreary day. I went into the garage and looked at the temperature gauges on the lines going to and from the solar collectors: 55 degrees going up, 65 degrees coming down! It was an “aha” moment. The summer before I had turned off the gas to my back up water heater and enjoyed 100% solar heated hot water from May through mid-October.

Extolling the virtues of solar, I started selling to friends and former real estate clients whose homes I knew to be good for solar. At the same time I was learning all I could about various technologies. I discovered that the system I bought and was now selling was not the most efficient so I went to the owners of the company and proposed they use a better collector. They said “no”.

I wrestled about what to do for the next few days and told one of my clients, fellow realtor Bob Crabb, of my dilemma. We hadn’t installed Bob’s system yet so I felt obliged to disclose the new information about efficiency. Bob was already a contractor and we were good friends. We had been together on a panel of Portland’s top realtors called “Meet the Winners” where we shared our secrets of success with other agents. Bob suggested we start our own solar company. He even had an idea for a name. That’s how “Mr. Sun” got started.

Using the Willamette River, we divided the city in half. Under his existing contractor’s license Bob did business as “Mr. Sun East”. I got my contractor’s license and did business as “Mr. Sun West”. I sold my first project to neighbor Mark Wheeler in the fall of 1980. Before year-end, I had sold a dozen systems.

I started canvassing neighborhoods with single level homes and not many trees. I passed out brochures with the caption “Let Mr. Sun Put You in Hot Water” featuring a lathered up cartoon man in a claw-foot bathtub. In 1981 with the help of a part time plumber I installed 30 systems. By 1985 I was installing 100 systems a year. I had a small crew, 5 salespeople, an office coordinator. All in all there were ten of us churning away and having a ball.

Then Ronald Regan came into the White House; yanked Jimmy Carter’s solar panels off of the roof of the white house; did not renew the Federal tax credit for solar and told Congress he would veto any bill to do so. Over night the solar industry nationwide all but disappeared. My sales people fled. In the 1985 Portland Yellow Pages of the phone book there were dozens of solar companies. In 1986 Mr. Sun West was the only one. I installed two new systems. But, unbelievably there was a silver lining.

With no other solar companies in town, the owners of systems bought between 1980 and 1985 called Mr. Sun. There was enough service work to keep me going, barely. I asked even my own customers who were under warranty to pay $12 per hour to help me stay in business. Most of them did. It was a bit like the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” run on the bank scene.

Oregon increased the RETC to help compensate for the loss of the Federal tax credit and it worked! In 1987 I doubled new sales from 1986!. Then solar pool heating started to catch on. I hired a young man named Andrew Koyaanisquatsi who was a super-salesman. I’d send him out on a Saturday to five or six sales calls and he’d come back with contracts in hand for nearly all of them. A few years later Andrew started his own very successful solar company. By the late 80’s solar was back. The Yellow pages were full again, at least in Oregon, California, Florida, Hawaii and a few other places where strong state incentives bolstered the industry.

Through the late 80’s and for most of the 90’s it was all solar thermal. I did my first PV system in 1992 in concert with a training event with Johnny Weiss of SEI (Solar Energy International) installing a 300-watt (yes, you heard correctly) off grid battery based system on another new home of mine in the John’s Landing area. I actually built the house with my solar power. One day I was ripping down boards when a neighbor approached and questioned how I had power since the whole neighborhood was down. She remained disbelieving even though I told her, twice and continued to work.

By the late 90’s grid tied PV sprang into being and the market exploded. Within ten years my PV sales were exceeding solar thermal sales. Also, with the signature of George Bush, a new Federal tax credit rebooted the solar industry nationwide. Solar was really, really back now and in a big way. Commercial solar was growing even faster than residential. There were more people working in the solar industry than in the coal industry-an astounding development.

Mr. Sun plodded away, riding the high waves as well as it had the low ones. The Solarize campaigns were a tremendous thrust for the industry and for Mr. Sun. During Solarize Southwest we did 168 projects in the summer of 2005. We grew to 28 employees, had five trucks running, took 4 journeymen electricians off the bench at the Union Hall, and were buying SolarWorld modules by the container. We were wiring six-figure checks like the big boys. Five other Solarize campaigns followed for us, even a solar thermal Solarize Union County. This was the most fun I’d ever had seeing so much solar going in, so many happy customers, happy crews, happy sales people making more money than I was.

Honestly, it never was about the money for me. It was always about the fun. There’s a thrill seeing an off-grid light go; a thrill standing in a hot shower knowing the heat in the water was in the sun itself earlier that day. There’s a thrill for me when my Sol-Reliant water heater (a system I invented) starts up in the morning and I realize thousands of these systems all along the west coast have started up like a symphony to celebrate the sun’s arrival for a new day.

In the present I get invited to speak in China and other places to share my story and Oregon’s story. I show them first hand how it’s possible to power with sunshine not just homes, hot water, pools, and appliances but even electric vehicles. I share with grade school, high school, community college, and electrical engineering graduate students how I and my 3,000-plus customers since 1980 have done it and are doing it. Even after all these years, I have the same enthusiasm I had clear back in 1979 when the light went on for me.

I still feel a bit like Johnny Appleseed helping to pave the way to the sun.