As the presenters began arranging themselves along the length of the speakers table, I caught sight of the very distinguished looking, silver-haired guy I’d known here years ago as Roger Williams. Roger Neville Willaims, to be exact. In those early years in Telluride, Roger and I’d talked often about life, times and politics in this emerging ski resort town that sat deep at the end of a box canyon, 90 minutes or more from the nearest airport. Following a stint as a journalist in Vietnam, Roger came back in 1971 to write, The New Exiles – American War Resisters in Canada, a book that took a sympathetic look at the anti-war movement .
In 1975, Williams arrived in Telluride, a 33-year-old adventurer and world traveler, latent activist, and aspiring ski bum. Hiring on wherever he could as a writer, public relations and marketing specialist, ultimately spending two years as “Telco’s” (as the ski company was know then) marketing director. As a regional reporter for the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel then, I sparred frequently with Roger and Telco. But I well remember an eye-catching marketing booklet Roger put together for Telco entitled The Awakening Giant. The handsome publication pictured Telluride, in the 70s still a slightly ragged ex-mining town, as the next great mountain resort in North American.
“Oh, it’s unbelievable how we promoted it shamelessly,” he recalled with a chuckle. “And look at it now.” I agreed. Our conversation was taking place – via Williams’ cell phone – as he rode the Gondola up to the Mountain Village, immediately post Mountainfilm and his planned departure for Alaska. He was meeting his wife of 20 years, Patricia Forkan, in Alaska, where she was on assignment in her capacity as president of Humane Society International, a branch of the Humane Society of the United States, he said, adding with a note of pride, “She’s been saving whales for 30 years.”
Not surprisingly, they met in Washington D.C. where they were both part of the capitol’s professional conservation community. His career there included a stint as media director for Greenpeace. Roger, who’d trimmed his name to Neville, had been recruited by his Telluride friend, Tom Tatum, to become a part of the Carter Administration’s Department of Energy. Working in the DOE’s Office of Energy Conservation and Solar Energy, the mission, Tatum told Williams, was to launch “a solar revolution” – the perfect venue for Williams’ well-honed writing skills and unfulfilled sense of political activism.
In his new book, Chasing the Sun, Williams describes his start as a rank beginner in the solar energy field. He says candidly that, “not knowing what I was doing has never stopped me.” It is this kind of fearless, tackle anything bravado, that ultimately turned writer/activist Roger Neville Williams into the international solar electric power leader that he is today. Using his consummate social charm, and a self-deprecating sense of humor that comes from plenty of career set-backs, Williams has become a powerful advocate for saving the globe from death by carbon emissions.
The book, subtitled, Solar Adventures Around the World, details the ups and down of efforts in Washington to advance the cause of solar electric power and how the oil industry successfully drained off federal funding earmarked for the development of solar and other alternative energy sources. By then however, Williams had become a “true believer.” In 1990 he founded the non-profit Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) which (as the book notes) “promoted solar power for a decade by setting up pilot solar rural electrification programs in 11 (developing) countries.” Grants and other funding made SELF viable, and helped promote “delivering solar electricity to 50,000 families “ in remote villages around the world.
In his book, photographs show Williams with citizens of Pulimarang, Napal’s first solar village in Sri Lanka, in Hyderabad, India, with a local banker, specializing in solar financing. Flipping pages, you’ll see photographs of smiling Solomon Islanders hoisting a new 40-watt solar voltaic panel and shots of remote villages in China and Tibet, for example, where, thanks to new solar installations, children there can read at night.
In 1997, Williams launched the commercial Solar Electric Light Company, which brought electricity to rural Asia, Africa and Vietnam. SELCO, as it’s known, is now headquartered in Bangalore, India. In 2004, Williams left SELCO to write his book about his solar adventures. During Mountain Film’s Symposium, other presenters said Williams pioneering solar development work had inspired them to continue their work in the alternative energy field.
Williams said coming back to Telluride had been a terrific experience. “It’s been really nice to see old friends…to see that young people still come here to enjoy the place…Once you’ve lived here you carry it with you in your heart and your mind. You never forget this place.” And he’d like to open a branch office of his new enterprise, Standard Solar, Inc. – residential solar electricity installations – in this region, “if the investors are here.”
Meanwhile, he’s learned that in 2004, rural electric cooperatives in Colorado, (think San Miguel Power Association, our local power company and its supplier, Tri-State Generation and Transmission) “tried to kill solar,” specifically Proposition 37, a solar energy ballot initiative that ultimately passed by a slim margin. According to state records, Tri-State contributed $250,000 to the anti-solar campaign, while the national Rural Electric Association anted up another $250,000 and the Colorado Rural Electric Association put in $20,000 to fight the measure. (Proposition 37 requires, among other things, a minimum of about 50 megawatts of on-site solar electricity generation through the year 2015. )
This might be a good issue to bring up during San Miguel Power’s annual meeting this Friday, June 2, at The Palm in Telluride. Still “killing solar” isn’t new. In his rollicking solar adventure book, Chasing the Sun,” R. Neville tells us what it like to fight the system. The fact that he’s surviving the battle with his optimism and his sense of fun in tact, I find inspiring.