Meet Blake Jones of Namaste Solar

Blake Jones was an in-the-field engineer for Halliburton/Brown & Root when he left the oil industry to build renewable energy projects in Nepal. He now lives in Boulder, Colorado, where he co-founded Namaste Solar, a small, employee-owned solar electric company. When he's not installing photovoltaic panels, he's spreading the good (renewable) word about alternative energy through policy work and local seminars. Gaiam LIfe talked to Jones about his switch to renewables, working around Maoist rebels, and where, on the road to sustainable energy, the United States is today.

GAIAM LIFE: You've gone from working for Halliburton to building renewable energy projects in Nepal to installing PV panels in Boulder, Colorado. Tell us a little bit about how you got where you are. Why did you leave the oil industry for the renewables industry?

BLAKE JONES: It was interesting to go to the complete opposite side of the fence. When I graduated from college, I was so excited to go to Halliburton and get into oil and natural gas, because I thought oil and gas made the world go round. While I still think oil and gas are fine, and they do make the world go round, the imbalance of power they create — too much political power, too much economic disparity between countries — can't be sustained. We need a better-balanced portfolio. So I looked around and saw there were a bunch of new renewable energy technologies out there, and that's where I wanted to go.

When I worked for Halliburton, I loved living in a foreign country, learning a different language, experiencing a different culture. In addition to that, I felt like the United States had, in many regards, gotten it wrong — the way that electricity is moved around the country, the way people are encouraged to live in suburbs and drive to work — so I was excited by the idea of helping developing countries get it right the first time. Nepal had a pretty mature renewable industry, but they had other issues.

Foreign aid often creates dependency. A lot of foreign aid says, We think you need this thing, even it's not necessarily what the locals need. So the locals will start to adapt themselves to that thing — but then when something goes wrong with it, when something breaks down, that thing needs foreign engineers, a foreign technician, foreign parts. And then the locals are worse off.

I didn't want to go and create a dependency on me. I wanted to go there and train others in what I had to offer so they could continue when I left. I was working for a Nepali company; there was a solar industry there already. They knew how to fix things and how to service them, using Nepali technicians, using existing Nepali infrastructure. What Nepal needed from me was Western management, to inject tried and true business practices. They know their needs, they know their country, but I knew how to run things.

GAIAM LIFE: So how did it turn out?

JONES: The challenges were much different; we were in remote, harsh environments. We had to design things to be as robust and long-lasting as possible. There was a rebellion going on while I was there, so we had to plan around the rebels. We had to overplan: If we were missing something, it was a seven-day trip back to where we could get those supplies. So we had to be more creative and resourceful. But solar requires so much less maintenance, so few moving parts; the chance of something going wrong is much less. And solar PV panels are inherently built to last — they have warranties from the manufacturer for 25 years.

In Nepal, the alternative to renewables is to install a diesel generator. But when it takes three days by bus, plus another day of hiking to get to, say, a hospital, using a diesel generator for power doesn't make very much sense. Not only does it need fuel, but it has a lot of moving parts. If something breaks, someone needs to travel to the next village, where there's a phone, and call a technician, who will then take seven days to get there.

GAIAM LIFE: What brought you back to the U.S.?

JONES: My thinking started shifting. We were installing all these solar systems for hospitals and schools, but those systems were the size of a single residential installation in the U.S. The U.S. is the worst culprit in the energy problem — environmental degradation, greenhouse gases, all that. So I was thinking maybe I should go home and take care of things there. A lot of Nepalis would say to me, Hey, you're telling us to do it this way, why don't you Americans do it this way? You tell us not to use dirty coal, but you use dirty coal.

GAIAM LIFE: Here in the States, green building seems to be taking off. Even in a bleak urban place like Chicago, their City Hall now has a green roof. Where do you think we are in terms of creating green and sustainable communities that really change the status quo?

JONES: I think a lot of different issues are converging. We're becoming mainstream. There's an awareness of the big picture, how things are all interconnected. We no longer measure "cheap" or "expensive" power by its financial costs. We're starting to see that coal isn't so cheap after all — it's raping the landscape, miners are dying, more children have asthma. The same with oil. Maybe it's contributing toward terrorism, we have to fight these wars to secure oil sources. I hate to say it, but I think going to war with Iraq, having Katrina hit, having oil at $70 per barrel — I think it took all this, these big squeaky wheels, to get some grease. It's a shame, but we weren't recognizing the warning signals earlier, and it took some of these things to wake us up.

Getting started is always the hardest, it's what requires the most energy. But now we're seeing costs come down with increased public awareness—twice as much as [there was] five years ago. We're seeing global warming on the cover of newspapers, on national television. More and more people are demanding these services, and we're seeing an exponential increase in solar systems getting installed. Hybrid cars are spreading. A few years ago, it was, Whoa, that thing's weird. Now they're so common, and they're so popular [that] they're putting American car companies to shame.

GAIAM LIFE: So where does solar power fit in?

JONES: A lot of customers come to us and want solar panels. We tell them that there are lower-hanging fruits, things like energy efficiency, that are just as important but are underestimated and overlooked steps.

The big objective isn't to give people a list of things they must do, but rather to ask them to broaden their perspective, to start learning. Hopefully the best thing we can give them is some inspiration to search the Internet, to talk to friends, to get an energy audit, to talk to a green builder, to take a second look at that magazine article on energy efficiency. It's that awareness that more than anything is going to be the most empowering. Getting compact fluorescent light bulbs is great, but you need to have an overall awareness of why you're doing it. Otherwise you just have people telling you what to do, and you'll always be waiting for the next list of things to do. That list still really important, but it's important to understand what's behind it.

We ask prospective customers to send us their electricity bills. Most people don't know what's on them other than what they have to pay. We want them to know the numbers behind the amount they're paying, how much electricity they're consuming. When they see that, they start wanting to act. One of the reasons we're successful is because solar a big thing and people like to see the big things. But all the little things add up — just weather-stripping around the doors and windows makes a huge difference.

It's snowballing, the momentum is moving in the right direction — more and more energy companies are seeing the benefits, more and more consumers are environmentally aware. They want energy independence and security. Quite simply, renewables are the future. Even if we keep finding fossil fuels, they're going to run out. The sun and wind are going to be around for much longer. Wars over resources are going to become a bigger and bigger issue. But the sun shines on everyone, regardless of where you live.

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