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Carol Levin and her husband, the late Richard Gottlieb, seen here standing on the deck of Pete Seeger’s sloop "Clearwater” on the Hudson River, were trailblazers in the solar energy field in the United States.

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Vermont Folklife Center honors accidental solar trailblazers

Carol Levin and Richard Gottlieb, pioneers of renewable energy, have witnessed the evolution of solar power from fringe hobby to mainstream energy source

“Portraits in Action” will be on display through Aug. 6 at the Vermont Folklife Center (vermontfolklifecenter.org). Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Gallery is accessible on the first floor of the Vermont Folklife Center headquarters building at 88 Main St. in Middlebury.

BRATTLEBORO—Carol Levin and her late husband Richard Gottlieb — solar energy activists and co-founders of Sunnyside Solar — are among the 25 renewable-energy innovators honored in an exhibit at the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury.

“Portraits in Action,” the press release says, “is a multimedia exhibit that brings together pioneers in renewable energy, environmental conservation, and land-use planning and invites them to speak to the issues at hand.

“For over a decade, the Vermont Folklife Center has been exploring the roots of the environmental movement and the beginnings of renewable energy in Vermont, documenting an evolving course of action that extends from the 1960s and ’70s to the present.”

For Levin, the role of solar trailblazer happened by accident.

Her original reason for moving to Vermont was to run a coffeehouse and folk-music center. For just under seven years beginning in 1974, Levin operated the Chelsea House, a café and music and dance venue, in West Brattleboro.

Levin has come full circle. Now she is back at the site of the Chelsea House — these days called the Solar Store —using her many years of expertise in renewable energy to help others implement their own systems.

The Solar Store grew out of Sunnyside Solar, the company she started with her late husband, Richard Gottlieb, in the early 1980s.

Gottlieb and Levin first met at the Chelsea House, when he began attending shows with his friend and roommate, Richard Blazej, a clarinetist and contra dance enthusiast.

Both men were also interested in solar energy.

Shortly after Levin and Gottlieb married and bought their house on Green River Road in Guilford, Blazej came over, walked into the garage, and said, “This will be my apartment.”

As Levin tells it, Blazej said, “Now that you [Gottlieb] moved out, I have nowhere to live, so I’ll move in here.”

Blazej turned the garage into a solar showcase and workshop. He renovated the building, insulated it, put in many south-facing windows, installed solar cells, and lived there for about three years.

After Levin closed the Chelsea House in 1981, she started a small-scale commercial herb garden. Gottlieb helped, but he also worked on local solar projects.

A Marlboro College gig spurred a big change for the couple. Blazej hired Gottlieb to help him with a solar project at the school, Levin said, and in one week he grossed more than what the herb garden earned in half a year.

“We rethought our plans,” and decided solar was the way to go, she said. They turned Blazej’s former apartment into Sunnyside Solar.

Their timing was right. The small solar community was starting to grow.

A solar pioneer

As Gottlieb said in an interview recorded by Greg Sharrow, co-director and folklorist with the Vermont Folklife Center, he and Levin drove from Vermont to California in the early 1980s.

Along the way, the couple stopped in Albuquerque, N.M., to visit solar designer Steve Baer.

Gottlieb said in the recording, “I walk into his place, and [...] he’s got a solar hot water system up on the roof[...]. And there’s a little photovoltaic panel in the pump making the thing work. I said, ‘What is this, Steve?’ He said, ‘Well... there’s these new little things called photovoltaic modules, and it seems to run this hot water system real good.’"

Baer sent the couple to see a friend in California who was working with photovoltaic cells.

“[He] showed us picture after picture of photovoltaic installations,” Gottlieb said in the recording. “So, we kind of got interested in that, and when we got back from California, we bought a couple of [photovoltaic] modules and set ourselves up.”

Shortly after their trip, the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA) sponsored a photovoltaic conference in Boston at MIT, Gottlieb said in the recording.

“So, we went down and listened to that and it was absolutely fascinating... there were all sorts of enthusiasts there, and we decided, this is the wave of the future, this is what we should get into, and we did,” he said in the recording.

For Gottlieb, seeing the photovoltaics was a return to an earlier time in his life.

In 1957, he took an internship position at the Naval Research Center in Baltimore after graduating from Columbia University. While there, he worked on the Vanguard project. It was supposed to be the first satellite launched into space.

It was also one of the earliest uses of photovoltaic cells.

The Vanguard TV3 was scheduled for a late-1957 takeoff. But because of delays, the Soviet Union beat the United States to space with the Sputnik satellite. A few months later, the Vanguard TV3’s rocket exploded during its take-off.

The Vanguard 1 was successfully sent into orbit in March 1958, with six photovoltaic cells attached, helping power the satellite.

“That’s how Rich got into photovoltaics,” Levin said. And when he saw the the photovoltaics at the NESEA conference, “he knew exactly what it was and what it was supposed to do,” she said.

In Blazej’s former garage apartment, Levin and Gottlieb greeted customers, gave seminars, and built solar systems.

“We did this for 30-some-odd years,” she said.

Although for many years the couple worked with what she called “early adopters” to solar power, it wasn’t until this century that Gottlieb “finally realized he was a pioneer,” she noted.

After Gottlieb died in February 2012, Levin knew she could not physically manage the business alone. She closed Sunnyside Solar in December.

The following September, Dave Bonta moved his solar store from Perkinsville to the former Chelsea House. Levin gave him permission to use the name Sunnyside Solar.

“Since Dave can talk anyone into anything, I began working [in] September 2013” for the Sunnyside Solar Store, Levin said. Joseph Mangum bought the shop from Bonta at the end of 2015, and Levin stayed on.

A new market

As veteran renewable-energy experts, Levin and Gottlieb have watched the solar scene change from a handful of scientists and off-the-gridders to a larger movement supported by the public and private sectors.

In his interview with the Vermont Folklife Center, Gottlieb told Sharrow about one notable boost in solar energy’s popularity.

“[A] big thing happened in Germany,” he said, explaining that when the Green Party gained traction in the late 1990s, it got legislation passed in the Bundestag “to oblige the utilities to buy any kilowatt hours you produced, whether you used them yourself or put them back into the line.”

According to Gottlieb, the payout was about three times what customers paid for their electricity per kilowatt-hour.

“People [...] looked at this and said, ‘Wait a minute. I got my money in the bank at half a percent interest. It’s crazy! I might as well put it into solar,’ so they began putting up solar in a big way. I mean, big time.

“The German market went berserk. So did the Japanese market ’cause they did the same damn thing,” Gottlieb said.

These financial incentives stimulated investment, Gottlieb said, and this capital filtered into the United States. Soon, the IRS began offering tax credits for residential and commercial users.

“The residential thing was [a] plain old 30-percent tax credit,” Gottlieb said, but the commercial credit provided a cash grant, too. Businesses, including big-box stores, soon began installing large solar systems, often on their roofs, Gottlieb said.

With the influx of inverters from Germany, increased panel efficiency, and the ability for solar power producers to connect directly into the electrical grid, more individuals and businesses signed on, which drove down equipment costs, Levin and Gottlieb noted in their recollections.

“I think the public is becoming more and more aware of the potential” of renewables, Levin said.

In a written statement she submitted to the Vermont Folklore Center to include in its exhibit, Levin wrote, “Vermont’s goal of 90 percent renewable energy for the state’s needs by 2050 is a realistic and obtainable goal, one we are well on the way to reaching.”

But, she continued, “if you look at the record for many of the other states in the U.S. and worldwide, it is very apparent we, as a country, have a long way to go.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #358 (Wednesday, May 25, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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