The Spoils

Sun Roof 


Illustrated solar panel
Illustration by blindSALIDA

Here’s something to get charged up about: In 2019, the United States eclipsed 2 million photovoltaic (PV) solar installations on buildings and homes, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. The electrifying milestone underscores our nation’s solar surge. While the first million installations took 40 years, the second million needed just another three.

With a 5-kilowatt system running up to $25,000 before tax credits, cost remains the biggest obstacle to a renewable home energy revolution, but PV is cheaper and more durable than ever, lasting 30 years or more.

For more than four decades, Richard King, CAS/BS ’78, has been among those taking clean energy mainstream. His passion for panels dates to 1976, when, as an AU physics student, he fixed a solar tracker to a solar cell to maximize energy production. “It was so much fun messing around up there on the roof at AU,” he says.

So much fun that he made a career of it. As a staff physicist with the US Department of Energy (DOE), King managed the agency’s PV solar research and development. Throughout the ’90s, his team drove costs down and reliability up, but struggled to turn others on to their bright ideas.

“We had these very robust solar panels, but no one was buying them,” King says. “I realized that we had to work from the bottom up through education. If you can teach young engineers and architects that solar can power your house without sacrificing your lifestyle, that’s a win-win.”

In 2000, he founded the DOE Solar Decathlon, a biennial competition that has challenged more than 30,000 college students from hundreds of US universities to design and build solar homes. King managed the event for 15 years and spearheaded its expansion to four more continents following his retirement in 2015.

With the competition delayed worldwide due to COVID-19, he and his wife, Melissa, have used their free time to “move the needle faster” in the fight against climate change. The Smart Decathlon for Innovative Professionals, in which teams design, build, and sell energy-efficient homes, will spotlight its first green creations in spring 2022.

The stakes for our planet have never been higher, but King continues to raise the (paneled) roof.

Correctly answer the trivia question and you’ll be entered to win a solar power bank and flashlight.

Three US presidents, including Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, have installed solar panels on the White House grounds. Who is the third?