Sandpoint Magazine Winter 2002 Sandpoint Magazine Winter 2002
Sandpoint Magazine

Sandpoint Magazine Winter 2002

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Steve Willey
Backwoods Solar Founder

Steve and Elizabeth Willey were living in Santa Rosa, Calif., in 1975 when Steve traveled through Sandpoint on his way to a Quaker community in British Columbia, where he was dropping off friends. Northern Idaho reminded him of the New England where he was raised, and it “felt right.” He and Elizabeth bought 20 acres of mountaintop property northeast of town for $200 per acre. Utility lines were 2 miles away, so Steve assembled a 12-volt battery system in their bus, which served as their residence for the five years Steve worked in television repair and then for the telephone company and Elizabeth for a local bank. They continued to use a battery system in the house they built, and even though these days were early ones for alternative energy and the system wasn’t very efficient, it interested neighbors who also wanted to live “off the grid.” Steve helped the neighbors, and his reputation for expertise in the renewable energy field grew.

On the day Mount St. Helen’s blew in 1980, the couple was riding a motorcycle to a town near Republic, Wash., on their way to sell their first little solar energy panel. The buyer was a woman who had a battery-charged radio but wanted one lamp in her house. These days they fly their helicopter to remote homesites in the Northwest to advise customers.

The Willeys quit working full-time at traditional jobs to spend more time researching renewable energy sources and to keep up with the mail from people with energy-related questions. It took five years to make a profit, but last year Backwoods Solar Electric Systems grossed $2.5 million and mailed its catalog to some 30,000 customers. Pioneers in the field of photovoltaics, the Willeys now own one of the major mail-order, renewable-energy businesses in the country. With a handful of employees, they still operate from their home. I spoke with Steve in the kitchen of their home, which appears to have all the amenities.

Q. What did you study in college?

I studied electronics for a long time but found it dry and boring. It was more fun as a hobby. I got a degree in philosophy and Elizabeth got a degree in sociology.

Q. What kind of work did you expect?

I thought it would be fun to make a living with something I could design myself. I’d made a few small electronic devices for people living in campers to have a better kind of stereo than a portable radio – a booster-type amplifier which they sell now – but there wasn’t much market for one person putting those together by hand.

Q. How did you get started in the renewable-energy field?

I played with wires when I was a teenager, and so I knew how to charge batteries, test things, find problems and make things work. People would call me to help them with their independent power, such as it was back then … I knew solar cells were going to be available. They were about the size of postage stamps then. You put them in the sun and they make power; they never run down, make waste or require fuel. You could put several of these together and run a pocket radio. Well, I thought that someday these would be available in large enough quantities to run a house. When it happened, I found I had worked myself into independent power enough that I was the person who ended up selling it in the area. We got started when almost no one else in the country was doing it. The manufacturers couldn’t imagine what people were doing with these panels because they were for satellites and remote radio and telephone relays. We just promoted it in a few magazines like Mother Earth News.

Q. Are many people still moving to remote locales?

Yes, it goes in waves. There’s a lot of land people can buy cheaply because the utilities aren’t there. The New York Times two years back had an article about off-grid people being Aryan Nations types. In reality, most people who live in the hills just like nature and quiet.

Q. On your website, you have “Caring is the greatest thing.” What do you mean?

I don’t want to be putting together equipment and designs for people who are going to use it to exploit animals or for military purposes. The dream of renewable energy, which used to be called alternative energy, is to make life better. The sun shines and the wind blows on everyone; you don’t have to have a central power plant that costs a million dollars. The energy is there to be collected. It can just as easily be generated in a remote village in South America or Africa as in a high-tech area as long as you have these solar modules that tend to last 30 or 40 years without service or maintenance.

Q. What is your response to calls from individuals who want to use renewable energy in ways you believe are less than honorable?

I have had some calls recently from air force bases putting together a telephone system in Egypt. I said, “Wait a minute. This is for the assault on Iraq, isn’t it?” He said, “Yes.” So I told him, “I’m sorry. I am a Quaker, and I don’t support military action or violence that does harm to people. I’d rather you found them elsewhere.” We have plenty of business that we don’t have to do what we don’t want to.

Q. Are there times when you have to discourage people from investing in solar energy?

The industry is going in two directions now. There are people on the grid connecting solar equipment to their homes and there are people off the grid. It used to be the same equipment, but now it’s different. The people on the grid put up some solar panels and it feeds it directly into the grid, and if the grid fails they don’t have any power. All it’s doing is reducing their power bill. We decided years ago to stay with what we’re doing and what we have to show here: an off-grid home that’s working.

Q. Do you encourage people here to go solar? I don’t think there’s very much sun in northern Idaho.

We have a lot in the summer, but in the winter we don’t. It’s a big problem. It’s practical if a home can get 80 or 85 percent of their power from sun, and they might use a windmill or engine generator just to make up the difference when it’s snowing and dark all January. Wind here is not good, and it’s very site selective, but if it works in Idaho, it works anywhere.

Q. I know you are vegetarians, Quakers, and you contribute money and time to the Friends of the Shelter now that it has a “no-kill” policy. Do you believe the success of your business has to do with “right living?”

We try to treat people like neighbors, and we answer all our correspondence to help people solve problems. I feel like we’re making a contribution to technology and to the education that’s going to be needed in the future as petroleum gets more expensive and harder to find.

Our appetite for energy is so huge in this country. Our house uses about 15 percent of the power of a typical house in town, and we probably have 60 or 70 percent of all the benefits they would have. We have to use propane for cooking and water heat; we can’t heat with electricity on any major appliance. We have wood and propane heat.

What I try to discourage is someone in town who thinks solar is really neat, so they want to cut the power line and switch over. It’s not that easy. First of all, they have to work on their consumption to get it down, and by doing so they can spend less money and cut out a lot more of their power bill and save a lot more pollution than they can by putting in high-tech equipment.

– Susan Drinkard

Summer 2003

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