Gary Vaughn

In 1972, just before the Arab oil embargo triggered the first US “energy crisis,” Peter van Dresser, Steve Baer and Keith Haggard founded the New Mexico Solar Energy Association (NMSEA) and hosted the first “Life Technic” Conference, the “proceedings” from which became NMSEA’s first publication.

Soon thereafter, the Sun-dwellings Project was born when the Four Corners Regional Commission (a federally funded agency administered by the governors of the Four Corners states) asked van Dresser to consider a project to design solar heating units for retrofit to mobile homes. Van Dresser suggested, “Rather than try to solarize house trailers, why not develop inexpensive, owner-built solar homes?”

The commission approved van Dresser’s project. He then led a team of architects, engineers and solar experimenters to design and supervise construction of low-technology, solar-heated dwellings made of indigenous materials. The Sun-dwellings design team, initially including architects William Lumpkins and David Wright, engineers Francis Wessling and B.T. Rogers, and NMSEA Executive Director Keith Haggard, asked local people what their needs and desires were in a dwelling. They found that individuals who live in the pueblos and villages of northern NM tend to prefer their traditional way of life.

This meant two things: First, the design team would have to work with classically beautiful Southwestern adobe brick walls, flagstone floors and peeled pine roof beams. Whatever kind(s) of solar heating equipment the team decided on would have to be—above all—simple and reliable.

Construction of the four 20’x40′ test units (one featuring a lean-to greenhouse, a second utilizing a Trombe wall collector, a third unit employing the “direct gain” concept and a fourth to serve as a control) began early in 1976. Mark Chalom, Aubrey Owen and Quentin Wilson served as on-site construction foremen for the project and trained workers on solar energy fundamentals and basic building techniques.

The 16 trainee-workers who participated in the project—all men from the surrounding pueblos and villages—did their own millwork, quarried flagstones, cut timber and made adobe bricks for each “Sun-dwelling” with materials from the immediate area.

In the early 70s, Doug Balcomb, a nuclear-engineering Ph.D. from MIT, accepted a job at Los Alamos National Lab to work on nuclear-powered spacecraft. When the program lost funding, he followed his growing interest in solar energy. Dr. Balcomb pioneered early research in quantifying passive solar design performance, including analyzing data from the Ghost Ranch Sun-dwellings. He is considered the “father” of the Energy-10 modeling software that revolutionized passive and active solar-architecture design methods. After serving as president of NMSEA, Dr. Balcomb became the first director of the US National Renewable Energy Lab.

From 1977 to 1982, NMSEA had an executive director and paid staff engaged in cutting-edge “alternative architecture,” sustainable community building and passive solar research, applications and education. NMSEA’s annual “Life Technic” Conferences at Ghost Ranch were well attended and resulted in publication of thick volumes of conference proceedings. One of the regular attendees was a young scientist named Amory Lovins.

Federal support for solar-energy research ended in 1983 with Ronald Reagan’s election. 1983 also saw the loss of Peter van Dresser. NMSEA’s paid staff plummeted to zero, and the organization soon lacked funds to publish even a modest newsletter. Dr. Bill Gross, then Dean of the College of Engineering at the University of New Mexico, hosted NMSEA board meetings in his living room. However, the annual NMSEA Life Technic Conference continued and even expanded to include a co-conference—the Peter van Dresser Workshop on Village Development.

Slowly the organization rebuilt itself. In 1994, NMSEA published the first edition of “The New SunPaper.” In the late ‘90s, Karlis Viceps launched the NMSEA “SunChaser” Program, named after a solar-energy demonstration trailer that he built. The SunChaser trailer roamed the roads of NM for years, delivering hands-on solar energy education to thousands of students.

In 2000, Rose Kern organized the first NMSEA Solar Fiesta, held at the Bernalillo High School campus. A combination of a “solar trade show” and an educational forum, the Solar Fiesta became an annual event, one which has introduced thousands of New Mexicans to a wide variety of solar energy products, ideas and possibilities.

In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, LANL physicist Ben Luce expanded NMSEA’s educational reach with an expansive web site, including hundreds of pages of high quality educational documents and informative handouts. He also encouraged NMSEA to become more involved in renewable energy policy advocacy.

In the past 10 years, NMSEA has conducted numerous “professional quality” educational workshops devoted to photovoltaic design and installation, solar hot water system design and installation, biofuels, electric vehicle conversions and home energy-efficiency upgrades.

NMSEA’s SunChaser Program is still alive today. In 2011, SunChaser instructors made 56 full-day school visits, and delivered high quality, hands-on educational content to almost 6,000 students. In addition, NMSEA volunteers manned info tables and waved the solar flag at 28 community events such as energy fairs and Earth Day Celebrations.

In the past few years, NMSEA members have become more active in “advocacy” and “empowerment.” NMSEA has participated in public hearings on energy efficiency and clean energy initiatives, written op-eds, and authored articles specifically focused on topics related to renewable energy generation and regulated utility initiatives.

The beat goes on…

Gary Vaughn is president of the New Mexico Solar Energy Association.

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