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Early Solar Energy Giant Bill Yerkes Passes On

We all have been informed of the passing of actress and ambassador Shirley Temple Black and comedian Sid Ceaser this week, but the passing of “Bill” Yerkes, one of the modern solar pioneers, is worth notice.

In 1975, Yerkes founded Solar Technology International in Chatsworth, Calif., which developed processes for mass-producing crystalline silicon solar cells for some earliest commercially available PV modules. After Atlantic Richfield Co. Inc. purchased STI, Yerkes subsequently became CEO of ARCO Solar in Camarillo, Calif. The Wall Street Journal reported, “During Yerkes' tenure, the company reached industry milestones, such as the first 1 megawatt of annual production in 1980 and the first 1-megawatt grid-tied solar installation in 1982.”

Siemens bought out Arco Solar, and later Shell bought out Siemens Solar USA, and finally SolarWorld Industries America Inc. bought the Shell unit in 2006. SolarWorld closed the Camarillo factory in 2011, the site still holds the record as the longest to be continuously operated by a U.S. solar manufacturer. Some of Yerkes’ former ARCO Solar employees remain within SolarWorld today. 

I met Bill in 1975 when I was working in the U.S. Senate, and he was an indefatigable educator of the myriad of doubting Thomas’ on Capitol Hill. No one thought solar had any value down on earth, just in space for delivering micro-power to satellites. 

When I left to work at the Solar Lobby, founded by the big nine environmental groups, in the early 1980’s, one of the earliest givers was Bill Yerkes out of his personal funds.  Bill was not only a technical giant, and one of the earliest PV businessmen, but an unapologetic advocate of the future of photovoltaics and the role of the entire portfolio of solar and renewable energy technologies in our nation’s future.

He was a brilliant man, a humble person, a driven visionary, a practical entrepreneur, and one that did not suffer fools lightly. He was in the exclusive club of the solar founders along with some of our other pioneers including Stan Ovshinky (ECD), Water Hesse (Entech), and Ishaq Shahryar (Solec Int’l) who have also recently passed away.

For all of us in the clean energy community — we owe them our respect, remembrance for what they contributed, and the assuredness that what they started is only just the beginning.

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