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January 1, 2013
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Weiss steps down from leadership role at SEI

CARBONDALE, Colorado - Johnny Weiss, a visionary for solar energy technology, is taking that long, metaphorical walk into the setting sun after a 40-year career spreading the solar gospel.

Weiss, 61, who has recently stepped down from his longtime position as executive director of Solar Energy International (SEI), is moving to Paonia.

"It's a new era for me, and for SEI, too," said Weiss.

Under Weiss, SEI grew from a funky but dedicated small nonprofit to a powerhouse in the world of solar technology education. It counted more than 16,000 alumni as of 2011, its 20th year in business.

SEI operated for years in cramped offices in the old Carbondale Town Hall, then moved to larger quarters in the Third Street Center.

Under Weiss' leadership, the organization also built a campus in Paonia, in its search for less expensive classroom and office space.

The organization currently employs 20 people, Weiss estimated, following a reorganization earlier this year that resulted in layoffs for several full-time staffers.

Presently, SEI trains 3,000 people a year, in classes here and around the world. The classes are not just about working in the solar-power industry, Weiss said. A growing portion of SEI's work, he said, is to "train the trainers, so that they can train others."

SEI is now making Paonia its headquarters, leaving a satellite presence in Carbondale. And while Weiss has stepped down from a top leadership position, he will continue as a part-time advisor and consultant.

"And I'm looking for special solar educational projects to do in the next decade," he added.

Weiss, 61, recently bought a house in Paonia, where he plans to live with his former wife, Karen McVoy, now that they have reconciled, and with their two sons, Zack, 25, and Alex, 23, whenever they happen by.

He also has a ready-made set of friends there thanks to a steady migration of longtime Carbondale residents to the North Fork, an area that is warmer and more affordable.

"I hope it'll be a wonderful and fun place to live, as Carbondale has been for me for so long," he said.

Weiss, originally from New Jersey, moved to Colorado in the summer of 1972, aiming to be a carpenter and home builder.

"I'm a college dropout," he said, explaining that he picked up carpentry after leaving a college liberal arts program in 1971.

He arrived in Colorado shortly before the Arab oil embargo, which left U.S. consumers lining up at gas stations and seeking alternative energy sources to heat their homes.

"That's when I met some of the early solar pioneers of the valley," Weiss said, such as Doug Davis and Ron Shore "and the Windstar crowd - John Denver, Amory Lovins and Buckminster Fuller."

He and another local carpenter, Ivan Warman, obtained a U.S. Department of Energy grant to build solar homes.

With fellow builders Kevin Fetch and Michael Krival, the group set out to change the world, one solar home at a time, starting out with homes in the relatively new Crystal Village subdivision in Carbondale.

Weiss soon began to see the potential for solar and other alternative forms of energy, and he joined up with two other solar visionaries from Carbondale, Ken Olson and Steve McCarney, to create a solar energy educational program at Colorado Mountain College (CMC) in 1980.

"That was a one-year vocational training program that CMC pioneered back then," Weiss recalled.

The nascent solar energy industry got into trouble, though, as oil prices dropped and the global energy industry became more concentrated on petroleum.

Even former U.S. President Ronald Reagan got involved when, in 1981, he stripped from the White House roof a set of solar panels put there by former President Jimmy Carter. And CMC, in 1990, pulled the plug on the solar training classes.

But in the Roaring Fork Valley, the passion for alternative energy, and solar energy in particular, was undimmed.

Weiss and Olson formed a company, Solar Technology Instate, which soon evolved into Solar Energy International. Weiss continued as executive director. Olson moved on and eventually formed a solar installation firm in Carbondale, SolEnergy, and McCarney works with the Solar Electric Light Fund, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

All three have taken their expertise to other parts of the globe, Weiss said.

"We're all had international experiences in the developing world," Weiss explained, pointing out that rural villages and farms often lack connections to national power grids.

In such cases, he said, solar technology can raise living standards and save lives by providing power for appliances and medical equipment.

In keeping with his goal of finding new projects, Weiss spent a week in early December in Washington, D.C., meeting with Village Power. The organization is promoting solar energy at the village level in undeveloped areas around the world.

His role, he said, is in the training and educational components of the group's programs, although his exact duties have yet to be determined.

Many remote villages "currently" (he acknowledged the pun) depend heavily on diesel fuel for their power.

"They're tragically, unsustainably dependent," he said. If fuel deliveries are interrupted, villagers go without electricity for lights, refrigeration, pumps and other machinery. Village Power is circumventing that dependency by helping villagers install solar power technology.

Even as his career takes a turn, Weiss is eagerly anticipating his immediate future in Paonia.

"I look forward to being a part of it," he said of the tight-knit community of the town.

He will still come back to Carbondale frequently, he said, for holidays, fairs and other events. And he hopes to stay in touch with the Roaring Fork Valley community through the Internet. He said he is retaining his SEI email address, johnny@solarenergy.org .

While he is a fan of the internet, he doesn't have a website.

"I think it's one of the most constructive things that's happening today," he said of the internet. "I'm very impressed by the internet's ability to promote democracy and a better world."

It's the kind of thing a future historian, looking back on these early times in alternative-energy technology and usage, might say about Johnny Weiss and his work in his chosen field.

jcolson@postindependent.com


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The Post Independent Updated Jan 1, 2013 12:08AM Published Jan 1, 2013 12:05AM Copyright 2013 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.