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First Earth Day Organizer Bullish on Renewables

April 19, 2010

Photo of Earth Day organizer Denis Hayes, in worn leather jacket, addressing an Earth Day crowd from a podium ornamented with evergreen branches. Enlarge image

Denis Hayes fit in with the ethos and dress styles of the era when he organized the first Earth Day in 1970
Courtesy of The Bullitt Foundation

Earth Day Founder Denis Hayes had a roller coaster ride as head of the Solar Energy Research Institute 30 years ago, but today he says the drive toward renewable energy is "unstoppable."

"The only question is whether the United States or China or Europe will lead the way," said Hayes, who was director of SERI, the predecessor of the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, from July 1979 to June 1981.

Forty years after he and former U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson put together the first Earth Day, Hayes took some time to reflect on his time in Golden, Colo..

"Back in the early days of SERI, we had a huge lead over the rest of the world," says Hayes, who now runs the green-oriented non-profit Bullitt Foundation in Seattle. "Now we're trailing Europe and China. The question is whether we'll catch up and pass them. I think we can."

Solar researcher Larry Kazmerski, who was at SERI then and remains at NREL now, remembers Hayes well.

"Denis was a director far ahead of his time," Kazmerski said. "He just knew the value of renewable energy — and had an outstanding respect for science and technology."

Finding His Environmental Calling

Photo of Denis Hayes as he looked when he was director of SERI, 1979 to 1981. He is wearing a wide-collared shirt and loud pin-striped blue suit. Enlarge image

Denis Hayes, as he looked when he ran the Solar Energy Research Institute, NREL's predecessor, from 1979 to 1981.
Credit: NREL file photo

Hayes was backpacking around the world in the 1960s when he made an observation that would fundamentally change him and set him on his life's work. He was in southern Africa, in a sleeping bag watching the butterflies and primates, when it occurred to him that humans were the only animals not playing by nature's ecological rules.

They'd abandoned the sun as a means of heat, turning to fossil fuels, "substituting energy for human ingenuity."

Hayes returned to the United States and got a degree from Stanford University.

He was doing graduate work at Harvard when former U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin picked Hayes to organize the first Earth Day — April 22, 1970. Two thousand colleges participated, as did 10,000 elementary and secondary schools. Since then, Earth Day has become an annual international celebration, continuing Hayes' and Nelson's vision of a day of education, contemplation and celebration.

Later, Hayes was the driving force behind the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, and he remains active today in building sustainable cities in the Pacific Northwest.

Solar Energy Becomes a National Priority

He looks back on his time at SERI as a Tilt-a-whirl of highs and lows.

SERI was opened in 1977 during the Carter administration. After SERI's first director, Paul Rappaport, became ill, Carter picked Hayes to take over.

For a while, "It was like Project Apollo or the Manhattan Project," Hayes recalled of the priority given to SERI those first few years. "Each year, Congress doubled our budget."

SERI focused on research, but also on spending money to promote solar energy as the fuel of the future.

Hayes recruited top scientists from the best universities in the world. They gladly gave up tenure for a chance to do world-leading research in solar energy.

There was some resistance, though, in the form of a report that "purported to prove that whatever you did with photovoltaics, you would never be able to provide cost-effective energy, for any purpose," Hayes said. He credits Energy Secretary James Schlessinger, whose background was nuclear energy, with being open-minded when Hayes met with him to try to refute the report.

"Schlessinger was a smart, fair guy," said Hayes. "He always insisted on making decisions based on the best evidence." So, Schlessinger set aside the report and let SERI keep hiring the best in the field.

In the final year of the Carter administration, "SERI was employing more Ph.Ds and obtaining more intellectual property than the rest of the world put together," Hayes said.

Carter's goal was 20 percent renewable energy by the year 2000. "We would have made it, the math says we could have done it," Hayes maintains.

Layoffs, Budget Cuts, a Raucous Speech

Recent photo of Denis Hayes. His short, neatly cropped gray hair is a stark contrast to the dark flowing locks he sported when he organized the first Earth Day - and still had when he was running SERI. Enlarge image

Denis Hayes as he looks today.
Courtesy of The Bullitt Foundation

Then, Ronald Reagan was elected, world oil prices plummeted, and the emphasis shifted back to fossil fuels — and away from using SERI dollars to promote solar energy.

During the first summer of the new administration, the cuts at SERI came like waves.

"They fired almost half our staff," Hayes recalled. "They reduced our $135 million budget by $100 million. They terminated all our contracts with universities — including two Nobel Prize winners — in one afternoon."

In the midst of the layoffs, Hayes says he "decided to deliver an impromptu going-away speech." He called a meeting of all the remaining staff at a building in the Jefferson County Fairgrounds in Golden, Colo.

"I remember coming in—and it was packed," Kazmerski said.

Hayes aired his frustrations, sealing his fate.

Later that day, Hayes called Kazmerski into his office to ask him to help search for his successor. But as Kazmerski remembers it, "Denis didn't even last the rest of the afternoon."

Hayes, thinking back on his notorious speech, said: "I pretty much guaranteed that I would never again run a federal lab."

At Bullitt, Hayes is trying to make the Pacific Northwest a model of sustainability, applying the lessons nature is teaching about the precariousness of the environment. In the face of lower snowpack from the Cascades, and more drought in late summer, he is focusing on smart buildings to sustain a post-carbon world.

"We have a six-story building in cloudy Seattle that generates through photovoltaics as much energy as it uses," Hayes said. "We capture rain water on the roof, and that water is available for drinking in August and September. We have compost toilets, everything we can think of that makes cost-effective sense. We're trying to get some of the models replicated for ecological communities and green cities."

Renewables Again in the Forefront, but Will US Prevail?

Photo of  US President Jimmy Carter on his visit to SERI in 1979. Accompanying him are SERI's first director, Paul Rappaport, and solar scientist Larry Kazmeski. Carter is wearing a light-colored overcoat in the black-and-white photo. Enlarge image

President Jimmy Carter visiting SERI on its second birthday in 1979. Accompanying him are SERI's first director, Paul Rappaport, to the president's right, and solar scientist Larry Kazmerski, who still works for NREL, on the president's left.
Credit: NREL file photo

For the United States to keep or regain the world lead in renewable energy, several things have to happen, Hayes maintains.

"We've still got wonderful research facilities and probably the best colleges and universities in the world teaching photovoltaics," he said. "And we have an enormous entrepreneurial and venture-capital community that maintains interest."

But the United States needs to commit to renewable energy for a longer time than between election cycles, he said, not just until a new party controls the White House or Congress.

"We need to make a serious national commitment to provide a stable environment to allow companies to make the necessary investments to drive down costs," Hayes said. "We need a guaranteed market to encourage production. Instead of extending the tax incentive for two or four years, we need to do it for 10 or 15."

Hayes said there also needs to be "a real emphasis on the cutting-edge research that NREL does along with a number of colleges and universities."

He is especially enthusiastic about the potential of high-efficiency thin-film solar cells, "the stuff you can coat a building or a roof with. Wherever you have a photon, it gives off an electron."

"I'm confident NREL will play an important part as long as it's supported within the administration," Hayes said.

He said current Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a scientist from the Lawrence-Berkeley National Lab, "understands the field. And so does Assistant Secretary Cathy Zoi, who has a strong background in venture capital."

Young people today know more about the perils humans can do to the Earth than any generation has before, he said. "We have young people talking about electric cars, the smart grid. They're creative, they don't know what they can't do. They're very solutions oriented."

Still, he worries that only a slice of the generation has gotten a good science education. "We haven't done such a good job in the place we used to be strongest — K-12. Science education today isn't what it should be."

Nonetheless, Hayes is optimistic. "It's a generation that gives you an awful lot of hope."

This week, NREL is celebrating the 40th anniversary of Earth Day with activities each day.

  • A showing of "The Energy Revolution" on Science-on-a-Sphere at the Visitors Center (all week)
  • A display of 12 winning Earth Day posters by students whose illustrations are based on the theme "Don't Get Mean, Get Green" (all week)
  • Alternative Commuting to Work Day which will include an alternative commuting booth at the Visitors Center and breakfast for those who use alternative transportation on that day (Tuesday, April 20)
  • A Power Lunch Lecture by Jim Dunn on "Ideas to Action: How to Live More Sustainably" (Wednesday, April 21)
  • Earth Day and Take Your Daughters and Sons to Work Day which will include programs at 9:30, 11:30 and 1:30 for children ages 9 to 15 (Thursday, April 22).

— Bill Scanlon