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Our Experience

A History of Real Goods Solar


Like many of his contemporaries in the 1960s and 70s, John Schaeffer, founder of Real Goods Solar, experimented with an alternative lifestyle. After graduating from U.C. Berkeley in 1971 he moved to an isolated 290-acre mountain community, where he pursued a picturesque life of enlightened self-sufficiency.

Despite the idyllic surroundings, John soon found that certain key elements of life were missing. After several years, he began to tire of melted ice cream, lukewarm beer and squinting while reading by the flickering light of a kerosene lamp. He began to miss the creature comforts his family was lacking in their “off-the-grid” lifestyle. John yearned for a small amount of energy to strike a balance between the lifestyle he had grown up with and complete deprivation. He came to the realization that self-sufficiency was much more appealing as a concept than a reality.

Then he discovered 12-volt, direct current power. John hooked up an extra battery to his car that he charged while commuting to work, and brought it home with just enough juice to power lights, a radio, and the occasional television broadcast. Despite his departure from a pure ascetic lifestyle, every time Saturday Night Live aired, John’s home became the most popular place on the commune. Eventually, when the 12-hour community workdays began to take their toll, John took a job as a computer operator in Ukiah, some 35 twisty miles from Boonville.

Once the word got out that John would be making the trek over the mountain to the city daily, he became a one-man pick-up and delivery service, procuring the wood stoves, fertilizer, chicken wire, bone meal, gardening seeds, tools and all the other supplies needed for the commune. As a conscientious and naturally frugal person, John spent hours scrutinizing the hardware stores and home centers of Ukiah, searching for the best deals on the real goods needed for the communards’ close-to-the-earth lifestyle.

One day, while driving his VW bug back to the commune after a particularly vexing shopping trip, a thought occurred to John. “Wouldn’t it be great,” he mused, “if there was one store that sold all the products needed for independent, off-the-grid living, and sold them at fair prices?” The idea of Real Goods was born. The company thrived, opening up retail stores and eventually morphed into a mail-order company and later into the nation’s largest purveyor of solar system installations.

From its humble beginnings in 1978, Real Goods Solar became a real business, with real employees serving real customers. The company now can lay claim to one of the first retail sales of a solar panel in the United States. Early on, John managed to turn his personal commitment to right livelihood into company policy, pioneering the concept of a socially conscious and environmentally responsible business. The company consistently has been honored and awarded for its ethical and environmental business standards. Plaudits include Corporate Conscience Awards (from the Council on Economic Priorities); inclusion in Inc. magazine’s 1993 list of America’s 500 Fastest- Growing Companies; three consecutive Robert Rodale Awards for Environmental Education; Northern California Small Business of the Year Winner for 1994; finalist for Entrepreneur of the year two years running; news coverage in Time, Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, and Mother Earth News; numerous TV appearances, countless Japanese magazines; and many thick scrapbooks full of press clippings.