Old-school innovator

Chico company’s founder bet on solar energy— will Americans finally embrace it?

SULTAN OF SOLAR<br>Freeman Ford is known as a pioneer in solar industry. His Chico-based company manufactures polymer solar heat exchangers for several products, including a residential water-heating system.

Freeman Ford is known as a pioneer in solar industry. His Chico-based company manufactures polymer solar heat exchangers for several products, including a residential water-heating system.

Photo By Melissa Daugherty

Ford factoids:
FAFCO president Freeman Ford …
• earned degrees from Dartmouth College and the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
• is a veteran of the Vietnam War who piloted planes off aircraft carriers.
• lives in the Bay Area and commutes to Chico by flying his Twin Beech.

Humans face a moral question when considering the most responsible, sustainable way to use the Earth’s resources.

Freeman Ford calls it the dinosaur’s dilemma: “Imagine you are a dinosaur, and 40 million years ago you were given a choice: Would you like to be burned in a fiery death, to pollute the atmosphere and create greenhouse gases, or would you like to have an enlightened existence and be made into a solar collector, to heat water indefinitely?”

Ford is president and CEO of FAFCO, a multimillion-dollar manufacturing company that takes the latter choice to heart. He has been keenly involved in the development of elegantly simple technology to harness the power of the sun.

Chico-based FAFCO is known as the oldest and largest manufacturer of solar pool-heating panels in the country, as well as an international manufacturer of polymer heat exchangers used in water heating and industrial cooling. The scarcity of natural resources, coupled with the rising cost of fossil fuels, is increasing the need for affordable, sustainable technology, Ford says—and solar power is a fantastic resource.

In the solar industry, Ford is something of a pioneer. He co-founded FAFCO in 1969 and in 2000 moved the company from the Silicon Valley to Otterson Drive in south Chico. He is a previous chairman and treasurer of the Solar Energy Industries Association in Washington, D.C., and, about a year ago, he was the 45th person inducted into the Solar Hall of Fame—an international honor.

Ford is on a first-name basis with FAFCO’s 100 employees. He is intelligent, thoughtful, and just as concerned about mankind’s impact on the global community as he is about maintaining his company’s place as an industry leader and innovator in the global solar-energy market.

Most recently, after a 10-year, $4 million joint investment and partnership in research and innovation with the U.S. Department of Energy, FAFCO released an efficient, self-installed solar home water-heating system, called Hot2o. The system was released for commercial sale last year and can be ordered online from the company (www.fafco.com). It is designed to reduce water-heating bills by up to 50 percent.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, electric water heaters are responsible for 25 percent of a home’s energy. In addition to significantly cutting heating bills, FAFCO’s do-it-yourself product reduces the amount of greenhouse-gas emissions produced by traditional domestic water heaters.

Ford explained that electric water heaters initially are cheap to buy, but they are inefficient and wasteful, as the energy used to run them is generated at a power plant and then transported through the grid. If the process can be contained and localized, as it is with a solar system, it is far more efficient and sustainable.

THE HEAT IS ON<br>Once installed on the roof of a structure, FAFCO’s Hot2o uses the sun’s energy to heat water.

Photo By Melissa Daugherty

The initial cost to convert a home to solar-heated water has been daunting for consumers. Fortunately, the federal government enacted the Tax Relief and Health Care Act of 2006, which created energy-related tax credits of 30 percent (up to $2,000) of the cost to install alternative systems, such as the Hot2o. In California, Assembly Bill 1470—the Solar Hot Water and Efficiency Act of 2007—provides additional rebates and incentives to encourage homes and businesses to switch to solar power, bringing the out-of-pocket costs of FAFCO’s system to about $1,800.

This system will completely pay for itself in about seven years, according to Ford’s analysis. Additionally, a solar domestic hot-water system will save two tons of carbon emissions per household per year.

Even more impressive, Ford said, FAFCO has created enough solar collectors over the past 30 years to save approximately 1.5 million tons of carbon emissions per year. Installed all over the world, these solar collectors generate more than 4,000 megawatts of electrical power—equivalent to the output of about four nuclear reactors, or four power plants.

What’s shocking is that only a tiny fraction of these systems are installed in U.S. homes. The majority of the market FAFCO serves is located in Asia and Europe.

Ford explains that the reason for this is that the United States does not have a comprehensive energy policy—if anything, he notes, it’s “drill more wells.” Because they have access to fewer resources, other countries, such as Japan, do have comprehensive energy policies.

“We use 25 percent of the world’s energy for 5 percent of the world’s population. There is a fundamental disconnect; the U.S. is not investing in infrastructure,” Ford said. “The current solar hot-water-heating world market is split up like this: 78 percent in China, 12 percent in Europe, and 1 percent in the United States.”

Despite the statistics indicating the reticence in the United States to embrace the solar solution, and the slump in the housing market and the economy, Ford remains optimistic.

“If our destiny is to survive, and I think it is, we are going to have to recognize that we need to use the resources that we are given more intelligently; we are going to have to be a bit more imaginative,” he said. “I think we can certainly do this.”

Recently, more people are coming to value conservation. As Ford points out, natural gas and petroleum products can be used two ways: burn them to heat something (which creates pollution and is not sustainable), or convert them to polymers and drugs. Politically, the United States has a vested interest in remaining addicted to burning these resources. The rising cost of crude oil is immensely lucrative for businesses invested in this industry. President Bush, for instance, comes from a family that made its fortune through the oil industry.

However, the peak in petroleum production is passing, most analysts agree, and demand is quickly outstripping supply. Therefore, companies such as FAFCO, which convert petroleum byproducts such as polymer into solar panels, create a sustainable solution to the energy problem.

When considering Ford’s dinosaur metaphor, the question for the United States and the rest of the world is: If your resources are scarce, and time is of the essence, how do you best use them?

“I think most dinosaurs would get to the right answer,” he said. “The American people have not quite made that choice yet.”