One Man Changed How Cambridge, Massachusetts Thinks About Solar Power

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Originally published on SolarLove.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, they say. Paul Lyons was influenced by his father, who began using solar power around the family home in 1973 when the first oil embargo hit America. That experience convinced Lyons that he wanted to be a mechanical engineer so he could help others see how solar power could benefit their lives.


That’s not the end of the story. In fact, the education of Paul Lyons was just beginning. In 1993, he and his young family moved to Oaxaca, Mexico to live among people who had lived sustainably for 3,000 years. Their lives centered around three elements — sunshine, rain, and the earth. Living among them taught Lyons that we all have a responsibility to the land.

He says that’s where bringing solar energy to the masses changed from being his job to being his life’s work. “The Zapotecs are defined by their place. And I realized that when your place is who you are, why would you do anything to degrade your place or to spoil it or to pollute it?” Lyons asks.  “Because you are essentially polluting yourself.”

Four years later he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, a community known for progressive ideas. It is also home to Harvard and MIT, two of the foremost engineering schools in the world. There he founded Zapotec Energy, a one man mechanical engineering practice. He specialized in consulting with a variety of clients on energy management, conservation, and renewable energy production.

When Lyons began, his clients were few and far between. Solar cost $10 per installed watt — several times more than what it is today. That was before there were federal or state incentives. The Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust Fund was created in 2003 to grant rebates for solar electric systems, and more tax incentives for business owners followed in 2008. As solar became more accessible, Zapotec grew from managing two projects a year to 10 per week. Today, Zapotec Energy has grown to 5 employees as the demand for solar has surged.

“Massachusetts has taken a strong stance in support of solar energy, allowing the industry to really take off,” said Aaron King, a 26-year-old design engineer, who joined Zapotec in 2015. “Having the opportunity to design solar PV systems is an invaluable experience that will help me, and similar young professionals, shape clean energy solutions that can eventually be used on a national or global scale.”

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As his company grew, the extra staff made it possible for Lyons to work with commercial and institutional developers. In partnership with Just-A-Start, a community development corporation, Zapotec designed a solar electrical system for a 10-unit, four-story condominium building for first time home buyers. The goal was to help locals who had been renting for most of their become home owners.

Zapotec Energy designed the building’s solar electrical system and wired it so that each of the 10 units can have their own solar system. That not only saves them from paying high electric utility bills, it also insulates them against the rising cost of electricity in the future.

In 2015, Lyons got involved with the Getting to Net Zero Task Force, a commission charged with answering an important question — What would it take to get Cambridge to a net zero energy budget?  “My contribution is to make it technically and financially possible for businesses to leave fossil fuels in the ground,” Lyons says.


Working with architects, city planners, energy efficiency experts, and researchers from Harvard and MIT, the task force made recommendation that could slash energy usage city wide by 40% through improving the energy efficiency of buildings and produce up to 30% of the energy the city needs from solar panels and thermal collectors. The rest of the city’s electrical requirements would be met from sustainable sources.

It might take at least 50 years for Cambridge to get to 95% renewable energy, but Lyons isn’t discouraged. “Does that mean I just give up today? I don’t think so,” he said. “I owe it to my children and their children someday that I did my part when I could see that the signs were clearly pointing towards the necessity of a zero carbon future.” That’s the sort of attitude more Americans will need to adopt if solar power is going to continue growing and make it unnecessary to continue extracting fossil fuels from the earth.

Source: The Boston Globe

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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