Jeff Shaw and Brad Pitt Light the Way

Brad Pitt and Jeff Shaw

Jeff Shaw helped install solar systems for Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation in New Orleans. His reward: a photo op and some quality time with the celebrity.

After Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, most people were scrambling to get out of New Orleans. Jeff Shaw, however, was doing everything he could to get in.

With the help of a state representative, Shaw, executive director of the Louisiana Solar Energy Society (LSES), and Bill Ball, a fellow solar enthusiast from Arkansas, were able to tow Ball’s 2-kilowatt (kW) solar trailer safely through the post-storm chaos to St. Bernard’s Parish. The trailer then powered the port authority there for months, allowing the city to receive much-needed supplies.

For Baton Rouge resident Shaw, 53, the decision to help was an easy one. After all, Shaw owes his interest in solar to Louisiana’s frequent power outage-inducing hurricanes. “I’ve been a sailor for 30 years, and I would use solar to power things on my boat,” he said. “When hurricanes would hit, we’d lose power for weeks at a time. So I thought, why don’t I do the same thing I’ve been doing on my sailboat?”

But he didn’t stop there. In the last 10 years, Shaw has worked to make Louisiana one of the friendliest states in the nation for solar. Shaw helped write the state’s net-metering statute, which passed in 2003. He helped organize support for the 2007 passage of generous state solar incentives, including 50 percent rebates on solar systems. And Shaw also cofounded LSES, the state’s ASES chapter, where he helps organize popular outreach activities throughout the year. The group’s leg of the ASES National Solar Tour even spawned a spring edition last year, in order to keep up with demand.

As if solar weren’t a large enough part of his life, Shaw started his own solar installation company, Gulf South Solar (gulfsouthsolar.com), in 2003, after being laid off from his full-time job as an engineer. At the time, his was one of just two solar companies in the state. These days, thanks largely to his own advocacy efforts, Shaw has a lot more competition. “When the incentives passed in 2007, we went from two to 75 [companies] practically overnight,” Shaw said. “The growth has just been tremendous.”

Jeff Shaw’s advice for fellow solar advocates:

  • Study what’s been done to promote solar in neighboring states. “Take the good from it, learn from the bad and then apply it to what you’re doing in your state.”
  • Get familiar with your state’s lawmaking process. “I went to talk to a legislator about net metering, and he said, ‘OK, write the law.’ I said, ‘I’m an engineer, I can’t write a law.’ And he just said, ‘Yes, you can. You’re a citizen. Any citizen can write a law.’ So I did.”
  • Start (or join) an ASES chapter and work to educate others. “Put yourself out there. Bring yourself up to speed, and then work to bring everybody else up to speed with you.”
  • Never give up.“Don’t let anything stop you. Your state doesn’t want to pass a net-metering law? Okay, then just install systems off the grid. You can still do it.”

 

Because of the skyrocketing number of installers entering the trade, promoting better standards and certification has become Shaw’s next big project. He teaches the curriculum for the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners’ entry-level certificate at a community college, and his company hosts a hands-on training center. He’d also like to start advocating for feed-in tariffs in the state.

Shaw knows from experience that none of these goals will be easily achieved in the oil and gas mecca that is Louisiana. “It’s been a challenge,” he said. “Doing anything with [renewable] energy here is kind of against the grain. But this is the future; we’re going to have to do it.”

Shaw has at least one high-profile supporter backing his cause. Brad Pitt, whose Make It Right Foundation has adopted New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward and is leading an effort to rebuild it sustainably, contacted Shaw’s company a few years ago for help. Shaw rounded up several dozen solar pals and headed to New Orleans, where they installed nine 5-kW solar systems on demonstration houses over the course of six days. While there, Shaw got a chance to bring Pitt up to speed on the latest in solar.

“There were no bodyguards, no security details or anything,” Shaw said. “It was just him, riding his bike around and talking to us. It was really cool.”

— Corey Dahl

Corey Dahl is managing editor of SOLAR TODAY.

 

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