The solar homes of the future, circa 1975

A DOCUMERICA photographer reflects on the early days of residential solar power

Topics: solar panels, Solar Power, Photography, U.S. History, Environmental Protection Agency, ,

The solar homes of the future, circa 1975Steve Baer's "Zomework": High-efficiency, passive, solar-heated homes in New Mexico. (Credit: Boyd Norton, U.S. National Archives)

“There was a lot of innovation,” photographer Boyd Norton recalls of the pioneers of residential solar technology. “A lot of people trying all kinds of different things, and basically getting them to work.”

In the 1970s, the Environmental Protection Agency sent 70 or so photographers to document a broad array of environmental issues throughout the U.S. in a project they called Documerica. The agents captured some of the most pressing concerns of the time — from polluted cities to contaminated water, from urban youth culture to the daily lives of coal miners.

Also caught on film, though, was a sense of optimism for the future. While on commission, Norton visited solar projects in Arizona and New Mexico. Some were funded by universities and the National Science Foundation, others were backed by corporations like Solaron, the first publicly traded solar company. For the first time, the sun was being used to heat residential spaces. “They were just beautiful,” said Norton of the homes pictured above. He then corrected himself: “I mean beautiful in the sense of energy efficiency.”

“There was a great deal of enthusiasm,” said Norton, who reminisced about the projects from his home in Denver, as we both clicked through a Flickr set of his photos. “Even though, at that time, the technology hadn’t progressed to where it is today, there were a lot of very optimistic people that I talked with that said, ‘It’s going to happen.’ And it did.”

But it wasn’t a straight trajectory from these early experiments to where we are today. When Ronald Reagan came to power at the beginning of the 1980s, said Norton, he killed many of the incentives driving solar innovation. Famously, he even tore President Carter’s solar panels off the roof of the White House. The projects captured by Norton shut down, and Solaron went out of business.



Today, solar is back in a big way. The biggest breakthrough to take place since then was the development of photovoltaics, which today allow homeowners to sell the energy they generate back to the grid. The cheaper, more efficient technology has “taken a quantum leap” in the years since, said Norton. It’s what’s allowed solar panels to become mainstream: Last year a record-setting 16 million panels were installed in the U.S. Below, a look back at the first advances made toward a solar future. (Pictures appear with their original captions.)

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    Boyd Norton, U.S. National Archives

    Solar homes of the future

    John Keyes, president of International Solarthermics Corporation, shown with the backyard solar heating system he developed. The a-frame structure contains the collectors (behind the glass plates), reflector plates (snowcovered plates on the ground) and storage system that includes several tons of one inch sized rocks to store heat inside the a-frame. This unit is connected to the home heating system by an insulated underground duct, 05/1975.

    Boyd Norton, U.S. National Archives

    Solar homes of the future

    Solar heating and cooling demonstration project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. This home is one of three completed by the university using a liquid solar heating system for both heating and air conditioning. At the time this picture was taken, no such systems were on the market. Flat plate collectors on the roof have blackened copper tubing to absorb heat from the sun. Heated water is piped to an 1,100 gallon tank in the basement and then is circulated through the house to heat it, 05/1975.

    Boyd Norton, U.S. National Archives

    Solar homes of the future

    John Bayliss, president of the Solaron Corporation, the first publicly owned solar energy company in the nation. The firm used a hot air heating system comprised of flat black aluminum plates behind double glass panels. An insulated bin filled with rocks two inches in diameter is the heat storage system. It is designed for the basement of the average home while the collector panels are fitted to the roof. The corporation is now manufacturing the solar heating and storage system for the mass market, 05/1975.

    Boyd Norton, U.S. National Archives

    Solar homes of the future

    Home of architect Richard Crowther, that is heated with solar energy collected by flat plate collectors. A flat black aluminum plate behind the glass absorbs sunlight and heats air forced between the glass and the black plate. The air is then forced through a bin containing several tons of two inch sized rocks, that store the heat. Because of extra special insulating features of this home, the solar heating system provides almost 90 percent of the heat needed, 05/1975.

    Boyd Norton, U.S. National Archives

    Solar homes of the future

    Solar greenhouse owned and built by Peter Howell, located at about the 8,500 foot level in the front range. Using arches from a quonset hut lathe structure was covered with two layers of 10 mil vinyl with a dead air space of four inches. Blackened 55-gallon oil drums filled with water absorb heat during the day and lose it at night to prevent drastic temperature changes. Crops such as lettuce and peas were grown all winter. In may with a foot of snow and a temperature of 35 degrees, it was 80 degrees inside, 05/1975.

    Solar homes of the future

    Picture shows the cusp-shaped solar heating panel used for heating a swimming pool at a home near Tucson, Arizona. The home is owned by Mr. And Mrs. Aden Meinel, solar energy experts, 04/1974

    Boyd Norton, U.S. National Archives

    Solar homes of the future

    Two inflated polyethylene solar heated "greenhouses" located at the University of Arizona Environmental Research Laboratory at Tucson. High intensity aquaculture is being studied in these structures; high intensity agriculture is studied in others the time for shrimp to breed hatch and mature has been halved over the natural ocean process, 04/1974

    Boyd Norton, U.S. National Archives

    Solar homes of the future

    View of tomatoes inside one of the solar greenhouses at the University of Arizona Environmental Research Laboratory at Tucson. High intensity agriculture in a high temperature, high humidity environment is being studied. University units in the Middle East are producing 200 pounds of vegetables per acre per day, 04/1974.

    Boyd Norton, U.S. National Archives

    Solar homes of the future

    Exterior picture of the south facing walls of a modular solar-heated home near Corrales, New Mexico. The panels are dropped during the day to allow sun to pass through the glass and heat water in blackened 55-gallon drums, 04/1974

    Boyd Norton, U.S. National Archives

    Solar homes of the future

    Modular solar-heated house built near Corrales, New Mexico, features interconnected units of aluminum with a urethane foam core of insulation. Adobe softens the interior providing an esthetics environment, 04/1974

    Boyd Norton, U.S. National Archives

    Solar homes of the future

    Log home under construction in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where solar heating panels will be installed in the roof. Logs, which require minimal energy for fabrication, and solar heating, plus an electrical wind generator on the roof will result in minimal energy consumption, 04/1974

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Lindsay Abrams

Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on all things sustainable. Follow her on Twitter @readingirl, email labrams@salon.com.

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