Bright Light, Big Industry

Helen Nez Sage, grandmother of 10, convinced John Ragan he had made the right career move. Sage lives in a Hogan, a traditional Navajo dwelling, in a remote part of northwestern Arizona out of reach of the electricity grid. Every other day, as she's done for 30 years, she brings home a block of ice from a store dozens of miles away to keep her family's food from spoiling. Ragan installed Sage's first refrigerator, powered by a solar panel on the roof. "She wouldn't let me go without taking a picture,'' he says. "It was a life-changing experience for her."

For Ragan, it was an opportunity to crack a marketing problem: how to tap new markets for photovoltaics--the solar panels that turn sunlight to electricity. The finance expert had worked several jobs in Washington, D.C., but he quit two years ago to become director of strategic business development at First Solar in Scottsdale, Ariz. After listening to the Navajos' concerns, he suggested his colleagues develop a solar-powered refrigerator. He's sold six for $1,750 apiece, and hopes engineers can drive the cost down to below $1,000.

In this flat economy, renewable energy is creating job openings for entrepreneurial types. In recent years sales of photovoltaics have risen 25 to 35 percent a year, by some estimates. The field employs about 20,000 people, but that figure is expected to rise to 150,000 by 2020, according to Sandia National Labs in Albuquerque, N.M. More than a million electricity-generating wind turbines have sprung up all over the world, mostly in Germany and the United States; they're generating 40 percent more electricity than a year ago, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Boulder, Colo.

Jobs in renewable energy have a shoot-from-the-hip quality. "I'm a jack-of-all-trades," says John Bennett, who left Intel four months ago to work at AstroPower, a solar-panel maker in Newark, Dela., where he markets solar roofing shingles through Home Depot stores. Roughly 5,000 homeowners have taken advantage of subsidies and installed solar shingles.

Experts say that the technologies are almost ready to stand on their own, without subsidies. Engineers are developing solar "paint" that would turn any surface into a potential electrical generator. It won't make it to retail shelves for at least five years, if at all, but inexpensive rolls of plastic coated with electricity-generating film just might. Says NREL researcher Brian Parsons: "The long-term prospects are excellent."