10/28/2010 07:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How Cannabis Saved the Planet (by Funding the Solar Industry)

Briceland in Northern California is hippie country, home to thousands of bombed-out remnants of the 1970s counterculture. They arrived from all over America to turn on and drop out. And to make money they grew hundreds of tons of of marijuana each year. It is the hub of the $14 billion a year Californian marijuana industry and within days it may be the hub of a vast, new, legal industry. But Briceland also gave birth to a very different kind of green revolution.

It was thanks to the pot-growers of Northern California, and one pot-smoker in particular, that the solar power industry grew into the $60 billion a year behemoth that it is today. You could say that the solar industry, which is revolutionizing the way our society generates electricity, is an unintentional side effect of marijuana.

"My solar business was entirely dependent on pot growers for the first few years," says Dave Katz, founder and President of AEE Solar, the largest renewable energy wholesaler in the United States. I met him while researching my book Off the Grid: Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government and True Independence in Modern America.

AEE sells solar panels, inverters, batteries, and all the other cables and boxes needed to power a home from the sun. It is headquartered in Redway, California, a few miles from Katz' house in Briceland. Land was $400 an acre when Katz moved there in 1980. Today it can fetch up to $40,000 an acre -- without building permission.

Back then, Katz had a business selling parts for VW cars and vans -- the hippies' vehicle of choice. "People were just starting to grow pot -- they all had these hand-built houses in the hills. They were dark, lighted with kerosene lamps. Everybody lived off the grid. And we would sit around and smoke pot," Katz recalled. The hippie homes in the mountains are still there, nestling amongst the redwoods. And they are almost all powered by solar panels which glint from the walls and rooftops wherever you look.

"We were doing things like running lights and stereos off the car battery. Then I thought, Why don't I put two batteries in the car? Then I can always have one battery charged at home when I need it, even if the car isn't there. I designed a little setup and you pushed the switch and disconnected the car battery and charged the extra battery. Then the neighbors wanted it and I was doing it for a lot of people."

It was then that Dave got lucky; he was the right guy in the right place at the right time. He liked to visit the annual consumer-electronics show in Las Vegas. In 1980, he spotted his first solar panel. "It was an ARCO 33-watt panel, sitting in a booth full of solar toys," he said. Dave felt sorry for the stallholder who was ignored by the thousands of passers-by. "I asked him about it," said Dave, "and he said, 'Oh, nobody wants those.' I bought a hundred of them and sold them in a couple of weeks, and people would pay cash."

The word went out among the back-to-the-landers, and Dave was besieged. "I bought a bunch more and sold them in one week."

Katz recalled: "Up until then it had been a real hassle to keep all those batteries charged up, and it was expensive on gas for the generator."

Solar panels transformed the economics of pot growing. Freed from the need to buy petrol, the growers not only saved money, they made fewer risky journeys into town during the harvest season.

In the Emerald Triangle these days, "most of the people who buy solar panels, and inverters and batteries use them to cool greenhouses," Dave said. "A lot of the pot farms are very small; mom-and-pop in a ten-by-ten [greenhouse] because it's legal to do that."

It is now, thanks to new laws on growing marijuana for medical use; it wasn't legal back then.
"I sold [solar panels] only, no installations," Dave was careful to stress to me. If he went up into the hills, you could be sure it was just to smoke pot, not to help grow it. "There were so many people who lived on the land who wanted electricity," he said. He had a guaranteed market. "Everybody else was happy with playing guitars and [using] candles. I probably ruined all that.

This doesn't mean that there would be no solar industry without the pot growers, but it might have remained a very different industry; one focused on large industrial applications instead of harnessing the power of the sun for hundreds of thousands of private homes and gardens.