David Bolt Earns National Acclaim for His Solar-Power Business, Sustainable Future

David Bolt has the distinction of having the first electric meter in Harriman, if not all of Tennessee, to spin backwards. It has been doing this since 2006, and this is a good thing.

When the disc in an electric meter spins forward, it is measuring the amount of electricity going into a house, and ultimately the amount of money the homeowner owes the electric company for providing the power. But when a homeowner such as David Bolt makes enough of his own electricity, whatever is left over after satisfying all of the household's needs moves back through the meter towards the electric company's power lines, making that meter disc spin backwards. Ultimately, this measures something the general population has never experienced: the amount of the check the power company sends to the homeowner.

Don't tell KUB, but David Bolt dreams of meter discs spinning backwards for everyone. Among other places, that dream has taken him to Vestal, where he set up his solar installation company, Sustainable Future, in 2010. And last month it took him to the White House, where he received an award for being a "Champion of Change."

After getting an Electrical Engineering degree from Georgia Tech, Bolt came to Knoxville, initially in pursuit of a Ph.D. Along the way his computer-programming side business got very lucrative. Selling his interest in that company made Bolt enough money to retire and take life easy in his mid-40s, but a nagging concern about happiness and the world that his son and daughter were inheriting set him on a soul search. Although he was a poster boy for the American Dream, something about that dream kept him up at night. "Technological and material success," he says, "did not seem to have brought joy and happiness to many people." In response, Bolt says he took some time to go deep.

"I spent over a year and a half reading, talking with people and thinking about this issue," he says. "The root of this problem is that most of us are living beyond our means, financially, environmentally (including energy and agriculture), and socially." As he put it in his statement at the White House, "I believe that all that is needed to solve most of this nation's problems is a critical mass of people experiencing the joy of sustainable living."

Recognizing that many people would think that statement was idealistic or naïve, Bolt made his life the subject of a grand experiment to test his hypothesis. He was first introduced to the concept of a Net Zero Energy (NZE) house in 2003. He quickly realized that making a house create as much energy as it uses was the laboratory he needed to begin testing the hard reality of his sustainability notions. He moved into and began converting his weekend lake house in Harriman to NZE in 2005. A year and quite a few energy efficiency and solar conversions later—such as appliance upgrades, replacing heat-soaking shingles with a metal roof, installing a hot-water system heated by the sun and solar panels turning sunlight into electricity—Bolt received his first utility bill credit for the house. That Harriman Utilities Board bill was for -$134.69.

The rest of the Bolt family—David's wife Barbara, their daughter Lisa and son Matthew—then moved in. With four people now living there, the house was no longer NZE. Bolt admits that, coming out of the mainstream average household electrical consumption of about 30 Kilowatt hours per day, his family "did not share the enthusiasm for this game called ‘Let's Live on 10 Kilowatt Hours a Day.'" At least not initially. It took another year of adjustments—lifestyle changes such as hanging laundry out to dry, along with technology changes such as HVAC and insulation upgrades, and more solar panels—to get the house back to Net Zero Energy. Perhaps the biggest adjustments were in attitudes, all around. Not that he was ever freezing in the dark, but Bolt admits that it would have been unrealistic to expect his family to completely assimilate the very low-impact lifestyle he led in the Harriman house, when there was nobody else's comfort level or fortitude to consider. Yet David's wife and children seem to have mostly weathered well the changes they did make.

The total budget directly related to energy improvements for the Harriman house was about $66,000. While the house has been giving back more energy than it takes in for about six years, in strict dollar terms the NZE house will not break even anytime soon. But as research and development, Bolt says the house has more than paid for itself in what he has learned and applied to his company's subsequent sustainability projects. And the renewables market is a different world than it was when the Harriman experiment got underway.

"The current price of (solar panels) is about half what it was when we did Harriman," Bolt says. "Most solar systems today pay for themselves in about 10 years."

Bolt started his new company, Sustainable Future, when he moved into the Harriman house. He began selling energy efficiency and renewable energy products based on his personal experience with them, along with doing energy audits and solar installations. Business was flat until various government incentives became available, particularly to develop the solar industry in Tennessee. True to its mission, Sustainable Future has proven adept at maximizing those resources. SF has leveraged grants, rebates, and tax breaks for everything from reducing their customers' costs to install solar, to building a "solar park" on SF's campus in Vestal, the South Knoxville working-class neighborhood where the company relocated. With an array of broad, flat, blue, glass panels soaking up the sun next to the Vestal United Methodist Church cemetery, and across the street from Pease Furniture and King Tut Grill, the solar park updates an already eclectic "Downtown Vestal." The park showcases solar power generation options and an electric car charging station, where David Bolt's blue Nissan Leaf is parked and plugged in most days. Bolt says the Vestal solar array generates $700 a month in excess energy not used by the SF facility, sold back to the grid.

Due to its setting up shop in a low-income area, SF benefits from a low-interest business loan through Knoxville's Community Development department. That infusion helped boost the company's total employees to 15. In addition to the primary business of handling residential and commercial solar installations, Bolt says that Sustainable Future has now enabled almost a dozen customers to achieve Net Zero Energy through a whole systems, whole house approach, combining renewable energy with energy efficiency.

In early April, Bolt went to the White House to receive a Champion of Change Award for "work demonstrating that corporate environmental leadership makes sense, both for business and for American communities." Soon after his return from D.C., he was reflecting on the statements he made there about reaching the "critical mass of people experiencing the joy of sustainable living." While the price of solar is rapidly approaching parity with fossil fuels, startup costs for a residential system are still out of reach for most low- and moderate-income homeowners. When asked whether this sector has a realistic chance at energy independence, Bolt is clear that it is doable. To a point.

"I see far more energy waste in lower-income houses than I do in upper-income houses," he says. "Because (low-income homeowners) are just not aware, and in a sense feel powerless, and they say well, that's just the utilities and I just have to pay what it is. They just don't realize how many options they have—how much control they have—to reduce energy." He gives the example of a moderate-income couple for whom he recently did an energy audit. "They didn't want to spend a lot of money fixing up the house. So by simply swapping out all of their old light bulbs with compact fluorescents and installing a few power strips (to prevent turned-off but plugged-in electric devices from drawing power from their outlets) they reduced their bill 30 percent," he says. "So it really wasn't that big of a lifestyle change. It's more about education and awareness than it is about major sacrifices."

While he is clear that most people can immediately empower themselves to reduce their energy usage, David Bolt is first to admit that "critical mass" for sustainable energy is not yet here, though he sees it coming. "I think we're past the pioneer stage and into the early adopter stage," he says, referring to author Malcolm Gladwell's analysis on how social change reaches a "Tipping Point." "Because now we're getting people coming in, seeing the solar park and talking to us about it and saying yep, it's real, I'll do it." This puts Bolt in a predictive mood about the prospects for sustainable energy in Knoxville.

"Our electricity rates have been cheap compared to the rest of the country, but they are definitely going up. And they're not likely to change direction," he says. "Meanwhile the cost of solar keeps coming down, and those price points are starting to cross. I think within 10 years it's going to be more likely for you to have a solar system than for you not to have one."

When that happens, remember Vestal.