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Into the Light: Solar Pioneer Passes

By Bill Moore

Bill Yerkes passes at age 79. His company pioneered the development of commercially -viable photovoltaics, beginning steady slide from cells costing $11 a watt to as little as a $1 today.

I had the privilege of knowing Bill Yerkes [second from right in above photo*]. I was saddened to learn last night that he died on January 29th at the age of 79. Bill was one of the world's leading pioneers in photovoltaics, but not before a stint at Chrysler. From Chrysler, he moved on to Boeing, working in their aerospace division and then to Spectrolab. There he helped develop the solar array for Apollo 11's mission to the moon.

In 1975, he started Solar Technology International in Chatsworth, California, one of the first companies to mass-produce crystalline solar cells. The company was acquired by Atlantic Richfield, where Bill served as the CEO of the renamed ARCO Solar, located in Camarillo, California. As Scott Sklar points out in his tribute to Bill:

"During Yerkes' tenure, the company reached industry milestones, such as the first 1 megawatt of annual production in 1980 and the first 1-megawatt grid-tied solar installation in 1982."

The Santa Barbara Independent's obituary notes that because of Yerkes efforts at ARCO Solar, "the price went from $11 per watt in 1980 to $7 per watt by 1985."

Eventually, Siemens bought the company, and then Shell, and eventually SolarWorld.

Besides his work in silicon solar cells, the Independent added that "He continued to push forward in materials and systems, founding a thin-film solar cell process in the mid-1980s, 15 years before the current industry got its start."

Bill became a loyal EV World subscriber not long after I started the online publication, and for years we'd correspond by email. I finally got to meet him and his wife Sarah during the closing days of the first California Fuel Cell Rally in 2002. The event started in Monterey, California and over the course of the next two days wound down the Pacific Coast Highway, ending up in Santa Barbara, where Bill and Sarah bought a small 1920's era bungalow that they were remodeling at the time.Bill had written me that after spending a number of years in the gloom of Seattle, working at Teledisc to come up with battery technology for their low-cost communication satellite, he and Sarah, who is a Nebraska native, decided to keep driving south along the U.S. West Coast until the sun shined, I think is how he put it. When we visited them at the home, Sarah as launching a greeting card business based on her photography. Bill was clearly proud and supportive of her efforts. While he retained his interest in advanced batteries, dropping me an email from time to time describing a particularly promising battery chemistry, his passion for solar never dimmed.

It was in 2005 that he co-founded Solaicx, the story of which I featured here on EV World. Bill and I also shared another distinction: we were both early Honda Insight owners. Mine was silver, his was red.

Over the years, we gradually lost touch as we both aged and traveled less. Regretfully, I hadn't thought much about him until last night when I came across Scott's tribute. Himself a long-time supporter of solar technology, Scott does a far better job of describing Bill's contributions than I can, writing...

He was a brilliant man, a humble person, a driven visionary, a practical entrepreneur, and one that did not suffer fools lightly. He was in the exclusive club of the solar founders along with some of our other pioneers including Stan Ovshinky (ECD), Water Hesse (Entech), and Ishaq Shahryar (Solec Int’l) who have also recently passed away.

* Also in photo next to Bill and wearing an EV World polo shirt is Rick Reinhard, also long-time EV World supporter and at the time of the photo in 2002 during the California Fuel Cell Rally working on Nissan's fuel cell vehicle program.

Times Article Viewed: 4992
Originally published: 15 Feb 2014

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