2014 Awardee: William Beale

Community Solutions was founded 75 years ago as Community Service by Arthur E. Morgan, author of The Small Community and over 20 other books. Arthur Morgan was the first chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, president of Antioch College, a humanist, and a Quaker. On the eve of our 75th Anniversary, Community Solutions inaugurated the Arthur Morgan Award, designed to recognize individuals who possess the traits that Morgan wrote about: character, vision, entrepreneurship, and love of community. Our first recipient was William Beale, of Athens, Ohio, longtime member of Community Solutions, serial entrepreneur, founder of Sunpower, husband, father, community member, and passionate advocate of solar power. 

William Beale was born in Tennessee and grew up during the Depression in small southern towns. He served briefly near the end of the war in the Navy, and went to college on the GI bill, getting a mechanical engineering degree from Washington State in 1950, with subsequent graduate mechanical engineering studies at Cal Tech and MIT. He moved to Athens to take a professorship at Ohio University in 1960. He taught there for 15 years, and slowly learned that he was intensely interested in doing other things, so he started his own business, Sunpower, to develop and market his Free-Piston Stirling Engine, which featured significant improvements in performance, durability and simplicity over earlier versions of the engine. Beale has received 26 patents for his work, and Sunpower spun off two firms: Stirling Technology, Inc. and Global Cooling, Inc.

He sold Sunpower a few years ago, but continues his promotions of solar energy every opportunity he gets. "It's simply good engineering logic: when you look at the energy situation it's blindingly obvious that solar is the way to go. Nothing matches its multiple virtues. I'm interested in solarizing as much as we can."

"When I was trying to sell solar, people would say it's not economic. There's something wrong there: that definition of economics is crazy. Their definition is just money. We need to get out of this blind alley, this trap of capitalism."

In a series of op-eds and letters to the editor, Beale has recommended government investment in electric car retrofits, solar water heaters, super insulation of homes, and bio-gas generators. He writes: What we need is not less government interaction, but more of the right kind, the kind that knows what the future is and helps that future, instead of ignoring the future and helping the past. The past is named fossil fuels.

We have got used to living in a paradise of free oil, and now we don't anymore. I myself slid thru life real easy on a big slick puddle of that near-free oil. But now I and my kids have slurped it all up. But we are still stupidly investing in a hopeless chase for the last cheap oil there is left, and we aren't finding it because there isn't any. Still, most of us just keep up the hopeless chase for the cheap stuff in the arctic, deep ocean, tight rocks (fracking) and so on.

Beale married Carol in 1959 and they bought a piece of waste property on a hill overlooking Athens that was partially strip mined, partially forest denuded, and partially trampled by cattle. They've let nature reforest it, and now have a flourishing forest, as well as a large garden that provides much of their food. It was a very ordinary old farmhouse with no insulation or wiring and they plugged away at it, improving it year after year. Their three children complain that they spent most of their childhood in plaster dust. In addition to insulation, they've added solar panels and now run the entire house on their output. A year ago the Beales decided to get off fossil fuels entirely, and now they live on solar and wood culled from their forest with no fossil inputs at all.

Beale continues to tinker and create and advises young people to develop a lot of ideas: "Don't hesitate to have bad ideas-being judgmental too early is bad strategy." He's currently working on an automatic transmission bicycle and a wood-burning, gas-producing electric generator that produces power through a carbon-negative process.

Beale is the recipient of the 2012 Ohio Patent Legacy Award and the 2013 Konneker Medal for Commercialization and Entrepreneurship. He has also donated solar panels to the Athens Library and has been a continual catalyst for energy efficiency discussions and projects in his community.

He worries about climate change and our lack of attention to it: "Many of the most energy-consumptive things we're doing are near useless or worse than useless." But he has hope for the future: "The torch is being passed to a new generation and the new generation has a big problem, which gives them an opportunity to be heroes. They have a fantastic opportunity to do something really world-changing. So grab that opportunity and go do it."