With his graying hair in a pony tail and his hand-rolled cigarettes, Bob Ramlow projects the classic appearance of an aging hippie who parted company with the rat race decades ago. And not only does he look every inch the solar energy pioneer, he is one, mentoring installation contractors and counseling prospective system owners in his capacity as Focus on Energy’s solar water heating technical consultant. Indeed, a typical day presents Ramlow with many opportunities to apply his 30+ years of experience in this area, whether it involves reading over site assessments, reviewing drawings and equipment specifications, or advising contractors whenever an installation presents an unusual challenge. . . .
Do you mind being called an aging hippie?
Not at all. I was one of many who “tuned in, turned on, and dropped out.” I wanted a fixer-upper with good soil and woods, and I bought the farmland with a nearly ruined farm house built in 1911. We farmed it for 20 years. The old house became the bed and breakfast after we built our new house in 2006.
When did your solar addiction begin?
In 1971. Dr. George Becker, a fisheries professor, supervised my independent study in my senior year in Natural Resources at the UW-Stevens Point.
One day, he told me that “we’re going for a walk” to his house. In his backyard, he had something that looked like an A-frame outhouse. It had an air collector facing the sun, and it was full of rocks to store heat. An air pump blew into his house.
I saw that, and a light went on! You could get depressed fighting nukes and DDT, like we did then, but here was something positive!
Did the Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA) begin about this time?
The MREA came a lot later – 1990 – after I’d spent several years of selling high-quality wood stoves, working for a company selling wall mounted air collectors, then another company that sold windows and doors with home installation as a sideline, and I formed Artha Renewable Energy as a solar consulting business in 1976.
Mick Sagrillo, now the solar electric consultant for Focus on Energy, and a lot of us in the area were doing a lot of good things by the late 1980s, when George Perez, publisher of Home Power magazine, told us we should strut our stuff – hold fairs and festivals to show off renewable energy.
We liked the idea and founded the MREA in January or February of 1990. We held the first fair at the county fair grounds in Amherst in mid-August of the same year. The first day – Saturday — it rained hard. The four holy, moldy Korean-War-era tents, where we held workshops, let the rain pour in. People were squatting on chairs to stay out of the water while they listened to the presentations. Sunday was beautiful. We had 3,000 people and made enough money to hire a part-time director for the next year’s fair.
What exactly do you do for Focus on Energy?
I mentor solar hot water installers and dealers. Installers call me a lot. They run into a situation that’s unfamiliar, or maybe they aren’t sure exactly how to squeeze all of the equipment into a tiny space, for instance. I help with nuts and bolts issues. I review solar site assessments too – probably one a day on the average.
Focus on Energy’s call center also refers homeowners, business owners, and school district staff to me when I seem to be the most appropriate person, though most people call their utility or a dealer first.
Sometimes for Focus on Energy and sometimes for the MREA, I teach classes, often to employees of heating and plumbing contractors. We’re currently working out the details for me to train installers for one of the largest contractors in the state.