Bill Yerkes, the man who made solar energy affordable, died in Santa Barbara on January 29 at age 79. A Stanford graduate in mechanical engineering, Yerkes started his career at Chrysler, moved to Boeing aerospace, then to Spectrolab in 1967 where he helped produce the solar array used by Apollo 11 on the moon. At his Solar Technology company in Chatsworth, Yerkes made breakthroughs in photovoltaic solar panels that rendered them strong, long-lived, and cheaper to produce — the price went from $11 per watt in 1980 to $7 per watt by 1985, chiefly due to Yerkes’s technical achievements.
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; helped produce low-Earth-orbiting satellites for Internet communications at Teledisc; and cofounded Solaicx in 2005 where he developed a high-efficiency, low-cost silicon-crystal-growth technique for solar cells. His Solar Tech company — which moved to Camarillo, was bought and renamed successively by ARCO, Siemens, and Shell, then saw the factory moved in 2011 to Portland, Oregon, operating under a new company SolarWorld — retains the record as the longest continuously operated U.S. solar manufacturer.