Solar Fan Man Looks to Sun for Solutions

Bill Keith's solar power ideas give hope to area desperate for new energy, jobs.

February 9, 2009, 2:38 PM

WARSAW, Ind., Feb. 9, 2009— -- Beneath the migrating geese and across the street from the veterans' hall in St. John, Ind., a gray and white barn is green with ideas. It belongs to Bill Keith, an eco-minded father of four who turned his vision into a profitable, environmentally friendly company.

"I went from 25 years of sitting on the roof to now selling my product to roofers all over the world; it's exciting," he said.

Keith was a roofer and occasional guest on a local home improvement show until an idea sparked while he was installing an electric fan in a sweltering attic.

"I took the end caps off and got shocked," he said. "And here you're sweating, you've got insulation stuck to your skin and its 140 degrees and I was like, 'there's got to be a better way.' ... I spent the next several years trying to figure out how to do it."

Keith, 45, developed a solar-powered fan 10 years ago that mounts to the roof, pulls hot air out of an attic and uses the sun to cool a house or office. He says the $500 fans can save up to 30 percent on air conditioning costs.

"My fan runs the fastest when it's the hottest outside," Keith said. "When the sun is the most intense, this thing is running the fastest to remove energy. So it's the perfect marriage to shave the energy."

The fans have taken hold in Hawaii, California and across the Caribbean and Spain, catapulting his Warsaw, Ind.-based company, SunRise Solar, into a $4 million-a-year business.

"For the last six years and it's like a 45-degree angle straight up [in sales], that's without incentives," Keith said. "If an incentive got put into place, we would grow like gangbusters. We'd have to put a lot more people on. We'd be buying a lot more raw goods."

In this part of Indiana, where unemployment has climbed faster than any county in America, job opportunity and economic growth can't happen soon enough.

"My dad was an electrician at the steel mills and I remember when he used to get laid off, that feeling in the house of gloom," Keith said. "I've been pushing to bring a solar panel manufacturer right here to the state of Indiana. We've got the capacity."

Businesses Look to Stimulus to Provide Clean, Green Jobs

Keith and his troops at SunRise Solar are among the energy entrepreneurs paying close attention to the Obama stimulus plan, small-businesspeople who hope that tax incentives can give rise to cheaper, cleaner ways to power lives while creating new U.S. jobs.

"The world that I grew up in where good jobs and a clean environment meant two different things has utterly changed," said Dave Foster, chairman of the Minneapolis-based Blue-Green Alliance, a national partnership between labor unions and environmental groups, hoping to bring closed factories back to life. "Today, it's not good jobs or a clean environment, it's both or neither."

Even without incentives in place, SunRise Solar is booming, employing 23 people. The solar fans, which line the rooftop of Honolulu's airport, will soon cool the Indiana governor's mansion. And Keith says the Indiana State Senate is expected to pass a bill giving tax credits to homeowners with solar fans.

No matter how fast SunRise Solar grows, Keith vows to never use foreign parts or labor, no matter how cheap. The majority of fan parts come from Indiana.

"We keep our overhead low, our expectations high, and we just work our rear ends off and that's how we're doing it," he said. "I'll go down with the ship trying to make the thing here in the U.S."

This eco-minded thinker says nothing motivates him like an airplane ride, with his nose pressed against the window.

"I'm looking down on all those rooftops and thinking, 'there's my field of dreams right there,'" he said. "That's my future."