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Sonoma County’s first solar business started in the 1950s

Sonoma County has been home to the solar business since the 1950s, when the county's first high-tech manufacturer, Optical Coating Laboratory Inc. in southwest Santa Rosa, now Viavi Solutions, started making thin-film coatings to protect solar cells that provided power for satellites in space.

“We stood out as the premier producer of solar cell covers for almost all the satellite power system producers in the world,” said retired OCLI executive John McCullough.

Then in 1973 came the oil embargo and long lines at the gas pumps. In 1977 President Jimmy Carter warned Americans that the energy crisis was “the greatest challenge our country will face in our lifetimes.” He announced a goal to use solar energy in more than 2½ million houses by 1985.

OCLI, led by founder Rolf Illsley, “decided to try to get on that bandwagon”" said McCullough. In 1979 it went public with a small solar cell manufacturing subsidiary it owned in City of Industry near Los Angeles, naming it Applied Solar Energy Corp.

“But it never really earned any money,” McCullough said, and in 1985 OCLI made a nice profit selling the business to an aerospace company.

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