Real Goods Solar Living Center in Hopland is a showcase of sustainable living

When John Schaeffer planted his first time capsule on the empty grounds of what would become The Real Goods Solar Living Center in Hopland, technology was on the cusp of an explosion.

It was 1994, and cell phones and the Internet were only beginning to trickle into the hands of ordinary people. PG&E had installed the first grid-supported photovoltaic system only a few years earlier in Kernan, a small town in Fresno County. Home solar energy systems were still so rare they were an object of huge curiosity.

Schaeffer, a pioneer in the solar movement, had purchased the desolate, 12-acre piece of property - a dumping ground for Caltrans highway rubble right along Highway 101 - for only $120,000 in 1993. At the time it had only one tree, but he had dreams of transforming the wasteland into a lush oasis showcasing the possibilities for solar and all manner of sustainable living practices, with living structures, waterways, ponds, gardens and an emporium of products for people wanting to live off the grid or just green up their lives.

“We set out to make it into an environmental paradise to show people what could be done with a brown field and an abandoned site,” Schaeffer said.

A lot has happened since then. He poured his heart and $3 million into making the land a showcase of sustainable living, and this weekend he invites the public to see what he has accomplished.

Schaeffer first came to Mendocino County in the early 1970s as a new graduate of UC Berkeley to live on a back-to-the-land commune. He became increasingly intrigued by solar, powering a tiny black and white TV with solar so he could watch “Saturday Night Live” in the off-the-grid commune.

Two decades ago, he pulled together a progressive design team that included the visionary architect Sim Van der Ryn, a former state architect and early proponent of “ecologically integrated living design,” and David Arkin, who later became a leading designer of green homes. They were joined by Chris and Stephanie Tebbutt of Anderson Valley, who designed the landscape based on principles of permaculture and Biodynamics.

The 5,000-square-foot building that houses the Real Goods store was made of straw bales, an increasingly common green building material that, while ancient in origins, was still at the far edges of modern construction in the mid-1990s.

More than 12,000 people attended the grand opening of The Solar Living Center in 1996.

Today and Sunday, Schaeffer will celebrate the center’s 20th anniversary with two days of workshops, talks, panel discussions, demonstrations and live entertainment. That old time capsule will be opened, and at noon Sunday people are invited to bring small objects representative of life in 2017, to be included in a new time capsule that will be buried on site and uncovered in 2035.

For Schaeffer, it also marks the progress of green technology as many of the edgy ideas of two decades ago slide become mainstream.

Certainly, solar energy has made giant strides in the nearly 40 years he has been promoting and selling it.

“When we sold the very first photovoltaic panel in the country in 1978 (from the first Real Goods store in Willits), it was $100 a watt. Now it is less than $1 a watt. The price has come down 99 percent,” he said. At that time no homes were powered by solar. Now, more than 1 million homes across the country are equipped with solar.

Much also has changed for Real Goods and The Solar Living Center in the past 20 years. Schaeffer founded The Solar Living Institute on the grounds in 1998 to teach solar and sustainable living skills. As the solar business began to take off, he sold Real Goods to Gaiam, a yoga and media company based in Colorado but stayed on as president.

At its peak they installed solar on 10,000 homes a year around the country. In 2011, Real Goods Solar acquired a Connecticut solar installation company and expanded. In the process, the Solar Living Center began to suffer from corporate disinterest and neglect.

“We became the stepchild. It wasn’t very fun,” said Schaeffer.

In late 2014, he bought back the property for $1 million, including the retail store and the online URL, and set about restoring and enhancing The Solar Living Center.

“I’m happy to have it back. I absolutely love this place. I live three miles up the hill. Just to be able to commute three miles to work and back is great,” said Schaeffer, who drives a Tesla and has installed electric car charging stations at center for guests.

Ready to retire

Schaeffer had been set to retire when he was persuaded to reclaim his dream.

“The thought of seeing some winery on it or the gates bolted up was just too much to bear,” he said. He now just sells small solar energy systems for off-the-grid living.

Although it would be easy to assume that a lot of his business comes from the local pot trade in what is notoriously known as “The Green Triangle,” Schaeffer said he sells to customers beyond California, from British Columbia to Utah, who are off the grid for a variety of reasons. The center does lease space to Emerald Pharms, a medical cannabis clinic that is holding its own grand opening festivities this weekend.

Schaeffer said he is poised to respond with possible cannabis demonstration gardens and classes if California voters agree in November to legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Playground additions

More immediately however, Schaeffer is focused on new additions to the sustainable living playground, all things visitors can see this weekend. He just finished planting an oak woodland, with 200 trees that include valley, coastal, live and Italian oaks.

“Ninety percent of the oaks here were decimated by the vineyard industry,” he said.

Other new features include enhanced food gardens, a sculpture garden, a cob playhouse for kids, a Tiny House equipped with a rainwater catchment system that is available for overnight rental, and an aquaponics display that shows how to grow produce in water by using fish.

There also is a fledgling lavender labyrinth modeled after a 14th century French cathedral. The idea is that you mediate and release negative thoughts and worries as you walk through the labyrinth, which is planted with a hardy French ‘Grosso’ and some white ‘Alba.’ As you walk out, you set your intentions for positive change.

Living more green

Schaeffer’s wife Nancy has taken over the Real Goods store, turning it into a general department store with products geared to off-the-gridders as well as people interested in rural and urban homesteading or just living more greenly. She has organic clothing, solar ovens, plastic bag dryers, natural personal care products, kitchen compost bins, sustainably made household products, organic cotton and hemp clothing, kids’ toys and hundreds of books on sustainable living and homesteading.

The nonprofit Solar Living Institute on the grounds also offers courses for the general public in sustainable living skills such as permaculture and straw bale building.

Schaeffer said in the future he hopes to add a cafe and possibly a cannabis museum, and to restore nearby Feliz Creek to help bring back spawning salmon.

“A part of what I want to do with the event this weekend is to get people’s ideas of what they want to see here and to get the community involved in ways we can improve it for the future.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at or 521-5204.

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.


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