Mike McKechnie was two slides into his Feb. presentation on the growing efficiency of solar power when he turned to the audience and offhandedly encouraged attendees to pose questions as he spoke rather than wait until the end of his talk.
As if on queue, half a dozen hands went up. For the next 30 minutes, McKechnie, owner and president of Berkeley Springs, W.Va.-based Mountain View Solar, took question after question from an enthusiastic group of 70-plus F&M students, faculty and professional staff: How do solar panels work when it's snowing or cloudy? What can we do to get solar power to underdeveloped countries? Is hydropower ecologically responsible?
In between the queries, McKechnie told his story. He had grown up and attended college in some of Maryland's larger cities. In his mid-20s, he decided to give country living a try and moved to rural West Virginia. He discovered the peace and beauty was offset by a hard reality.
"There was no work there other than factories and jobs in extractive industries," he said.
So he hired himself out as a contractor, primarily doing home repairs. The work paid, but wasn't personally rewarding. Then he started building homes from the ground up, mostly for clients who valued energy efficiency and air quality and were willing to pay for it.
"I finally found what I wanted to do," said McKechnie, whose talk was sponsored by F&M's Wohlsen Center for the Sustainable Environment. "Building houses, responsibly. Not bigger and better — just better."
In 2009, he founded Mountain View Solar, built on a mission to increase the use of renewable energy by homeowners and corporations alike. The 10-person firm, which he runs along with his brother, Pete, installs and maintains solar-power systems. Many of its technicians are former coal miners looking for a safer —and more rewarding — line of work.
His firm also installs electric vehicle-charging stations, including 125 in his adopted state of West Virginia. Toward the end of his talk, McKechnie announced he would return to campus to install, at no charge, such a station on the F&M campus, drawing a hearty round of applause from the crowd.
In closing, McKechnie said the future of renewable energy depends on collaboration among all energy producers.
"Coal does keep the lights on, but a little bit of solar helps," he said. "It's a mix, not a fight. The changes won't happen overnight. It's a progression."
Every hour, enough solar radiation strikes the surface of the earth to satisfy global power demand for one full year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.