Guest Post - Neville Williams

by: Heather on 11/26/2007
Posted in: Renewable Energy

This just in - a guest post from Neville Williams, author of Chasing the Sun and chairman of Standard Solar. Thanks Neville!

BOOKS OPEN DOORS IF THE RIGHT PEOPLE READ THEM

Last year I was, to my great surprise, invited to attend the highly prestigious Clinton Global Initiative in New York City. The invitation was complimentary - "members" as attendees are called pay $15,000 for the 3 day event. My invitation came out of the blue. A young woman on the line, who tracked me down via the office of New Society Publishers, said "President Clinton read your book and he says it's one of his favorites and he wants you to attend. Can you make it?"

It was short notice, but without question I could make it, despite the hotel prices at the New York Sheraton during the simultaneous UN Week having gone through the roof ($500 a night, single). The CGI was not to be missed.

I knew how Bill Clinton had gotten my book. During a visit to Gabriola Island to visit the gang at New Society, I stopped in Vancouver to see a well known Canadian mining magnate, who is also an FOB (Friend of Bill). One of Canada's wealthiest men, he supplied his MD-80 when Bill needed to visit all the far flung places where his global philanthropies operate, beginning with Tsunami Relief. The mining tycoon, who had expressed interest in renewable energy - hence my visit with him - said he was leaving the next day to pick up Bill in Washington, and take him to Africa and India. "I'll give him a copy of your book. He can read it on the plane." So I asked NSP to send over 2 copies of Chasing the Sun to his offices atop the Bank of Montreal Tower in downtown Vancouver, and forgot about it.

It turns out President Clinton did read the book, to my everlasting amazement, and he truly liked it. In New York that September, after one of Bill's plenary sessions where he routinely hosts world leaders in town for UN Week, he asked a friend of mine whom he knew to find me; he said he wanted to meet me. I'm not a guy to stand around waiting to shake hands with presidents or ex-presidents, even while I admire them from afar. But this was an order - "The President wants to meet you," my friend said, so I followed him through the crowds surrounding Clinton on the floor of the ballroom where he had stepped down from the stage to mingle with his admirers.

I was introduced, and he stopped his earlier conversation, turned to me, shook my hand warmly, and said "I really loved your book. It's really a great story. You've done good work. I was like a little kid reading it, telling everyone I knew about it. I told Hillary and Chelsea read it, and made everyone at the Clinton Foundation read it."

I was dumbfounded, at a loss for words. I had planned to say, should I meet him, how much I enjoyed his book, My Life, but those words never escaped my lips. He asked what I was doing now, and I said I'd actually started a new solar company in the US to put into practice what learned about selling solar in the developing world. He said he wanted to put solar PV on his house in Chapaqua, so I gave him my business card for Standard Solar Inc. and he put it in his pocket. Then he mentioned, proudly, how much solar power they'd put on his library in Little Rock (the Clinton Presidential Library book shop actually stocked my book I later learned). The library's massive roof is covered in PV panels.

Then the Secret Service ushered him back up on stage, he waved goodbye to the small crowd, and disappeared behind the curtain.

Chasing the Sun, as both I and NSP regret, didn't sell well. The solar trade press loved it, but that's to be expected. But the environmental press, the trade press, and the general media ignored it completely despite commendable efforts by NSP to promote a unique book about solar energy for the world. "It's not a how-to book, it's not an academic book, it's not a technical book," I would tell people, and they would say, "Well, then what is it?". It's about bringing solar energy to people with no electricity in 11 countries in the developing world over 12 "adventurous" years. It is also a personal story, and as such cannot be categorized, and thus was ignored.

But Bill Clinton and every employee of the Clinton Foundation loved it, and so did my Mother! That's enough for me.

If nothing else, the book gained me entree into the most amazing event I've ever been privileged to be a part of. More amazing still, I was again invited back this year, in September. And the Clinton people were still talking about Chasing the Sun. Clinton probably reads a book a week, but I was only one of a very small handful of authors at the CGI, which is mostly populated by dozens of heads of state, philanthropists, corporate CEOs, media celebrities, and global social entrepreneurs, activists, and committed agents of social change. This year, one of the protagonists in my book, Dr. Harish Hande, from India was invited to speak at one of the Energy & Climate Workshops, the track I signed up for both years.

The first Energy & Climate workshop I attended in 2006 is worth a snapshot: I sat down at one of the many round tables with no assigned seating, and looked around: a few feet away was Warren Buffet, Gen. Wesley Clark, Sen. John Glenn, Shimon Pares, Sir Howard Stringer, Sir Richard Branson, Nobel Prize winner Wangarai Mathai, and Barbara Streisand. Lesser luminaries abounded, some I recognized, and some I didn't. NY Times' columnist Tom Friedman snoozed at the next table, exhausted from having just moderated a plenary session with Pakistan's Gen. Musharrif, Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai, Queen Rania of Jordan, Desmond Tutu, and the president of Nigeria. But he was interested in energy and climate change, so here he was (a year later our company would be hired to install a large solar electric system at his house in Bethesda, MD).

Out in the hallway I found myself talking with Larry Page and Sergei Brin about solar (Google now has the largest solar powered server farm in the world). At the lunch table I got into a conversation with MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, the only man on television willing, on air, to attack George Bush head on and call for his resignation in the interest of democracy, decency, and national security.

This year Brad Pitt and Ed Norton talked about their work in solar, and about climate change, energy efficiency, and global worming at the Energy & Climate Workshops, along with architect William McDonough and the CEOs of Duke Energy, Florida Power & Light, and other US utility companies. In the plenaries, we heard more about global warming and carbon free energy from Tony Blair, Mohammed Yunus, World Bank president Robert Zoellick, Tom Brokaw, NY's Mayor Bloomberg, and Al Gore.

This year, in September, I briefly met Bill again after the closing ceremony. He was easier to get to since the crowds were surrounding Hillary, who along with Chelsea, attended the last plenary. He remembered my name - "Hello Neville," he said - and again I forgot to congratulate him on his latest book, Giving, which I'd just read, and in which he twice mentioned the non-profit solar organization I'd founded in 1990. I could have at least thanked him for that. But I did manage to thank him for this wonderful event.

Only William Jefferson Clinton could have brought together all these global movers and shakers under one roof for three days to address the issues of poverty alleviation, global health, education, and climate change. Only Bill Clinton could have rallied so many powerful, rich, and famous individuals (and corporations like Wal-Mart and GE) to make public "Commitments" to bring change, hope, and better living conditions to millions of people worldwide, and to commit billions of dollars to these efforts. While America is falling apart under the so-called leadership of a warmongering lunatic, at least we have an ex-president to give us hope and provide a vision for the future of the planet.

Thanks to NSP, which published Chasing the Sun, two years ago, I was able to be part of this exhaustively inspiring event. I have no idea if I'll get invited back next year. But I'm ready.

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