A pioneer refuses to fade away His passion for solar still burns

Times Staff Writer

Harold Hay wants to help the world save itself, but he’s running out of time.

Forty years ago, Hay invented a simple, inexpensive way to heat and cool a home using the sun’s rays, but without the panels and wiring that come with conventional solar energy systems.

He’s been pushing for its adoption ever since, trying to find footing in each of the solar industry’s last three boom-and-bust cycles.

Yet, despite the merits of his pioneering technology, the energy establishment has shown only fleeting interest.


Now 98, Hay is making what he knows will be his final push.

The retired chemist promotes his cause by funding research. He vents his frustration in letters, e-mails, phone messages to anyone who will listen, and on his own website,

Hay is sanctimonious, unyielding and scathingly critical of other people’s efforts and the solar business as a whole. He dismisses the Energy Department as being “in the research-forever stage” and the solar trade as “a bunch of money grubbers.”

Hay has no interest in softening his message. He doesn’t have time for subtlety.

Hay quotes from an article he’s earmarked in Natural History magazine:

“When scientists do science, when they play their game, they debate passionately, and disagree openly, often with brutal honesty toward party lines, sacred cows, or” -- Hay raises his voice for emphasis -- “other people’s feelings.”

He closes the magazine. “Now that defines me as close as you can get.” Hay adds, as if reminding himself, “That’s why I’m a loner.”

That tenacity has sometimes worked against him.

Over time, people lost patience with Hay and then lost interest in his creation, says Ken Haggard, who designs buildings that use solar energy. Hay’s combative personality and reluctance to let others join his mission scotched one potential deal and may have turned others off, Haggard says.

“He’s a caricature of the mad inventor,” says Haggard, who met Hay in 1972 when the architect was a young professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. “He’s a genius. But he’s also impossible. And he has not mellowed one iota.”


It’s tempting to write off Hay as a bitter solar has-been, hoping for immortality at the end of his life. But, given today’s energy and climate challenges, ignoring his message and achievements could be a mistake.

“His invention and what he’s been saying for all these years is still very, very relevant,” says Becky Campbell-Howe, operations director at the American Solar Energy Society, which gave Hay its Passive Solar Pioneer award in 1986.

“The main point that he’s trying to make now is that all of our hopes are pinned on all of these complicated technologies, and it’s not that complicated. We could solve a lot of the problems by building our buildings correctly.”

Hay calls his invention the Skytherm system, and it was a wonder in the 1960s because it used the sun to heat and cool a home. The earliest version operated without any electricity, making it a purely passive solar technology.

Skytherm was the first of what’s known today as a roof-pond system. It includes a large mass of water, contained water-bed style in plastic bladders on top of a house. A steel liner subsitutes for regular roofing. The flat roof also holds an insulation panel that moves on rails to cover and uncover the water with the help of a motor, an upgrade from the original rope pulley.

The concept relies on water’s tremendous ability to absorb heat. During hot summer days, the water bags are covered by the panel, which deflects the heat of the sun while the bags draw warmth from the house, keeping the interior cool. At night, the panel moves aside and the bags release their heat into the night air. The process is reversed in the winter.

Hay explains the basic theory by pointing out his bedroom window: “Take the black pavement out on the street. It gets extremely hot every day in the summertime -- much too hot to walk across barefooted. The next morning it’s cold.”

Hay attempts what passes for a shout these days: “You don’t need electricity to cool! You don’t need an air conditioner! You do it with the sky.”

In 1967, Hay scraped together the money to build a one-room test home in Phoenix. The results were encouraging, but yielded no flood of support or funding. It took him several more years, but Hay finally got a full-scale model built in Atascadero, Calif., near the campus of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

It was completed in 1973. The next year, Hay testified before Congress, imploring lawmakers to fund research into solar heating and cooling. Two years later, Hay’s Skytherm house was recognized by the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission as one of the country’s 200 most promising inventions.

In his run-down apartment near downtown Los Angeles, crammed with a lifetime of research, Hay holds up a brightly colored poster celebrating the award; he points to the spot where the Skytherm house is mentioned.

“That was an award from the president of the United States,” he says. “My house was one of the unique things, and it’s gone nowhere.”

Hay likes to say he was born to invent.

He grew up on a dairy farm in Spokane, Wash., the youngest of three boys. His father held patents on pasteurizing machinery and young Harold, the farm’s bottle washer, got his start in chemistry by studying butterfat content at the dairy.

Later, he earned a chemistry degree at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Hay’s first job out of college was at Monsanto Chemical Co.’s wood products division, where he concocted a preservative that was used for years on telephone poles and railroad ties around the world.

In the library at Monsanto, he met Evelyn, the woman who became his wife and stuck by him as he zigzagged through life, taking jobs in government and industry that sent them to Sweden, Venezuela, Colombia, Morocco and India, the place that inspired the Skytherm design.

Hay stops his story here because it’s impossible for him to gloss over Evelyn. For 48 years -- until her death from breast cancer in 1985 -- she was the chief believer in a temperamental scientist with big ideas.

“Evelyn. Oh, God. She’s such a treasure,” Hay says, speaking of her in the present tense. “Without a person like that, a scientist has a hard time in life.”

He grins while recalling an ill-conceived Christmas Eve journey to northern Sweden. The young couple, intent on a romantic sleigh ride, instead found themselves with a lone reindeer, freezing and sinking into the snow because it was overwhelmed by the load.

And there was the time they couldn’t pay the rent and thought they’d have to sleep on benches in MacArthur Park. For those few minutes, thinking of Evelyn, Hay seemed like a young and foolish husband again.

Hay says he spearheaded the creation of the St. Louis Progressive Party, which helped get him labeled a communist. He came up with a chemical to purify drinking water, and he found a way to chemically toughen fiberboard to broaden its use. During World War II, the self-proclaimed pacifist worked on the development of synthetic rubber to avoid military service and jail. Along the way, almost as a hobby, Hays did groundbreaking research in the origins of medicine.

Today, Hay’s universe is considerably smaller. For more than two decades he’s been living in a tiny apartment, surrounded by dozens of boxes full of magazine articles, scholarly treatises and government reports. One entire wall of boxes is devoted to medical topics. Asisclo “Butch” Carnaje, who takes care of Hay, says the clutter is loosely organized by subject. Amid the mess, Hay keeps a magazine display rack that holds copies of his congressional testimony as well as conference papers with titles such as “Wet Steps to Solar Stills” and “Roofponds En Route.”

The most recent material is in the bedroom, where Hay spends most of his time. There, magazines, annual reports, clippings and the like are stacked on the floor and under the hospital-style bed.

Hay is strong for someone who has lived 98 years. But age and illness, witnessed by the long rows of medications on his dresser, have left their inevitable mark. His daily routine is dictated mostly by meals and sleep, which leaves pockets of time for him to read, watch the BBC and business news, check e-mail and track his stocks online.

Hay used to regularly board a crosstown bus to do research at university libraries. Now his social schedule is composed mostly of doctors’ appointments. But not entirely.

In December, he spent nearly a month in a mountainside bamboo house in Manila with Carnaje and his family. He then made a side trip to an international meeting on the history of medicine, with a stop to lecture a Habitat for Humanity group on the Skytherm design.

“I’m happy here,” Hay says. “The thing I’m not happy about is that my ideas aren’t recognized.”

Hay’s prized Skytherm house is in disrepair these days. A family lived in it for a while, but there were leaks. When fuel got cheap again in the late 1970s, enthusiasm for the project petered out along with the entire solar movement. The Skytherm house’s benefits were never documented beyond the prototype stage, and no one worked out how much mass production would cost.

Over the years, Hay has given $500,000 to the University of Nevada Las Vegas and $50,000 to Indiana’s Ball State University to fund Skytherm research. The studies confirmed the heating and cooling benefits of Hay’s design but didn’t go further.

Encouraged by a $1-million research grant from Hay -- along with title to the Atascadero house -- Cal Poly has periodically revived the project. Mike Montoya, a professor of construction management, recently secured permits to bring the house up to current building codes. He hopes to reopen it and quantify its merits.

“The thing that sparked my interest is the fact that it is supposed to be able to heat and cool the house with no power,” Montoya says. “There are a couple of problems, but it clearly works. It’s a design that’s very, very simple and that can be applied pretty much anywhere.”

What has kept the idea from spreading?

“One of the reasons he hasn’t had more success is that the entire solar industry, with few exceptions, has been undercapitalized,” says David James, an associate vice provost at UNLV who worked with Hay for three years and coauthored with him a 2006 paper on solar stills, which purify water using sunlight. “Some of it is back-scratching, or politics . . . and you have to be able to convince conventionally minded bureaucrats that it can be done.”

Steven Strong, who heads a solar design company that uses passive solar techniques alongside solar panels and other methods, has doubts about the applicability of Hay’s roof ponds in today’s housing market.

“The actual application that he had, very few will ever be done. But the whole idea of a green roof, where you’re intercepting the sunlight and creating a thermal barrier so that the building is cooler below, that has more appeal,” he says. “He was just ahead of his time.”

Steve Baer, another solar inventor and a Hay admirer since the 1960s, says he built a business selling utility cooling systems that were inspired by Hay’s concepts. And over the summer, he tested a variation of Hay’s roof-pond system that he hopes will catch on in Southern California and other sunny spots.

“I’m more and more sure that his ideas are going to find their way to the public,” says Baer, president of Zomeworks Corp.

If it happens, it won’t be soon enough for Hay.

“All these developments are in the future,” Hay says, “and I’m getting older, and know it.”