By B.J. Stanbery, president of Siva Power
Innovation lies at the heart of the solar industry, but its remarkable rise was arguably seeded by the OAPEC oil embargo of 1973, which forced a worldwide recognition of how vulnerable the global manufacturing economy was to the cost of energy, and motivated the creation of both the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI) in 1977. Among that cadre of SERI’s earliest employees, John Benner has most consistently and persistently championed the innovation bridge between universities, the DOE’s national laboratories and industry.
John now serves as executive director of the Bay Area PV Consortium (BAPVC), an industry-led university research consortium managed jointly by U.C. Berkeley and Stanford University. Funded by a blend of DOE and industry membership dues, the BAPVC has become the nexus of collaborative research between leading academic researchers across the United States and a major industry recruitment highway into universities. His disarming indulgence in witty wordplay and stretched puns can mask the thoughtful, careful and committed facilitator whose most memorable words I recall are emblematic of how he serves: “First figure out the right thing to do; then figure out how to do the right thing right.”
John has made a career of the unglamorous and underappreciated behind-the-scenes work required to do the right thing right, bringing people together across institutional divides to advance PV technology and transfer it to industry. During the earliest decade of that career at SERI (morphed into NREL in 1991), John managed its university research program. When the National Center for Photovoltaics (NCPV) was founded in 1996 to coordinate the PV research efforts of NREL and Sandia National Lab, John was its founding director. And in 1993, when the Boeing Company (for whom I worked) decided to shut down its PV research efforts, John helped persuade the DOE to facilitate Boeing’s graceful exit in exchange for transferring its pioneering work in CIGS technology to academia, where its scientific foundation strengthened, before returning to industry along with me and my Ph.D. in 2001. Technologies, like lives, are often saved one at a time by unseen heroes like John.