Back in 1979, when I first struck out on my own as a plumbing and heating contractor, I planned to offer my customers solar hot-water systems. But the oil shortages of the '70s became the oil glut of the '80s, and the tax incentives that helped give birth to the solar industry disappeared.

Subsequently, the industry suffered a quick and quiet death, a fact that hit home for me during a tour of a water-heater manufacturing facility in the mid-80s. In one corner of the plant, the solar division was sitting quietly — unoccupied — with everything just as it had been the day production stopped. It looked as if everyone had simply...

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