History of SLI

Established in 1998 by the founder of the Real Goods Trading Company, John Schaeffer, the Solar Living Institute in Hopland, CA, is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with a mission of "Promoting sustainable living through inspirational environmental education".



The Institute manages the Solar Living Center, a 12-acre renewable energy and sustainable living demonstration site that is visited by 200,000 people annually. The timeline below explains how everything got started.

1971-1978: John Schaeffer, 21 years old, graduates from UC Berkeley and moves to a back-to-the-land commune on 290 acres in Mendocino County. Real Goods (RG) is founded in Willits, CA by John to serve the needs of the local back-to-the-land community and to promote a more sensible, sustainable, and self-sufficient lifestyle. The very first solar panel in the United States is sold by Real Goods.

1980-82: An instant success, RG expands and opens stores in Ukiah and Santa Rosa.

1986: The new mail order business expands quickly and reaches $1 million in sales its first year.

1990: The 20th anniversary of Earth Day jumpstarts the environmental movement; solar, conservation, recycling suddenly become a national phenomenon.

1991: RG launches the first ever “Off-the-Grid Day” and coins the phrase “off-the-grid.” Over 10,000 people shut down their power for two hours all around the U.S. to understand their dependence upon the utility grid. RG pioneers the first “Direct Public Offering” and raises $3.6 million from its customers with the purpose of constructing the Solar Living Center (SLC) to create a demonstration site for practices of renewable energy, sustainable living, and the products sold by Real Goods.

1992: RG launches the “National Tour of Solar Homes” nationwide. Tens of thousands tour hundreds of solar homes. RG runs the tour for three straight years and then gives the program to the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) who runs it to this day.

1993: John Schaeffer and Jeff Oldham (project manager of the building of the SLC) are invited to meetings at the White House by President Bill Clinton to help in the “Greening of the Whitehouse.”

1994: The 12-acre property for the SLC is purchased. The barren site has only one tree, no water, and was previously utilized by the California Department of Transportation as a dumping ground for highway rubble. The first of over 40 consecutive Solstice Celebrations takes place on the site (see picture inside the store).

The biodiesel fueling station was added in September 2003 to show the importance of alternative fuels as a means of decreasing dependence on fossil fuels. The fuel is supplied by Simple Fuels Biodiesel of Northern California and is B99, manufactured from waste vegetable oil.  Stop by seven days a week to 'grease up' your diesel vehicle. Hours are 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM in the summer and 10:00AM to 5:00 PM during the winter months.

This program became part of the Solar Living Institute in 1998 when our organization was founded. Our workshop program was an outgrowth of solar training workshops first offered by Real Goods in 1991 under the name of the Institute for Independent Living. Energy efficiency, solar photovoltaics, wind and hydro systems, passive solar design, water development, gardening and composting were introduced in these early intensive lecture and hands-on workshops. Classes took place on a nearby homestead where students lived, ate and learned together, creating close and lasting bonds among participants. Tours of local energy-independent homes added interest and first-hand knowledge to the class experience.

The organic garden was started in May 2003 to create a model for public education by showing a synergistic and pragmatic integration of food, water, landscape, and shelter in ways that are energy efficient and enhance the surrounding environment to create a regenerative and sustainable system. 

The farm is irrigated by a solar pump that moves water from a pond to the farm on the facility. Produce is sold seasonally at a farm stand on site. Produce and sales from the produce help feed interns.

In 2011, we added a 26’ diameter geodesic dome, donated by Growing Spaces, to facilitate a micro-greens business supplying local organic grocery stores.


The Solar Living Institute is a 501 (c)(3) educational nonprofit organization offering instruction in solar training and sustainable practices.  Founded in 1998, we have been providing professional solar training and a wide array of sustainability courses for over 15 years. Our courses are taught by experienced practitioners who bring years of real world knowledge to the classroom with a focus on helping students prepare for job opportunities, start businesses, and live more sustainably.

ACCREDITED BY IREC - Registered Provider of NABCEP

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