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Solar Pioneer in Kentucky

by Nancy Reinhart — last modified Jun 08, 2010 09:12 AM
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Richard Levine: Kentucky’s Own Solar Pioneer
By Laura Alex Frye-Levine (daughter)
Laura and DickAs a child, I stumbled upon a copy of a neatly typed letter my father had written to his scoutmaster after being awarded the rank of Eagle Scout. While others in his troupe were celebrating the capstone achievement of their adolescent lives, my father had written earnestly about his concern for the integrity of the honor. He wrote: “I am afraid of what might happen if scouts start pursuing points for the sake of earning points alone.” The scoutmaster likely laughed the letter off as naive, but as a young child it made an impression on me – and I’ve continued to think of it as a metric of whether I am pursuing the right things for the right reasons.
Over the next several decades, through a desert of institutional support, my father would go on to pursue a career as an architect and solar innovator. His tenacious, passionate approach to his life’s work has always been refreshingly unconcerned with most of the official metrics of success.  Like any activist, he has pursued his work for reasons ultimately much bigger than himself. Nevertheless, through an inspired career of vision and hard work, Richard Levine has given a great gift to society. Had he been more conventional in his goals for research and design, the field of solar energy would not have advanced as far as it has today. 
Last month, at it’s most attended annual meeting in history, the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) honored my father with its most prestigious award in solar innovation: The Passive Solar Pioneer award. ASES cited him “For his lifelong dedication as a passive solar advocate, practitioner, theoretician and mentor and for his pioneering inspiration displayed on projects ranging from a house to a city.” As he took a bow in front of a crowd of 3,000 cheering people, waves of belated recognition sweeping over him, I was overwhelmed with the realization that his life’s work had not gone unnoticed! Like all true pioneers, Richard Levine never pursued his interests with the goal of receiving recognition, though recognition ultimately found him. 
Raven RunThe era of renewable energy is upon us. On a planetary scale, we are facing the incredible task of ending the cycles of our addiction to fossil fuels; falling short spells certain ecological demise. Though we all search for ways of leading healthier lives, we suffer from a general lack of coherent vision as to how to proceed forwards. In Kentucky in particular, the need to transition to economic and energy alternatives to Mountaintop Removal Coal mining is more pressing than ever. These days, many of us throw around words like “green” and “sustainable:” words that are repeated so often and in so many different contexts, that they have almost lost all meaning. Getting to the bottom of real solutions that work has been my father’s greatest challenge.
One of Richard’s primary contributions to a sustainable society has been to localize the idea of sustainability as a concrete balance-seeking process. Doing this has allowed him to consider a building as a system- employing intelligent design techniques as a first step in a holistic process. Through this approach, he has designed award-winning houses and cities. In 1978 he designed a double skinned office building in New York that required 12% of the energy of a conventional office building. His Raven Run House is Kentucky’s pioneering solar project. It was the first house to combine passive and active solar systems with super-insulation and an attached greenhouse.  Innovative in 1974, the house continues to be at the forefront of solar technology today and is still being published worldwide. 
Richard is currently working on several projects for zero-net-energy homes and businesses through his Center for Sustainable Cities Design Studio (  He is principle author of the European Union’s Charter of Cities and Towns Towards Sustainability (Aalborg Charter), and won an international citation from the Royal Association of British Architects for his proposal designing a sustainable reclamation of a strip-mine site in Whitesburg.  In addition to Kentucky, he has designed sustainable cities for Korea, and Vienna. Upon presenting him with its Passive Solar Pioneer Award, ASES commended: “Work that in every way is an exemplar of the best that architecture has to offer our collective sustainability.” 

I look forward to a future that holds many more years of inspiration from Kentuckys own Solar Pioneer. Let's all work with him to bring a sustainable energy future to the commonwealth!

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