Forty-seven years is a long time to remain committed to any cause, let alone one that began as a virtually unknown concept. To develop that cause to the point of not only regional, but global leadership requires a level of dedication that few can claim. James Husbands, Managing Director of Solar Dynamics Limited, can lay claim to a truly inspirational amount of dedication to the cause of sustainable energy.
The Origins of Solar Water Heating in Barbados
In 1974, when the late Reverend Canon Andrew Hatch responded to a tenfold increase in energy prices by building a low-cost solar water heater out of an oil drum, galvanised pipes and bagasse, Husbands had already been running his first company, originally named Husbands Marketing, for two years. By the time Reverend Hatch approached Christian Action for the Development of the Eastern Caribbean (CADEC) to begin the process of commercialising the concept, Husbands Marketing had become BUILDEC Barbados and the company was busy sourcing materials for the construction industry.
In fact, BUILDEC had sourced some of the plumbing materials for Reverend Hatch’s homemade solar water heating unit and handled some work for CADEC Chairman, Reverend Bishop Drexel Gomez, which was the connection that landed Husbands an invitation to handle the marketing for this new entrant to the water heating market. “This was quite a Herculean task”, says Husbands, “because when you looked at what was being made, there was no way that you would be able to find a big market for what we were promoting at the time.”
The Start of Solar Dynamics
Considering that the newly-minted Solar Dynamics Ltd. was working with a grand total of BD$8,400 in funding from CADEC and Husbands was entering a new industry with no prior experience, “Herculean” might be a bit of an understatement. With that initial investment (which, Husbands points out, was repaid in full over time), they bought a secondhand van for $5,000, leaving them with just $3,400 left to cover materials, wages and the other costs associated with establishing a business.
Still, he approached the endeavour with the characteristic determination that would see the company through a daunting number of challenges, beginning with a big change: “one of the first things they had to do was to redesign the product to make it more acceptable for homeowners and then to source different materials.” Long interested in the manufacturing side of things, Husbands immediately became involved in production. He immersed himself fully, handling the advertising, but also engaging in product design. “I’ve developed a range of skills through this enterprise, through this opportunity, that I would have had I been selling water heaters or selling floor coverings as I did before.”
On the business side of things, Husbands managed to secure much-needed funding with assistance from those who recognised the value of the company’s offerings, including Reverend Hatch’s wife Sheila (who came up with the name Solar Dynamics) and certain supportive members of the finance community. Support also came from his existing company, BUILDEC. At the same time, he was fending off competitors looking to undermine or absorb his company in a market that had begun to look very attractive. Looking back, he remembers this as a very stressful time and expresses the hope that entities seeking to fund organisations will take time to “look at the reality of what it takes to fund the business”. He also hopes to see things change so that younger people going into business will have an easier time accessing capital, calling for the development of financial systems to “make it more comfortable, more easy for people to concentrate on their skills” instead of being consumed by finance concerns.
Support for Solar Water Heating
For his part, things began to look up in 1975, when Solar Dynamics won a contract to supply solar water heaters for 84 houses in the Oxnard housing project. That proverbial stamp of approval from the government opened up the national discussion of solar water heating. After having a Solar Dynamics water heater installed at his own home, then Prime Minister JMGM “Tom” Adams introduced a tax exemption for solar water heating systems in the 1980 budget and increased duties on gas and electric water heaters. This shift “paved the way to a large extent for the industry to have some life”.
By 1993, Husbands was leading the company’s expansion to St. Lucia, from where it began exporting its products to much of the Caribbean. However, this chapter of the journey was also plagued with its own challenges, beginning with corporate tensions that saw the assets of Solar Dynamics EC dwindle by a whopping 91%. With his particular brand of tenacity, Husbands cut costs, wiped out the losses in just 18 months and delivered a 10% return on sales every year for the following 10 years. To what does he owe such a stunning turnaround? “We could not have done it without the support of the people in St. Lucia, who gave us business, whether it was service, replacement or a new house.”
A Spirit of Innovation
This persistence, coupled with his diversified skill set, became the foundation for the spirit of innovation with which Husbands has led his company to continuously iterate and improve on their offerings. From the integration of copper pipes and aluminium heat absorbers to fusion
bonding, safety tempered glass and the design and development of Push Fit plumbing technology, Husbands has kept his company on the cutting edge of solar energy heating technology for nearly five decades, eventually implementing the “Temperature Guarantee”, which made Solar Dynamics the world’s first company to offer such a promise to its customers. “I love to create”, he explains, “I love to improve on what we do. And so my focus has been to mimic in some areas and set new standards in other areas.”
These innovations did not just ensure the longevity of his company and satisfaction of his customers. They also helped to position Barbados among the top three leading nations in the world for penetration of solar hot water systems and, in the case of the “Temperature
Guarantee”, directly resulted in Barbados becoming the number one country in the world in Btu thermal performance per 1,000 populations.
A Sustainable Energy Future
This is all in line with Barbados’ goal to eliminate fossil fuels and reach zero carbon by 2030 and Husbands fully intends to do his fair share here, too, vowing to “work assiduously to assess wherever we can promote renewable energy, whether it is solar thermal or photovoltaics”. He also remembers a time, “in the early days of photovoltaics”, when the role of solar energy was not nearly as clear to others. In the early aughts, he proclaimed that his nation would eventually come to the point where solar panels would power homes. The public response at the time, he recalls, was that this was impossible. This stance was apparently based on an existing photovoltaic installation that often failed to provide adequate power on cloudy days. Needless to say, this perspective has shifted dramatically in the intervening years, with the use of photovoltaics eventually being promoted island-wide to the extent that Barbados Light and Power opened the nation’s first utility-scale solar photovoltaic farm in 2016.
Despite his gratification at the support for solar energy, Husbands is careful to note that efficiency levels vary between different types of solar technology and, given that energy is “a 24/7 business”, “there needs to be a balancing act” in the drive to reduce fossil fuel use. He is personally hoping to see a future in which scientists find a way to reduce the carbon emissions from fossil fuel use so they are less harmful to the environment.
Commitment to the Cause
In the meantime, he continues to steer his company towards identifying and serving his customers’ needs without compromising on the quality of their product offerings. He also finds time to help others benefit from his experience, doing work and providing training in solar thermal energy in no less than 16 nations across the region, including his home country of Barbados. Asked to explain his devotion to this field in the face of so many challenges, Husbands laughs and relates a story about the time visiting marketing personnel asked him the very same question. The answer to both questions: “I would have to say that I’m crazy.”
What he might jokingly call crazy, the wider world has recognised as an invaluable contribution to the field of sustainable energy, and he has been honoured accordingly. The Government of Barbados honoured him with the Gold Crown of Merit in 1994 in recognition of his work in energy conservation, he has received the Pioneer Award from the World Renewable Energy Congress and a Laureate from the Anthony N. Sabga Caribbean Awards for Excellence in Science and Technology. He has also been awarded an honorary LLD doctorate from the University of the West Indies and is an honorary member of the Barbados Association of Professional Engineers. CARICOM Energy also honoured him during the Seventh Caribbean Sustainable Energy Forum during CARICOM Energy month 2021.
While he is humbled by and grateful for the recognition, Husbands wants to see more done to promote renewable energy and energy efficiency throughout the Caribbean and wider world. “Solar Dynamics is the Caribbean’s first full-fledged, full-time response to the energy crisis and the carbon crisis that we have in the world”, he says, adding “for the last 47 years, we’ve been at it consistently.” He’s hoping to see more people and organisations entering the industry, either as distributors or manufacturers. Ultimately, he wants to see the fruits of his labour spread across the region and world at large.
“I find that in every country, there is the opportunity for replication of what we do.”