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Solar Decathlon Creator Preaches Solar Energy

When Richard King was a college student at American University in the 1970s, America's energy crisis was at its peak. Determined to do something about it, he earned a physics degree so he could learn how solar cells convert solar energy into electricity.

"I always wanted to work on national problems, and that one seemed to just fit me," King said.

Even in 2002, King's commitment to solar energy and social service continues to impact his work. As team leader of the photovoltaics program at the Department of Energy, the Vienna resident has created and directed the Solar Decathlon, an event currently on the Mall, at which university teams compete and build homes that rely entirely on solar power.

"This is almost, really, a lifetime commitment for him," said his wife, Melissa King.

Although the Solar Decathlon is one of King's more expansive projects, the Kings have dedicated themselves to educating others about solar energy for a long time. Richard King talks his ideas through with Melissa, who is a resource teacher at the Arlington Science Focus School.

"We're always each other's eyes and ears," Melissa King said.

THE KINGS, who have lived in Vienna for 24 years, started educating their friends and the Vienna community about solar energy 20 years ago when they made music boxes run by solar power. They sold the music boxes at craft shows in the Vienna Community Center and gave them as gifts to friends.

"How can we help people understand what photovoltaics is all about? It was the first step to show people what solar energy could do for them," King said, explaining why he created the music boxes.

Years later, King and his wife co-wrote a book on solar car racing. The book, published in 1993 and titled "Sun Racing," documented the history of solar racing.

With King's current project, the Solar Decathlon, the Kings say they hope that more people will come to experience solar energy firsthand. Houses have actually been built on the Mall, so visitors to see the tangible possibilities for solar power.

By seeing actual solar-powered houses, the public can see that "there are energy-saving features in every house," King said.

While King's projects have helped people understand solar energy, his enthusiasm has been an inspiration to his friends.

"I think he's a good citizen of the Earth. He and Melissa both. They have a worldview many of us don't have — a sense of responsibility for taking care of the planet," said King's friend, Susan McDonald Osborn.

The Kings' former exchange student agrees.

"He's very responsible toward nature, the environment, people, family. Whenever he can make a good difference, that's Richard," said Dorthe Hansen, who stayed with the Kings when she was 16. "I got their music box in 1979 and 1980. It plays 'Here Comes the Sun,' and it's still playing. It's been with me all over the world."

Although the Solar Decathlon will end this weekend, King will continue to educate others about solar energy. He will sponsor a solar car race in 2003 and plan another decathlon in 2004.

"What we want to do is mainstream solar energy and energy efficiency and conservation," King said.