Berkeley playhouse goes off-grid

Shotgun players
Political statement

Last week, Berkeley’s Shotgun Players in San Francisco become the first mainstream stage company to pull all its power from the sun. The $120,000 investment will not only save the group about $10,000 a year, but also shows that solar is a practical way for a smaller entertainment operation to make an ecological stand.

“This all started as a conversation about what ways we could make ourselves a more integral part of the community,” says Patrick Dooley, Shotgun’s artistic director. “We talked about a lot of things, but we kept coming back to solar.”

Since its start 15 years ago, Shotgun Players has offered plays that make it sort of a “conscience of the community,” says Dooley. The company’s work in its Ashby playhouse has always been geared to examining “the things and issues that are really burning for us.”


“We try to find plays that speak to those things onstage,” Dooley says. “But with this, we thought to just do a play about global warming was a little heavy-handed. We thought we should put ourselves out there, so our building itself could speak to the needs of the community.”

Other theater’s have gone to partial solar power, but it was Dooley’s intent to become the first to go off the grid and have 100 percent solar power. (Shotgun will be the first solar-powered legitimate theater; the first movie theater in the United States to go solar was the Palm Theatre in San Luis Obispo in 2004.)

Because Shotgun was first, donors were eager to be part of the project — a pleasant surprise for Dooley.

“Because it would have paid for itself in seven years or so, I would have done it even if it meant adding a mortgage to the building,” he said. “We had never done a capital campaign before. All our previous fund-raisers had been artist-driven. But I decided to start making phone calls to see what the reaction would be.”

He received a substantial share of the total costs from grants by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Walter & Elise Haas Fund and the Chamberlin Family Foundation, and one made in memory of Alan and Dora Harnish. The remainder of the money was raised through smaller donations of between $5 and $5,000, said Dooley.

Included in the cost of installing the solar panels was a new roof. The aging roof on the Ashby Stage building may have had a few years of life left, but since the solar panels will last two or three decades, it was decided to install them on a roof that would last at least that long.

Technically, the company will get its electricity from PG&E sources, but for practical purposes, it will only be taking back what it has produced for the utility company during the daylight hours.

When the sun is shining, the electricity meter at the theater will turn backward, as it pumps sun-produced power to PG&E. The utility buys that electricity from the theater. Then, at night, when the company uses most of its juice, it buys back power at a lower, off-peak rate, which balances out the monthly bill, bringing it to zero.

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