After a decade as a wide receiver and return specialist in professional football, coming after being a collegiate All American football player at the University of Iowa, it’s not hard to understand someone’s wanting to simply kick back and catch some proverbial rays.

And catching rays is precisely what appeals to Tim Dwight, though not of the sort that might first come to mind.

Perhaps most remembered by football fans for his 94-yard touchdown return of a kickoff for the Atlanta Falcons in a loss to the Denver Broncos in 1999 (Denver quarterback John Elway’s last game), Dwight has grander things in mind.

As in playing in the big leagues of solar power.

Tim Dwight
Tim Dwight: ‘I wanted to get into something after football that was exciting and that was big .’

Specifically, Dwight, now 39, is working to develop a market for solar energy in his home city and state of Iowa City, Iowa, and ultimately, given his ambitions, for the rest of the world too.

Dwight recently sat down to discuss his new ventures.

After retiring from the NFL after the 2007 season, when and how did you first get involved with the solar energy industry?

I took about a year off, traveled around a little bit. Went to Africa. Had the opportunity to go on two USO trips to Iraq. That was definitely game-changing for me with what I wanted to do with my career. The world runs on energy everywhere, and energy runs everything. So I knew that market wasn’t going to go away.

I had to really educate myself on what I was going to do. It’s a lot to understand all the dynamics: what goes into energy production, delivery, service, and pricing. And when you get into the game, you have to understand where you fit, and how you provide benefit in the game. So, over the last four of five years that’s what I’ve been doing, trying to build a solar industry in Iowa. I created the Solar Energy Trade Association. I’ve been at the [state] capitol really pushing forward on policy, because that’s what it really comes down to.

Realizing what solar can become is very exciting. I wanted to get into something after football that was exciting and that was big …. When I got out of football I was like “you know what, energy is the biggest game in the world and solar is going to change everything.” So being a part of something like that is very exciting, very humbling. Understanding what it’s going to do for the world and for the people is even better.

Why are the prospects for solar energy an issue you’re now so passionate about? Is it something that long had been an interest? Or did you have what some might call an “AHA! Moment”?

Well it’s something that’s going to change the world … You get motivated in all kinds of different aspects. One is environment, you want to leave the world in a better place than when you came.

I didn’t really know a whole lot about recycling or energy or my carbon footprint even throughout my early thirties. Then I really started to get engaged in the conversation and do my research, and not just listen to people but actually lead and connect the dots myself … We’re starting to realize that the way that we procure, and the way that we burn, and the way that we power our lives is not the correct way to do it.

We’ve got to change. We’ve got to move to another level, just as we we have with communications. I see a lot of similarities between telecommunication and energy.

There are a lot of things that go into energy, and it’s been pretty eye-opening. Sometimes I’m like “Wow, what did I get myself into?” But seeing where it’s going and seeing how it’s going to change the world for the better is incredible. I get up every day and watch my systems crank out power. Every single day that’s free energy coming down and powering our world. And it’s being extracted from a technology that’s very low-cost, very low-maintenance since there’s no moving part. And it has great longevity…. You can save a lot of money, you can create a lot of jobs, you can clean our air and clean our water, and we can keep a lot of our resources in the state.

Iowa has been a national leader in wind energy production, but people are probably more likely to think of states like Florida, Texas, and California for solar energy. What is the potential for solar in a northern state like Iowa?

Iowa gets about four and half sun hours per day, which ranks us sixteenth in the country. Another benefit is that cold weather really kind of bolsters solar. So when you get a cold day, and it’s clear out, and there’s no snow on the solar modules, those modules are probably pushing out some of the most efficient power across the country because cold air really makes semi-conductivity operate most efficiently.

It’s like your computer. When your computer gets hot, what does it do? Slows down. But when the fan kicks on and cools it down, it speeds up. Same thing with solar. When it’s cold out, these modules are cranking out a lot of power, very efficient power. When it’s hot out in the summers, they’re not cranking out as much efficient power, but they’re cranking out more power because they’re getting more sun hours.

The Solar Investment Tax Credit is expected to sunset at the end of 2016. For solar energy to continue to grow, do you think it’s important that the credit be extended?

Yeah, we really need to have that extended out for another probably five years, I would think. Then after that, from what I’m seeing in the market, since I’ve been in the market for coming on six years, it involves whether solar modules will be where they need to be, as well as the labor and industry itself. I think it’s going to be close.

So I think it’s important for people to understand that these policies have been working and are putting people to work. We didn’t have anyone in the solar industry five or six years ago and now we have over 200,000 people, and we have a growth rate of 25 percent … Ultimately, we don’t want to be incentivized, we just want a level playing field so we can compete with the major utilities.

Editor’s Note: Some responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Nick Fetty is a graduate student in journalism at the University of Iowa and a participant in the school’s Climate Narrative Project, a content partner with Yale Climate Connections.