In the late '70s—before it was in vogue to be green—Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, became America's first solar village. It was a move the town of 600 made after much of the community was destroyed in July 1978 by massive flooding of the nearby Kickapoo River. "The flooding is what started the process of relocating to higher ground and constructing businesses with solar panels," says Tamera Kelper, Soldiers Grove's clerk and treasurer.
The townspeople rebuilt their community further away from the river and constructed many new buildings with solar panels. The grocery store, beauty shop, fire station and a dozen other businesses installed solar panel systems that now supply 50 percent of the town's heating needs, Kelper says.
Now, more 30 years after the town installed its first solar panel, filmmaker Brain Kosisky decided to feature Soldiers Grove in his documentary Solar Town USA . "It is an inspiring story of how the residents took something negative—severe flooding—and made something positive out of it: rebuilding their town from scratch and creating America's very first solar town," Kosisky says.
The documentary, hosted and co-produced by former CNN anchor Daryn Kagan, features the ups and downs the community went through while switching to solar and what it's like to maintain solar technology for three decades. "They are optimistic yet down-to-earth," Kosisky says. "While they are all proud of their town and the sustainable solar elements, they admit that some of the systems are no longer working at peak performance. Right now, the state of Wisconsin is studying the buildings to see how the systems can be improved."
While it is uncertain what the future holds for Soldiers Grove and its green initiatives, Kosisky says the town is "the quintessential example of optimism in the face of adversity."
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