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From kick returns to solar panels: Tim Dwight's life as solar energy advocate

Tim Dwight built cult-like fame for his hard-nosed play as a kick returner in the NFL. Now, he’s playing on another field: Advocating for and promoting the use of solar energy.

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Tim Dwight, the strikingly speedy fan favorite kick returner/wide receiver of the late 90s and early 2000s, has strategically removed himself from the NFL zeitgeist. A favorite son of Iowa, Dwight still hosts a non-profit youth football camp in Iowa City—which this June celebrated its 15th anniversary—and he occasionally watches some playoff games, but that’s it.

Dwight could have lived off his sliver of cult-like fame if he wanted to. Just 5' 8", he juked and shimmied his way past defenders and into the hearts of Falcons fans (and later Chargers fans) universally in awe of his fearlessness. Dwight, aptly nicknamed “Kamikaze,” was plucked from the University of Iowa by Atlanta in the fourth round of the 1998 draft. Almost exclusively a special teamer to start, his career highlight came during the culmination of his breakthrough rookie season: a 94-yard kickoff return touchdown in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XXXIII.  Despite losing 34–19 to the Denver Broncos, Dwight racked up a monstrous 210 kick return yards, second all-time, and forever cemented his place in NFL special teams lore.

After a decade-long career as a returner and periodic wide receiver—he put up 623 receiving yards as a 14-game starter with the Chargers in 2002—Dwight called it quits in 2007. He was 33 and his body ached, having played football since he was 5. Dwight loved the game and NFL fans wide and far loved him. But he had an innate desire to be defined by something else.

“You have to let it go, re-calibrate your life, who you are,” Dwight says from his camp. “When you play that long and make the NFL, you associate yourself so much with that industry that’s it tough to break out if it because you have to put so much into being getting there and staying there. You have to have quality control with yourself.”


When Tim Dwight talks about his new life as a solar energy advocate, he sounds like he used to play: non-stop, gritty and entirely perplexing. 

It was 2008, a year after Dwight spent his first non-football year as an adult traveling the world when he was presented an opportunity to invest in Integrated Power Corporation, a Novato, Ca., based company that brings solar energy to businesses. He was not interested in being merely a passive financier; he wanted to be involved in day-to-day operations. But first, Dwight meticulously researched the industry and immersed himself in fundamental questions driving its growth potential. Where was this industry going? What was the scientific foundation? And could solar ever truly compete with traditional energy sources?

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Solar energy has been around since 1800's, when the first cell was created. NASA built the first solar panel in 1954. Since then, the industry struggled to achieve the necessary scale to dramatically drive costs down and make a dent in the energy market. The way Dwight sees it, that time is just about here.

“People didn’t grasp it. Solar was like computers 30 years ago. Now people can Instagram, take pictures. If the customer understands the benefits, it’s a home run.”

From cost reduction to salvaging the environment to securing the grid against natural disaster, Dwight extols solar's benefits. Consumers are buying in. 

When he started in the industry in '08, a solar module was $4.00 a watt. Today, you can buy one for 70 cents.

Former athletes frequently invest in businesses, oftentimes carrying a portfolio that cascades industries and can be seen as vanity projects. By fully dedicating himself to solar energy, Dwight took a road far less traveled. In 1998 he moved to California to help Integrated Power Corp. build upon its track record of successful solar projects. One standout example is a new solar array atop the consolidated car rental facility at San Jose’s Mineta Airport, which provides 20% of its power, reducing fossil fuels. Dwight notes the added benefit of solar in a seismic area like San Jose—you get power faster after a natural disaster, as well as cleaner water.

The growth and success of solar power in California and other states inspired Dwight to spread it to his home state of Iowa. He moved back in 2011 and now splits his time 50/50 between Iowa and California. 

He soon became the president of the newly developed ISETA (Iowa Solar Energy Trade Association) and began spending ample time advocating to state legislation.

But when the Iowa born and bred NFL and track star forayed into advocacy, some state representatives naturally did a double-take.

“People know who I am [in Iowa],” Dwight acknowledges. Besides,at that point he was only a few years removed from playing football.

But the groundwork had been laid. Dwight was not going to simply trade off his name recognition. After he started actively advocating in 2009, he knew he needed to get some projects off the ground to erase the inherent skepticism. In 2010, he got involved in a plethora of them, ranging from business to residential.

“I would show [state legislators] these projects and they were like, whoa, this isn’t 12 miles of projects, this is 400 miles of projects. These are not $20,000 investments, they’re $400,000, he says. “Seeing the growth, the projects, it hit home. ‘Maybe Dwight knows what he’s talking about.’”

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It also helps that Dwight can speak flawlessly and passionately about all sides of the industry. As we chat, he riffs on about electricity, amps, volts, wire sizes, how to pinpoint a connection to a grid, how to break down a single-line diagram, and how energy is currently bought, sold and created. 

Throughout our conversation, the solar advocacy never slows. Just like his skills as a returner, you think he's done and then he goes in a new direction, passionately and convincingly adding yet another reason to go solar. “It’s like, guys, you’re living in the 1800s, man. In Iowa we’re 50% coal. We dig from Wyoming, my money is going to Wyoming. With renewables, it’s local job creation, local investment.”

Dwight’s work has already paid dividends. He, along with other solar advocates, successfully lobbied for an Iowa state tax credit passed in 2012, which was initially valued at $1.5 million and has grown to $5 million today. This mimics in degree the federal 30% tax credit per the Solar Energy Investment Act, which earlier this year extended the credit through 2021 with a rolling phase-out.

Dwight frequently travels around Iowa in his trailer, educating people about solar technology and showing them how cost effective it can be, a more advanced version of the pitch you might receive from an eager millennial volunteer at a farmer’s market. But it is the direct legislative advocacy which drove Dwight to come back to Iowa. Despite the common perception that renewable energy is propped up through government “subsidies,” Dwight merely wants to help solar get the same level of support that traditional energy has received.

“Big corporates get gas tax credit, that’s why we fight individual credits, Dwight said. “You see energy companies have had incentives for decades.”

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And Dwight is passionate in his views on how leveling the playing field can benefit our energy system as a whole.

“With coal and nuclear planets, I saw a system that was so old, so inefficient, so wasteful. Climate change is real. Glaciers are melting,” he says. “You look at the paradigm and we’re imprisoned. We imprisoned our citizens to these utility companies.

“Back in the day, to build power you had to have a third party come in and they had to guarantee revenue and that’s why the monopolies were born. This industry is one of the last with monopolies, and it’s getting broken down like the cell phone industry in the 90s.”



One corner of his old profession that Dwight, who's now 40, has paid attention to is the NFL’s current concussion crises. He’s disgusted, most notably by the lack of disclosure.

“These doctors overseeing these issues were not even qualified,” he says. “It’s malpractice. They ruined people’s lives by not disclosing what would happen.”

Dwight was often injured, though he only suffered two known concussions. He's likely to get hip replacement surgery in the next couple of years and can barely work out anymore. He now looks through the prism of his last standing current connection to football and wonders if the sport is on a downward trajectory.

“Look at my football camp, I used to have 350–400 kids, now that I’m nine years out I have 120 kids. Is some of that because these kids never seen me play and don’t know who I am? Probably.” he says. “But is some of that due to concussions? Parents saying you know what, this sport isn’t as great as everyone thinks it is.”

He is not married, nor does he have kids but says if he did have a kid he would only let him play football on natural grass. And he wants to see a move toward leather helmets.

To Dwight, the NFL is dripping with danger in ways not dissimilar to that other big business he knows—fossil fuels.

He’s happy to be firmly planted in an industry moving in the right direction, for the right reasons.

“Solar’s on it’s way. It’s not going to stop.”

Neither is Dwight.