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Turnpike Paradise

Amid the retail clutter in Midlothian, a solar-panel salesman plans an ecological school for children.

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George Britt serves as chief executive and Charles Bush as president of an organization that seeks to educate children and adults about sustainable energy.  Photo by Scott Elmquist
  • George Britt serves as chief executive and Charles Bush as president of an organization that seeks to educate children and adults about sustainable energy.  Photo by Scott Elmquist

Behind the log cabin at 11010 Midlothian Turnpike is a crumbling wooden shed, a stretch of cracked asphalt, and trees hung with brown vines. To the east is a Salvation Army store; just to the west is Chesterfield Towne Center.
It doesn't look like much. But here, on this 0.86-acre island in an ocean of sprawl, Charles Bush wants to build an eco-oasis.

There's going to be an orchard and an organic veggie garden, he says. A rain-water collector, permeable pavers, a koi pond and flowers for butterflies to feast upon. Compost bins and a worm farm. A playground made of recycled milk jugs. A combination classroom and bunkhouse for adult students traveling from afar made from 22 metal shipping containers. And, of course, demonstration solar panels.

It's all part of what Bush calls the Green Living Education Center of Virginia, a nonprofit venture for the benefit of local children.

“I hated school,” Bush says. But he loves to teach. He used to take a recreational vehicle to festivals and Chesterfield County schools to demonstrate how solar panels work. And the kids loved it. Everybody's interested in the technology, Bush says, but no one knows how it works.

Starting next fall, he envisions school children arriving by the biodiesel-powered busload to learn about sustainable living. His wife, Lori Bush, is recruiting Boy Scouts to tend the worm bins and home-school pupils to manage the pond.

Inside the cabin, Bush is setting up one large and two small theaters. One will show a film about wind energy, and then poof — fans in the ceiling will blow the kids' hair back. Another will show a film about hydroelectric dams. Surround-sound speakers will make the room rumble. And then — eww! — children will feel a fine spray.

“They'll remember that forever,” Bush says.

Bush hopes to open the center by summer. But he first needs approval from Chesterfield County planners for the outdoor section. He's met with them, but hasn't formally submitted his site plan.

Bush and his business partner, George Britt, are sinking about $500,000 into all these projects and exhibits, money that Bush hopes will come from grants and donations, as well as from their three green-themed businesses.

Bush is a longtime salesman, variously of home improvements, designer men's clothing and Harley-Davidson motorcycles. He got into the solar installation business about three and a half years ago.

The main company that occupies the log cabin is the Off-Grid Green Living Center store, an odd mix of high-tech and down home. Yankee Candles share table space with demonstration photo-voltaic panels and a solar water heater. Lori Bush makes s'mores by request in a solar-powered oven.

The cabin's also home to the Virginia Renewable Energy School, which on Jan. 31 began offering its first series of classes for contractors and entrepreneurs. The first class, which costs $2,995, is about how to design and install advanced photovoltaic systems. Bush's third business, Solar Trackers USA, is the installation arm of his company, and will put energy-school grads to work.

For every class offered, Bush says, he's giving away a scholarship to a student at each of six local technical high schools. A student from Chesterfield Technical Center is attending the first class. Teachers are going to visit the center this month and may take some classes there themselves, Chesterfield Technical Center's assistant principal, Steven Dimmett, says: It's time “to start integrating green technology into our various courses here.”

Solar and renewable energy's not just a trend, Bush says — it's the future. Virginia imports more than half of the energy it uses. Electricity rates that have been kept artificially low by state regulation are starting to rise. And Bush predicts that in the next 15 years, nearly all of the nation's nuclear plants will reach the end of their life spans and go offline.

“That power's not always going to be there,” he says. Some people buy gas-powered generators and think they're set, he says — missing the obvious fact that if there's no gasoline, it's “nothing but a chunk of metal.”

Get a solar-powered generator, he says, pointing to one in his shop, and you'll have no worries: “The sun's going to come up. It's going to be fine.” S

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