PASCO -- Ray Lam wants to make the world a better place.
That can mean consulting on big environmental projects through his firm, Silk Road Environmental.
It also can mean selling homeowners affordable solar water heaters, as he does through his other company, Silk Road Solar.
But Lam doesn't just deal in green technology -- he deals in green jobs.
This weekend, the first students in a new certificate program at Columbia Basin College in Pasco will complete the hands-on portion of their solar technician training, by installing solar tubes on a house in Prosser.
In just six weeks, the eight students have learned a skill that can land them in the middle of the sustainable-energy boom.
And it was sparked by an article in the Herald.
Mike Durst, director of the Moore Observatory at CBC, saw a story about Lam's solar business in the Herald in May and called him about a water heater for his pool at home.
As the two men were chatting, Durst asked Lam how much it would cost to install a system that could supply enough hot water for a single-family home.
"He said $1,500," Durst said, still shaking his head over the low price.
A company in Seattle sells a similar system for $8,500, Lam said. Silk Road sells the solar heaters at very low profit margins and relies on volume to make money, he said.
It's working -- it sells about 40 to 50 solar systems per month, Lam said.
"I asked him, 'Could you teach this to kids at CBC?' " Durst said.
Lam, who said every engineer secretly wants to be a teacher, quickly agreed. The college signed on to the plan, and by early February Lam talked to students about evacuated tubes.
Inside the glass tubes designed by Silk Road are three different conductive materials. The materials are layered around a copper tube holding a type of antifreeze. Because of the three different coatings, the tubes heat up even when skies are overcast, from the ultraviolet rays passing through the clouds.
The boiling antifreeze rises into a heat exchanger, where it heats up the water.
The solar water heaters don't replace conventional heaters entirely, but they can cut heating bills by a third, Lam said.
Future students in the program might install 400 of the tube arrays at TRAC, if a grant proposal is accepted. A house built by Pasco high school students for Habitat for Humanity will feature the tubes. And a dairy farm in Prosser is putting up five of the arrays soon.
"The only thing that limits this is a person's imagination," said Charlie Card, a grizzled cattle rancher from Prosser who is about to get his solar technician certificate from CBC.
Card, 74, brought in the youngest student of this first class -- his neighbor's son, 16-year-old Travis McWhirk.
The class had an even mix of high school students, college students and working adults wanting to expand their job skills, Durst said.
They ran through a condensed program in six weeks -- 12 hours in the classroom, 22 in the lab and about 12 hours of practical application in installing glass tubes outside in the cold.
In return they get a certificate from CBC's Career and Technology Program. They also get three college credits. And they get paid for the installations by Lam -- about $100 to $150, depending on how many hours they spend on a job.
That helps offset the $540 it costs to take the class. In the future, Lam and Durst might come up with scholarship programs in which students install more arrays to work off their tuition, they said.
CBC is "working hard to make science and technology programs more hands-on," Durst said.
It's much needed in the Tri-Cities, Lam said. There is a gap between highly educated scientists who come up with ideas and the workers who execute the ideas in the real world, he said. This program can be a step to narrow that divide.
And it can provide a spark to move the area's economy into what many consider the next boom, Lam said.
"We talk about a green energy hub in Washington," he said. "I think it should be in the Tri-Cities. But there's got to be less talking and more doing."