Wilson grew up in Pennsylvania and spent most of his childhood living in a house that just turned 300 years old this year. His father, Conrad, taught school and eventually became a local historian. He also studied architecture and salvaged windows and other building materials for the family’s modest dwelling. The Wilsons had little money, so young Alex spent hours straightening bent nails for reuse on the house.
The place left a striking impression on him even at an early age. “It gave me an appreciation for older places and for making do with little money,” says Wilson, who has a framed black-and-white photograph of the home hanging in his tiny office.
Surrounded by colorful gardens and wildlife, Wilson also grew up with an appreciation for the outdoors. By seventh grade, when he wrote a paper on conservation and was reading books like Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, Wilson knew he’d already found his calling.
Thinking he’d become a field ecologist, Wilson majored in biology at Ithaca College in upstate New York. But a number of experiences altered his direction. He participated in a joint Ithaca College–Cornell University project that explored how to create an energy-self-sufficient farm. The students built wind turbines, solar collectors, composting toilets, and other equipment that generated or saved energy and resources.
During a months-long period in the mid-1970s when the Ithaca campus was forced to consume two-thirds less electricity because a transformer had to be replaced, Wilson was asked to educate the student body on conserving energy. “It was a very useful experience for me,” he recalls. “It helped me recognize what could be done with concentrated energy-conservation tactics.”
After graduating in 1977, Wilson moved to Washington, D.C., but shortly thereafter was hired by the New Mexico Solar Energy Association as a volunteer and then a full-time employee. He wrote articles about sustainability for local newspapers, rural agencies, books, and trade magazines.
After a trip to New England, and influenced by his boyhood memories and relatives who lived nearby, he decided to move to Vermont. John Hayes, a biochemistry professor at Marlboro College and board chairman of the New England Solar Energy Association (NESEA), recommended that Wilson apply for the position of executive director at NESEA, then based in Brattleboro. “I was 25 years old and didn’t know much about running an association,” Wilson muses.
The budding environmentalist was hired in October 1980, just in time for Ronald Reagan’s election as president and the subsequent demise of many of the information and incentive programs fueling the growth of solar energy alternatives. So, Wilson broadened the association’s focus, changing its name to the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association. Members were builders, architects, and manufacturers—the “thinkers” in their fields, he notes.
Five years later, Wilson left the association to start his own freelance business. “In college and high school, I envisioned myself being a field biologist … but from an early age I had a very strong life mission to make the world a better place,” he says. “The building industry was arguably the No. 1 target in terms of environmental problems in the country, from sprawl to the materials we used to build to energy and water use to pollution. Across the board, the impact of buildings on the environment is huge. So I made a conscious decision to stick with the building industry and effect change that way.”