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September 28th, 2012
10:30 PM ET

'Solar Star' shunned by White House, credits AC360 viewers for saving small business

Editor's note: Watch the video of Drew Griffin's original report, then read his update to the story.

St. John, Indiana (CNN) – Amidst hundreds of emails I get each day, Bill Keith’s stood out for its subject line: CNN viewers are the best.

I couldn’t agree more. Because when we told you about his plight, how bureaucrats in Washington were close to shutting down his homegrown solar attic fan business, you responded. And today Bill is out of his jam.

You may recall the story. Bill Keith is an Indiana roofer who came up with the idea of creating a solar powered attic fan. The fan cools off your attic during hot summer days, lowers your electric bill and requires absolutely no power source other than the sun to do it.

SunRise Solar was a perfect U.S. born “green” company. So perfect that during the 2008 election the Obama campaign took notice. And shortly after the election, Bill Keith and his company became the poster child for the president’s green jobs, green manufacturing initiatives.

"'Can you come to Washington? Can you come to Philly? Biden’s doing this,'" Keith said of the numerous requests he received from the administration.

"They were continually inviting me to these things called 'advocacy days' where they wanted me to meet with senators and congressmen," Keith said, noting that he attended many with his wife.

At these events, lawmakers talked about "how I created a solar product, how it's good for the environment, for business," he said.

"(I) won't say they were putting words in my mouth but they had a lot of talking points," Keith said. "I was happy to do it from that point of view. It is friendly to the environment; it is creating jobs."

His business went from a $39,000 a year in sales to his best year of $2 million dollars.

That was until the Customs and Border Enforcement letter arrived this spring.

Keith needs a small custom solar panel to power his fans. He has tried for years to get them built in the U.S., but after going through three manufacturers he was forced to get his solar panel from a Hong Kong distributor.

A new huge anti-dumping tariff imposed by the White House to prevent cheap solar panels from being dumped on the U.S. market, was now being imposed on his small business and it threatened to put him out of business. The tariff and fees amounted to a 250% tax.

He tried to get help from his former friends at the White House, specifically Greg Nelson, deputy director of the White House Office of Public Engagement who Keith said had been his contact with the Obama administration.

Under the subject line his email to Nelson, Keith wrote, "Hanging on for life here."
"Can you help me before I have to close my doors and let everyone go?" Keith asked in the email. "Please ... I'm pleading with you."

Nelson responded, "Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I don't know what is possible, but let me talk to a few folks asap. Will circle back soon."

The White House never circled back, until CNN aired Keith’s story. Even then there was no help.

But now, a happy ending. Although it is so convoluted I will just rely on Bill Keith to tell you exactly what happened under the email subject line: CNN viewers are the best.

“I expected my answer to come from some “political”front, and instead it came from dedicated CNN viewers. My attorney's girlfriend was watching the story on CNN and told her boyfriend to contact me...that's how Michael Roll found us. And I received countless emails and calls from CNN viewers telling me to hang in there, please don't give up, we LOVE your passion to grow an American company, we don't care if a few of your parts come from overseas...just keep up the good fight, we are writing our congressman and senators to tell them they need to help you, etc.....

Your viewers gave me the adrenaline I needed to keep fighting...because that day when you were here shooting the story I was feeling like throwing in the towels and quitting.”-Bill Keith, SunRise Solar

Michael Roll is a Los Angeles based world trade lawyer who has a girlfriend who saw the story on CNN. Roll contacted Keith, who hired him and Roll tells us he was able to get that small solar part for Bill’s fan “excluded” from the anti-dumping tariff.

Bill Keith says he lost $350,000 in sales during the ordeal, but he is back in business, back building the solar attic fans. And he is now a big fan of you, the AC360 viewer.

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