The Solar Farmer
Benjamin Materna, Field Application Engineer, Zep Solar
Benjamin Materna developed his work ethic bagging groceries for sweet old ladies at the Hanscorn Air Force Base at the age of 13. After a mediocre high school experience, and a brief stint with the Army, he took up jewelry-making in Tucson, Arizona. A year later he interned in South Shore, Massachusetts counting baby turtles on Monomoy Island for $10/hour. Benjamin spent the next few summers working construction with his uncle in Boston and then parlayed his skills to win an internship with an emerging solar company, Clean Energy Design. In 2007, he apprehensively put his name forward to represent MIT in a solar competition in DC. A strong finish, flight out to California, a conference afterparty and boat ride later, Benjamin was shaking hands with the pioneers of the solar industry and stepping forward into a career that would help bring clean energy to the world.
Julian: We pick up your story when you are leaving Sungevity as a field manager. What prompted your move?
Benjamin: After working for Sungevity for three years as a field manager, things really got interesting. I felt like I needed to rediscover my own values and my key motivating factors, but I didn’t know how to go about doing that other than shaking things up and and broadening my perspective by travelling and finding adventure. I had a bit of money saved up so I quit, got on a sailboat, and went down to Baja, Mexico. I got off in Cabo and made my way up the Baja, through Guadalajara. I met up with some artist friends that were doing a project down there for two months, and then followed a lead to Nicaragua where I ended up buying an avocado farm.
J: An avocado farm?! Was that part of the plan?
B: Not really, it just felt right. I think doubt constantly gets in the way of making decisions. I still struggle with it, but I’m always learning what becomes possible when I challenge that doubt. I had all sorts of feelings like, “Do I belong here?” and “Do I deserve this?” But why not? I just had to say yes and do it. It was awesome.
As I followed my gut on this journey, Brian Somers, President of Standard Microgrid, approached me saying that he was looking for someone who understood the technical side of solar installations and operations to work for his company in developing countries. He asked me if I was interested in working with him. So while I was travelling around and establishing this avocado farm, Brian and I started corresponding and figuring out how we could get the first big project on the ground in Zambia.
J: What was guiding you while you were making what seemed to be somewhat irrational decisions?
B: I felt like I was actually on an inward journey at that point. I was traveling in countries whose language I didn’t necessarily speak that well and I was totally solo. I was meeting up with people along the way, but I had a lot of time by myself to reflect. I think being in an unfamiliar environment was the necessary factor in rediscovering my intrinsic motivators and what’s important to me. My mantra back then, and for a long time before that, was “forward always.” I sign my emails with that mantra.
J: So what do you tell people today when they ask what you do for a living?
B: I design and project-manage solar energy systems. Since coming home from Zambia on the Standard Microgrid project, I’ve signed on with Zep Solar for a more corporate job, seeing that they just got bought out by SolarCity, which is the largest solar installer company in America. I got hired to manage operations, streamline efficiencies, and design support for SolarCity’s Give Power Foundation, which has made the commitment to do one benevolent install abroad for every megawatt of solar they sell domestically. Last year they sold 350 megawatts of solar. In 2014, they are on track and scheduled to sell somewhere around 500 megawatts domestically. Those are big numbers.
J: Great! So this is kind of like the Tom’s shoes model?
B: Yup, that’s my sweet spot actually. I really like doing the benevolent installs: large-impact, leapfrog systems that are fully functional case studies that show how solar energy can work. These projects have a big impact — they literally change people’s lives and empower them by creating 24-hour access, which allows for significantly better sanitation and educational opportunities.
J: On the journey to find purpose and profit, what are you giving up salary-wise to do something that you truly love?
B: I think people that are into this kind of work, finding a sense of purpose, quenching passions, aligning internal beliefs, and making a positive impact understand a different kind of “value.” I walked away from my Zambia gig with $2K in my pocket and feeling like the richest man in the world from my experiences. Through my new friendships there, I have all these extremely rich feelings. I could ride off of those quite a while, but the reality is that it’s hard to do things like build a house on your avocado farm with good vibes. The corporate job gives me a bit of breathing room to be able to do it all… for now at least!