Meet innovators battling climate change
Profile: bringing solar down to earth–Lynn Jurich
By Dick Munson, author of Tesla: Inventor of the Modern (W.W. Norton, 2018). Research assistance by Kim Sha of Princeton University and Ben Liu of Cornell University.
Today’s entrepreneurs reveal a more promising future. Electric cars have been unveiled that enhance our driving experience and cut pollution. Community solar projects are showing how we can obtain clean energy even if trees shade our own home or apartment. Solar glass soon will replace our roof’s old shingles and generate pollution-free power. Self-driving trucks will reduce congestion. Batteries will run our utility meters backwards. Wind turbines will increasingly replace dirty coal plants.
In fact, solar and wind developers already employ nine times more workers than coal mines. That fact alone does not garner the upbeat attention it deserves. More surprising and underreported news is that the only occupations expected to double in the next few years are solar-panel installers and wind-turbine technicians. Our nation’s advanced energy economy in 2016 was worth $200 billion, more than the entire U.S. airline industry and roughly equal to the prosperous pharmaceutical business.
During a summer internship in Beijing, Lynn Jurich felt like she was choking on every breath she took. With the emissions from dirty power plants, charcoal stoves, and smoky cars, she was forced to wear a mask. The appalling air quality in China prompted her to investigate energy alternatives when she returned to California. Confronted with the devastating impacts of urban air pollution, she became convinced that a clean environment is a basic human right. Galvanized, she set out to revolutionize how solar energy is marketed to be more affordable.
Jurich completed an MBA from Stanford, which led her to conclude that expanding renewable-energy use is not a question of research and development. It is one of economics. Specifically, she recognized the importance of making solar financially attractive to everyone who is interested.
The prevailing model for switching to solar energy was for customers to pay upfront in order to buy, install, and maintain solar-energy systems. Eventually, consumers saved enough on their energy bills to recoup their investment, but that slow payoff might take an entire decade. Unsurprisingly, the expensive outlay and sluggish financial return made consumers wary.
Jurich flipped that model on its head. Teaming up with a fellow business-school graduate in 2007, she started Sunrun, which she has grown into the largest solar company serving residential customers. Sunrun’s “Solar as a Service” business model lets us opt for solar without any upfront costs, because Jurich shifted the onus of buying and caring for equipment to her company. After installing an integrated photovoltaic system on a customer’s roof, Sunrun purchases the excess solar power produced and sells it to others. The innovative firm, as a result, makes it possible for us to save money, gain some energy independence, and clean up the environment.
In just over ten years, Sunrun has swelled to more than 3,000 employees serving 189,000 customers in 23 states. Of her progress, Jurich says: “We got our start in an attic, but today Sunrun sits on the rooftops of thousands of homes.”
The company’s measured approach has surpassed highly publicized competitors such as Elon Musk’s SolarCity in the residential solar market.And Sunrun continues to expand; in just the first four months in 2018, the company entered seven new states and doubled its marketing.
Jurich avoids the personal publicity that Elon Musk seems to thrive on, though she demonstrates a similar intensity. “Founding a company doesn’t mean sitting in a cushy chair and giving orders,” she said. “It means being in the trenches and spending your Saturday afternoons staffing a booth at a county fair to recruit customers.” In fact, Jurich landed one of her first corporate customers standing next to a giant pumpkin at the Yolo County Fair in Sacramento. Intending to discuss her product with local homeowners, she found herself awash in a sea of averted gazes. The few that paid attention seemed to do so just to sink her. But when she finally persuaded an owner of a trucking company to try solar without any upfront charges, she realized the value of farmers’ markets and county fairs. These folks gave her quick and direct feedback, allowing her to quickly improve her business model and pitch. Jurich points to those experiences as being formative to Sunrun’s development.
More than ten years in, Sunrun is no longer a scrappy startup experimenting with a disruptive business model. The company has pioneered a way for individuals and small businesses to use solar energy. This in turn has fueled the impressive growth of both renewable energy and Sunrun’s bottom line. As Jurich puts it, she wasn’t in the business of technologically disrupting the electricity industry — she was out to change our very conception of it.
Jurich and her fellow innovators enable us to become prosumers, or proactive consumers. For years, those interested in such innovations as bio-fueled cars, composting toilets, or geothermal heating were tasked with their own research and development, not to mention implementation. The genius of today’s entrepreneurs is that they offer us easy-to-adopt options that improve our lives and the world.
We already can purchase, for instance, Google’s Nest thermostats to track our temperature preferences and to adjust automatically our heaters and air conditioners to ensure comfort and save money. Similar devices soon will manage our electric vehicles so they charge when electricity prices are low and supply power to others when those prices rise.
We embrace numerous innovations without noticing the societal impact. When we switch to a highly efficient refrigerator, for instance, we cut energy waste by 80 percent and reduce the need for dirty coal-fired power plants. When we ride share to save money, we also reduce gasoline consumption.
Making positive change is becoming easier. Installing solar panels was an expensive headache before companies like Sunrun and SolarCity thought of paying the costs of the equipment, taking care of technical and zoning arrangements, and managing maintenance. Programming a thermostat used to be mind-numbing; today’s smart devices learn our habits and make adjustments for us, optimizing efficiency while minimizing cost.
Our options are growing. More and more developers and non-profit organizations are inviting us to join community solar projects and gain energy independence. At least a half dozen manufacturers offer cars powered by clean electricity from solar panels and wind turbines. Software developers offer blockchain, a sophisticated platform that verifies transactions, avoids middlemen, and enables us to shop widely for energy and energy services.
Today’s advances suggest more to come. Some of the technology behind self-driving cars already allows vehicles to parallel park without the driver’s hands on the wheel. Foreshadowing new forms of freight transportation, electric-powered trucks out-torque today’s diesel versions.
The future, of course, is uncertain. We don’t know if software and consumer acceptance will advance to the point that autonomous vehicles reduce congestion and travel times, but recent advances show great promise.
What we do know is that today’s energy innovators are making investments, creating jobs, and offering applications to enhance our lives. Their advances empower us to participate in a changing world, to circumvent backward-looking monopolies and their lobbyists, and to tackle global challenges.