Gary Gerber, Sun Light and Power
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Gary Gerber launched Berkeley, California–based Sun Light & Power in 1976 and serves as the company’s president and CEO. He recently began his fourth term as president of the California Solar Energy Industries Association (CALSEIA.) Gerber has co-founded several environmentally focused nonprofits, including Build It Green, Green Resource Center and Sustainable Business Alliance. He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a BS in mechanical engineering, is a registered professional engineer in California and holds both B and C46 contractor licenses.
SP: Sun Light & Power appears to be charting a conservative and intentionally sustainable course. What basic principles do you consider in relation to business growth?
GG: It is interesting to me that you characterize my approach to business growth as “conservative.” In many ways, I consider my approach to business growth to be radical and definitely sustainable. First and foremost, I believe that to be sustainable, any business must have a clear and inspiring mission supported by a set of values that keeps the entire team pointed in the same direction. I have yet to find an outside investor who is willing to place this company culture above pure profit margin, though if and when I do find such an investor, I will be more than willing to have a funding conversation! In our 35 years in business, we have never taken any significant outside money; we finance the company’s operations entirely through retained earnings, bank debt and a relatively small private loan from a family friend. This has been difficult, to say the least, but it is what has allowed my wife, Barbara, and me to steer a true course through difficult times, without ever having to compromise our principles for the sake of profits.
SP: In September 2009, Sun Light & Power became one of the first solar companies to attain B Corporation certification. What are the benefits of being a B Corp and what was Sun Light & Power’s business case for attaining this certification?
GG: I first heard of the B Corp certification about 3 years ago through the Social Venture Network. B Corps are companies that value not only company profits but also the interests of the other economic stakeholders of any business: the company employees (we refer to them as team members), the local community and the environment, which ultimately sustains all economic activity. A B Corp is often called a socially responsible business or a triple–bottom-line business. I knew that Sun Light & Power already was a B Corp in its behavior, so becoming one officially was a matter of paperwork and expense.
I think that the main business case for being a B Corp is the customer recognition: Doing business with a B Corp guarantees a standard of ethics and actions that is consistent with sustainability and responsible corporate behavior, sort of like buying certified organic food or FSC-certified lumber. Your customers know up front that they are doing business with a company that shares their values and says so proudly and verifiably. For me, the decision to become a B Corp was very personal. I have always tried to consistently “walk the talk,” whether it be in my personal behavior or the behavior of the business that reflects my values.
SP: What are the highlights of your company’s commitment to social and environmental responsibility?
GG: Personally, I have been active in the green building movement for more than 15 years and have cofounded several environmental nonprofits. As you can imagine, the building materials and office furnishings we used to build out our offices demonstrate green building at multiple levels. For years we have operated our offices using a grid-tied, battery-based PV system and 100% solar and biodiesel water heating. For more than 10 years, I have been driving an electric vehicle that I recharge at my home using 100% solar energy. Our company fleet runs on biodiesel, even though it’s more expensive than petro-diesel. More than 80% of our team members live within 5 miles of our offices, and a large number bike to work daily, a practice we encourage and facilitate with secure storage and travel policies that make it easy for them to get to jobsites in company vehicles. (We also pride ourselves on having a dogfriendly workplace.)
We focus on building PV on affordable housing projects, and we encourage team participation in community service, such as Grid Alternatives, a local nonprofit where many of our team members volunteer to install solar systems on the roofs of lowincome housing. My wife, Barbara, is our chief culture officer and devotes most of her time to ensuring that we maintain and promote our B Corp values. Most importantly, we focus on hiring people for whom a sustainable lifestyle is their personal choice, assuring strong participation in the B Corp value set throughout the company. Of course, we want to hire the best and brightest, but we can train people to do the work the way we want it done. It’s far more difficult to change someone’s basic nature to fit with our company mission and culture.
SP: Sun Light & Power is relatively unique in that it offers both PV and solar water heating (SWH) system design and installation. How have you structured your business to offer services related to these two very different technologies?
GG: We started the business based on solar water heating—it was 1976, after all. I have always maintained a SWH focus in the business, even though the PV side has now greatly outstripped the SWH side in volume. They are really two very different businesses, and, frankly, it is far harder to sustain profitability on the SWH side. We have historically kept the two sides almost completely separate, with different salespeople, project managers and installers. However, recently we reached a scale and expertise that allows us to integrate the two sides. With key solar thermal [ST] support people, we now employ a single team of salespeople and project managers for both sides of the business.
SP: Approximately what percentage of Sun Light & Power’s revenue currently comes from solar thermal? How has this ratio changed over the years?
GG: Prior to 2000, virtually all of our solar business was in solar thermal— and after the mid-1980s, a lot of that work was maintenance and repairs. As PV began to rapidly grow in 2001, the percentage of ST was gradually reduced. The number has been sitting at between 5% and 10% over the last 5 years. However, in 2011, thanks to the new California solar thermal rebate program [CSI-T], we expect about 20% of our sales to come from ST, mostly in commercial work.
SP: What is your opinion of the success of the CSI-T program to date?
GG: As I would expect from any new program, adoption rates for CSI-T started out slowly, especially on the residential side. Statewide there have been only 266 residential applications filed in the first 16 months of the program, valued at $330,000 in rebates. I think there are several reasons for this: There aren’t enough qualified installers yet to grow the program at the rate it needs to grow; the promised PR and marketing campaign has yet to materialize; and, frankly, the rebate levels aren’t strong enough to entice new installers to jump into the solar thermal business or to entice customers to buy. At CALSEIA, we are about to recommend that the California Public Utilities Commission increase the rebate levels significantly in the short term, to give the program a stronger kick-start. We have a good example of how well that worked for the original PV program, when in May 2001 PV rebates went from $3.00 per W to $4.50 per W and the results were impressive. Though it started 5 months later than the residential program, the commercial side of CSI-T is far stronger, based to a large degree on Sun Light & Power activity. We have been responsible for 40% of the $1.3 million commercial rebate money applied for to date.
SP: Sun Light & Power recently commissioned the largest commercial system utilizing module-level optimization products in the US at Clif Bar & Company’s facility (see Projects, this issue). What are some of the other interesting projects that Sun Light & Power has recently completed?
GG: So many of our projects are interesting to me! For example, we built a nice 50 kW system for the Presidio Trust in San Francisco, using an all-woman team—all the way from the salesperson to the engineer to the project manager and to the entire crew. We also built a 900 kW system on 24 separate buildings over a 2-year period for an affordable housing project in Richmond, California, which at the time was (and may still be) the largest affordable housing PV system in the country. For this type of system, our biggest challenge is to maintain a high level of service and quality with the dozens of affordable housing developers that we regularly deal with. When you build multiple projects for the same customer, all it takes is one slip-up to sully the relationship. We value those relationships and put a lot of energy into keeping those customers happy.
SP: Since July 2008, you have held a position on Tigo Energy’s board of advisors. What drove your decision to serve this role with this particular company?
GG: When Tigo founders Sam Arditi and Ron Hadar first came to meet with me more than 3 years ago, I was pretty skeptical of their claims, and I told them so. However, they came with some convincing arguments and solid research, and they asked me to help them gather data to prove or disprove their theories. I decided to work with them to instrument one of our projects. Once I saw the data, I became convinced that there really was an opportunity to significantly improve PV system efficiency. I remember thinking at that point: “This could be one of those rare game changers that come by once in a lifetime,” and I decided that I wanted to be part of that. I also liked their approach of minimizing the complexity—and potential failure rate—of the equipment that would by necessity be in the harsh rooftop environment. This roof environment has always been a big concern of mine with microinverters. With Tigo, the really exciting part for me was that I saw immediately that I could contribute to improving their product, based on my years of industry experience, and that Sam and Ron were listening and acting on my suggestions with amazing alacrity. I pushed to create the name “Maximizer” for their product instead of a nondescript acronym. I suggested adding the PV-safe feature. I made suggestions on making the product and the web portal user-friendly—and they acted. They eventually offered to make me an official advisor to their board, and it has been a great relationship.
SP: What other emerging products are you evaluating or excited about?
GG: I am constantly looking at the variety of new products and ideas that keep knocking at our doors. Right now I’m seeing an amazing array of “new and improved” PV BOS solutions and mounting systems. I am particularly impressed with Zep Solar. I’ve known the inventor of Zep, Jack West, for years. Jack came to me early on, like Tigo did, and asked me for my frank assessment of the potential value proposition of his invention, which at the time was just a single prototype that he was calling the “Multiversal” mounting system. Again, as with Tigo, I was initially skeptical, but I brought it to my director of engineering, Blake Gleason, to help me evaluate it. In the end, we gave Jack a positive response about potential installation savings, though we couldn’t justify numbers as high as Jack was hoping for. Still, we liked this innovative product and still do. Jack, to his credit, rounded up investors, took Multiversal to market, changed the name to Zep Solar and is now poised to make a huge impact on the industry with his company.
I also see that the ST side of the industry is starting to show some strong innovations. Look for products that simplify and consolidate installations, especially on commercial-scale systems, such as all-in-one packages that include storage, controls, monitoring, pumping and heat exchange. These have been more popular in Europe than in the US thus far, but I think that the ST market is poised for strong growth in the US over the next few years. Products of this type will help standardize the industry and improve overall reliability.
SP: Which of your priorities as president of CALSEIA do you think have national implications?
GG: California has been the national leader in PV since the industry started to grow in 2000–2001, so I consider just about everything that happens here to have national implications. People in other states who are behind the California curve naturally look to California for examples of what worked here (and sometimes what didn’t). Our net metering and declining rebate programs are excellent examples of initiatives that worked well. All of the state Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) chapters are in the midst of signing their first-ever affiliates agreements with SEIA, which are designed to codify and clarify the relationship between the state and national organizations. The intent is that states take the lead on state matters, while SEIA takes the national lead. Right now my top priorities are to complete the implementation of an effective feed-in tariff for California and to enact a state-supported solar financing program. I have no doubt that if we get these efforts right in California, it will pave the way for the other states.