In California, one of the states hit hardest by the Great Recession, Danny Kennedy is working to spur growth and innovation by casting light on an often-misunderstood industry: solar energy.
Kennedy's mission is to recast the way consumers think about solar energy by providing an energy solution that is easy to implement and easy to understand. "For a long time, solar power was not understood," he said. "It wasn't that the technology wasn't efficient, it was just a hassle."
In order to fulfill that mission, Kennedy, of Oakland, CA, teamed up with "serial entrepreneur" and long-time friend Alec Guettel and former banker Andrew Birch to found Sungevity, an online, all-purpose residential solar panel company that walks homeowners through the process of going solar, from quote to installation. "We've created a solution that makes it accessible online and an easy choice for customers to switch to," Kennedy, Sungevity's co-founder and President, said.
Potential solar panel users are typically required to pay up front for the cost of the installation and actual solar panels. With only a promise of long-term savings, the large initial investment can prove daunting for many considering the switch from traditional energy to solar. Sungevity allows customers to utilize a "solar lease" and pay a monthly rate for the panels, while saving money on their electric bill right from the beginning. "With the solar lease and the online portal, we've streamlined and made it easy," Kennedy said.
The Sungevity platform allows customers to apply for a free quote online by giving their address and a few facts about their roof exposure and energy use. Local contractors can then install custom-made solar panels. Sungevity's use of sub-contractors ties into the company's bigger mission of social pride and improving local communities. "We want to partner with good tradespeople in your community who you know and trust," Kennedy said. "While bringing the advantages of a centralized business, our local partner does the job and we make sure they do the job really well."
Kennedy transitioned into the entrepreneurship game after working with Greenpeace, where he helped run the company's Sydney office and managed campaigns in the Australia Pacific region. His experience with Greepneace not only helped him develop the tools and experience necessary to run a business, but it also taught him critical lessons about bringing people together with a common mission. "I saw how people get inspired by positive vision and saying 'Yes' to things," Kennedy recalled. "You can get people supporting a cause if you're more about the for than the against."
After coming back to the U.S., Kennedy began campaigning for solar energy development. In 2001, a California campaign that he helped run for solar bonds received 73% of the vote. "It was a stand-up moment," Kennedy said. "Nothing in America gets 73% of the vote." The industry continued to pick up, and in 2006, the promise of solar power became a reality for Kennedy.
Kennedy attended a large conference in San Jose, CA, for the solar energy industry where then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger spoke to solar entrepreneurs. In his speech, the governor promised to support solar initiatives, and he later followed through on that promise. "He was giving that speech and the rhetoric was raving," Kennedy recalled of the experience. "It was him at his finest form. A new governor speaking to a group of venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. People were in their chairs, pumping their fists and I was sitting there and said, 'Wow, this is awesome. It's really here.'"
Sungevity is helping to cement solar as a reasonable energy option in America, a place Kennedy believes is particularly ready for solar. "America is incredibly well-suited because of the IT capabilities here," Kennedy said. "The industry is creating whole new opportunity segments that we can't even imagine today."
In the midst of economic troubles, Kennedy believes the solar energy industry is a shining light: "The fact of the matter is, solar panels open up a whole universe of opportunity and job creation."
This profile is part of a series featuring innovative small-business owners taking part in The Huffington Post's Entrepreneurship Expo, in Tampa and Charlotte, in conjunction with the 2012 political conventions and HuffPost's "Opportunity: What Is Working" initiative.
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Garden State Solar
My first surprise: someone's already <a href="http://www.mnn.com/eco-glossary/solar-power" target="_hplink">talking up solar power in Jersey</a>. Unfortunately, some sort of state ordinance apparently obliges solar companies to hire ad agencies staffed exclusively by people who have been in comas since the Carter presidency to produce their ads. Here's a 2011 ad from Middleton, N.J., taking us back to the 1980s future.
Solon 'HAIL' Ad
Beaming in from the other side of the Atlantic - and from another, much more sophisticated universe, in terms of production values - <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lFJc4xuFPcc" target="_hplink">here's a big-budget two-minute spot from Germany's Solon Energy</a>. They spent so much on the filming, though, they must've run out of cash to fund a focus group, which would've surely told them that the best way to convince people of the merits of solar power might not be to lay ruin to their city in a biblical bombardment of batteries.
SolarCity - 'Turn Sunshine Into Cash'
<a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9gUMI6VCVkE" target="_hplink">I had high hopes for this ad</a>, which comes to us from the Bay Area's top solar installer. And the first 15 seconds are as sharp and powerful as any you'll find in cleantech, as rows of coal trucks hurry in reverse back to their mines and smoke hussles back down smokestacks. Alas, SolarCity seems to have handed the second half of the spot over to the same pack of defrosted Carter-era ad men who did Garden State Solar's work. Great shots of those guys walking past a truck and then waving cheerily as they drive somewhere for some undisclosed reason. Really closes the proceedings on a high note.
SolarWorld - 'It Starts At Home'
All in all, <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uj1E8Swu5X0" target="_hplink">this is probably the strongest ad of the bunch</a> in terms of focused messaging and stylish presentation. It does suffer a bit from PowerPoint disease, though - too much data in too many infographics that zip past far too quick to process - and it closes with somewhat generic livin'-the-good-suburban-life images that could be advertising anything from low-fat food to life insurance. Has no one in the solar industry ever heard of a climax?
Queensland Government's Johnny Nash Ad
Sunny Australia's been a world leader in solar research since NASA first installed panels at remote outback spacecraft tracking stations in the 1950s, but it's been a laggard in actual PV installations, <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_power_by_country" target="_hplink">ranking behind such noted sun destinations as Belgium and the Czech Republic</a> in actual solar generating capacity. For whatever reason, though, Australian governments love to make pro-solar ads. Here's one that encapsulates all the generic arguments, all to the all-too-familiar strains of Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now."
Indian Solar Ad
The Indian government is in the midst of <a href="http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303745304576356740170323036.html" target="_hplink">an ambitious push into the front ranks of the global solar market</a>, and apparently the state government of Bengal (I think) is touting solar panels as lifestyle accessories for the emerging middle class. My Bengali's not what it could be, but if I follow the story line correctly, t<a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLIiwlENKwo" target="_hplink">he happy family in this ad</a> trades their ailing matriarch for a sizeable solar array - which, I have to admit, is probably the more prudent choice, fiscally speaking.
Vintage '80s Solar Ad
Embedding's blocked for this one, so <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yBeVBUACqFc" target="_hplink">click here to learn how our solar future looked from the Texas ranchlands of the 1980s</a>. I don't know who this Dale Robertson is, but it seems likely he was one of the less celebrated Ewing cousins on the hit 1980s drama "Dallas." Disgruntled at being cut out of the family's fictional oil fortune, he appears to have wandered off into the Texas countryside to deliver rambling monologues about solar power. "Can't think of anything . . . more . . . reasonable than that."
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