Tag: energy conservation

Why This Solar Company Founder is Starting a Credit Union

Blake Jones, co-founder of Namaste Solar and Clean Energy Credit Union, was growing frustrated with the poor financing choices available to his customers. Turns out you can get better financing for a t.v. or couch than you can for solar panels. So he set out to do something about it. Jones and his team are launching the Clean Energy Credit Union. Their goal: to offer the lowest interest rates to consumers looking to purchase renewable energy products and services.

A Gradual Epiphany: From Oil & Gas to Clean Energy

How did Blake Jones, a visionary leader in the renewable energy movement, go from working in oil and gas, to launching an employee-owned cooperative solar installation company, a solar purchasing cooperative, an impact investing fund, and now the Clean Energy Credit Union?

Blake Jones, Boulder, CO

?It was a slow awakening?, says Jones. ?I was working in the oil and gas industry right out of college when I went to work for a subsidiary of Halliburton. I was in love with the oil and gas industry. It sounds strange to admit that. I had read a book called The Prize, by Pulitzer Prize winning author Daniel Yurgin, about the history of oil.

I thought oil was the neatest thing and made the world go round. I was ambitious, wanted to make a lot of money, and wanted to work abroad. And I got all of those things.

But fortunately I had an older brother who is passionate about renewable energy. He helped me open my eyes to some of the disadvantages of our over-dependence on fossil fuels and what it does to our planet.?

 

Over time, Jones shifted his passion for oil and gas towards renewable energy. He went to work in Nepal for 3 years, installing solar systems in remote villages along the foothills of the Himalayas. ?And I loved it?, says Jones.

It was here that he learned about renewable energy technology and small business management.?After the Renewable Energy Standard passed in Colorado in 2004, Jones came back to co-found Namaste Solar.

Namaste Solar: Employees Are Owners and Decision Makers

Namaste Solar?s employee-owned cooperative model is their secret sauce and the reason they?ve seen a 50% compound annual growth rate over their 13-year history, while other solar companies have struggled.

??we were all on the same page about the different kind company we wanted to start. We thought, if we?re going to do this, we?re not going to start a conventional company. ? Everyone at Namaste Solar thinks and acts like an owner.?

Jones and his team started Namaste Solar as a 100% employee owned, democratic workplace. In the early years of the company, everyone made the same salary, including the CEO. Today, there?s a 6-to-1 cap on highest-to-lowest total pay. Every employee gets an equal vote in important decisions, like who to elect to the board. Their one-person-one-vote model makes employees feel like true contributors.

?We are completely transparent. Every bit of company information is shared, including pay ? which stands to this day. And we donate 10% of our profit each year to the community.?

According to Jones, their secret sauce of employee ownership, democratic workplace, and extreme transparency has attracted many people who are passionate about both solar and proving there?s a better way to do business than the conventional norm.

Namaste Solar is now known as prime example and champion of the B Corporation movement, the idea that the power of business can be used to solve social and environmental problems.

The Dark Side of Solar

Namaste Solar is now 13 years old, employs 175 people and brings in $50 million in revenue per year. ?

But it hasn?t been easy. They have done very well in an industry that has seen a lot of shake-out. While the solar industry has been super-hot, the market is so competitive that many solar companies have gone bankrupt.

?There?s a dark side to solar?, says Jones. ?It turns out that most of our competitors are not profitable. But they can raise a lot of money on Wall Street because their top line is growing so quickly. The focus for these companies is on land grabbing market share.? ?

This makes for strange competitive dynamics since Namaste Solar is going up against companies that are solely focused on expanding total sales through aggressive marketing by using money raised from Venture Capitalists, rather than trying to run a profitable business.

Finding Investment to Fund Sustainable Growth

Yet, it turns out there is a path to raising capital for growth from people who believe in sustainable growth.

In the beginning, Namaste Solar was 100% employee owned.

?Being na?ve first-time entrepreneurs, we thought that if we took external capital we?d lose control. We were getting a call every 2 weeks from Venture Capital or Private Equity firms, offering lots of money but it had strings attached. They wanted us to grow quickly and provide a liquidity event in the next 5 years.?

Because they sought to keep control of the company with their employees, they made it a core value that they will never have external investors. ?In hindsight, that was a little misguided or misinformed?, says Jones.

They started meeting other like-minded companies, some of them through the Certified B Corporation community and the National Center for Employee Ownership. They met large and successful cooperatives like Organic Valley and Equal Exchange and learned that they could raise capital without losing control. ?These cooperatives had issued a class of non-voting preferred stock, which means that external shareholders would not be able to change the company?s philosophy or direction.

?When we saw that model we thought, why didn?t we think of that??

Namaste Solar can how raise capital via a class of stock that doesn?t have voting rights and allows them to keep their cooperative model and governance structure intact. Seeing that cooperatives could successfully find mission-aligned investors showed Jones that it could be done. ?

Beyond Solar: Creating Momentum for Impact

One of the most interesting things about the interview was how this community of social entrepreneurs helps each other out, even when they compete.

Since founding Namaste Solar, Jones launched an impact fund that invests in private companies that provide social or environmental impact. He also co-founded Amicus Solar Cooperative, the first purchasing cooperative in the U.S. for the solar industry. The purchasing co-op is jointly owned and managed by its 48 member-companies.

And now, with the launch of Clean Energy Credit Union, any individual or contractor selling renewable energy products (from any renewable energy provider) will be able to access the lowest rates in the market.

Jones and his team have proven over and over that their sustainable and democratic approach to product, services and capital raising can and does work.

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How Crickets and Buildings Can Save the World

We’re here with Mitchell Joachim, co-founder and director of research at Terreform ONE, located at the New Lab building in Brooklyn. Terreform ONE?is an architecture and urban design research and consulting group that promotes smart design in cities.

By the way, if you haven?t seen New Lab, check them out. This refurbished old shipyard in Brooklyn is home to the new manufacturing. The building houses a community of entrepreneurs working in advanced technology. Thought leaders in robotics, AI, connected devices, nanotechnology, urban tech, and more collaborate in the coolest work sharing space we?ve ever seen.

About Mitch + Terreform ONE

In addition to running Terreform ONE, Mitch is also an Associate Professor of Practice at NYU.?He was an architect at the offices of Frank Gehry and I.M. Pei. He’s been awarded?a Fulbright Scholarship and fellowships with TED, Moshe Safdie, and Martin Society for?Sustainability at MIT. He was chosen by Wired magazine for “The Smart List? and selected by?Rolling Stone for ?The 100 People Who Are Changing America?.

Mitch Joachim pointing to dual purpose modular shelter and cricket farm

Terreform ONE is on the cutting edge of smart urban design. For example, when the United Nations mandated that insect sourced protein is a major component in addressing the global food crisis, Terraform One responded by building a?dual-purpose shelter and modular insect farm. The structure provides food for communities and serves as a shelter at the same time. Check their other projects?here.

What?s your origin story? How did you get into eco-architecture and smart design?

In architecture school in the 90?s, we were very interested in a movement called Deconstruction, which involved a lot of reading of European philosophers like Derrida, Heidegger and DeLanda. Things that were interesting but were very selfish.?We wore a lot of black, we were angry, and we spoke in tongues. This was architecture for other architects.

We were concerned about the environment, the world. We were concerned about making things fantastic, beautiful, and fabulous and different. But we didn?t see our contribution to climate as being an issue.

I realized that my call in life wasn?t to make things dark and creepy. It was to actually answer some of these problems that architecture itself causes. For example, over 40% of all energy used in the US is in buildings, or the built environment. So we can do better.

Turns out that my reason was not only for energy conservation, but there was also a quest for a new aesthetic. What is a real, organic architecture?

The variances that I had been trained on like Frank Lloyd Wright are just decoration. They?re mimesis. They are copying nature but they are not actually nature.?Other versions still mimic ideas in nature. They?re pulled in and still use glass, steal and aluminum. But they are not working with the stuff of life.

On the other hand, fitting into an ecosystem?s metabolism and building structures and systems that have no distinction between the landscape and the building… that?s interesting to me.

What do you say to the Negative Nellies who claim it?s too late, that the damage to the environment is done?

The Negative Nellies have good reason to be upset because the impact that we?ve made on the climate, the impact we are feeling right now, happened 20 years ago. So even if we changed today, we would not feel those effects for 20 years.

We?ve been told about the warming of the atmosphere since 1953, I think first with the Keeling Curve. Science said 3 decades ago that it was unstoppable, and that we needed to reduce, reuse and change the way we live. But it?s like the frog boiling in water ? doesn?t know it?s boiling until its too late.

But I also think it?s like driving a car when you know you?re going to get into an accident. The brakes will help, steering will help, even if we know it?s going to happen. The Negative Nellies throw their hands up in the air and let go of the steering wheel. But we, as humanity, should fight until the very end. We should use all of our powers to stop or reduce the damage that we know is coming.

What can businesses do to reverse the trend?

Most countries and most people operate from a single predicate: growth. Make more money, more jobs, and extract more resources. And do it without any limits. Capitalism is very much a part of that. We have influenced an entire epoch with this line of thinking.

But business can also be a force for good. If the economy is self-sufficient, self-sustaining, and circular, if what it takes away it gives back in other forms, if it?s not so selfish, if there?s some thought and compassion, then it can be good.

The first and last thing we need to do is have principles. Not make money for money?s sake, but have a purpose to your business. For example, to protect your family, the species, the environment.

Capitalism without morals is a serious issue. Caring, thinking, learning, and making smart decisions about what to do with your money is important. Not just making money for money?s sake. Because that?s the emptiest thing you can do.

So the top 3 things we can do as individuals are:

  1. Be aware. That?s the most important thing we can do. Be aware of what is happening around you and how you live in the world.
  2. Get educated. There are people called scientists. Listen to the things that are being told to you by people who actually know what they are talking about.
  3. Once you are aware and educated, act. But act in ways in that make sense for you and your lifestyle and world around you. It doesn?t make sense to recycle and compost if no one in NYC is recycling or composting. But you can act by taking a vote when a recycling and composting program comes up for a vote.

Americans are a group of people that don?t like being told what to do. They will do it when they are excited to choose it. That?s why becoming aware and educated is so important.


More about Terreform ONE and Mitch Joachim.

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