Clean Energy in California

What happens when a start-up gets hot?
by -- March 26th, 2013

In the heart of Silicon Valley, land of entrepreneurship, we visited two companies that are in the exciting hot seat of discovering how to successfully grow from their start-up origins into a serious enterprise: SolarCity and NextERA.

SolarCity: is the largest solar PV installer in the nation, simultaneously managing thousands of residential and large-scale commercial or government installations. In each of its seven years in operation, SolarCity has grown in size, successfully avoided the infamous “solar curse” that plagued Solyndra and others. Our group got an intimate look into how the leaders of the company are doing this.Pete Rive, founder and COO, snuck into our conference room and quietly sat among us for almost 30 minutes before speaking with us. We were impressed by his soft-spoken manner, his cool hybrid South African/American accent, and his black t-shirt and Birkenstocks which seemed to contrast his sharp sense of direction and fiery intellect. He spoke philosophically about SolarCity’s battle against the Establishment to promote net metering and distributed generation, working towards a better future. We also heard practical advice about the importance of careful cash flow management, keeping an eye out for changing policies, and consumer education as a cornerstone of marketing for a startup from other VPs and managers at the company. We couldn’t have asked for a better snapshot of the challenges and excitement of growing a startup. Not to mention, their conference table, made from a decommissioned PV panel, overlooks the beautiful, rolling hills of San Mateo.

Photo by Maureen Quinlan.

NextERA: is a wind power generation company that has steadily grown since its inception in 1998. We had the pleasure of driving our coach bus out into the middle of sheep pasture paradise to visit one of their enormous and remote wind farms. And wow, those turbines are big. In a weird way it was like being in the Redwood Forest all over again. NextERA has been successful as a company because they look before they leap.

They use special wind speed collection devices and software to gauge the wind potential in a site, then secure a PPA (power purchasing agreement), plan grid connection, and calculate their expected payback periods. NextERA doesn’t contract out maintenance of its turbines, unlike many wind companies, in order to find savings. At the end of our tour, our guide, John Goodwin, said something illuminating: without the Production Tax Credit on wind turbines, no new wind farms would get built. It goes to show how delicate a balance there is between startups and changing winds of policy.

The turbines made for some good photo opportunities.

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