Shining a Light on Social Responsibility

Sun Light & Power

If California were a country, it would be the 9th largest economy in the world and the 34th most populous. These figures alone give an indication as to the sheer potential for any business opportunity.

Dealing in a state of this magnitude – where anything and everything can be bought and sold – must be both exhilarating yet intimidating. Although it may seem unthinkable these days, there was once a time when California, a state famed for its warm climate and easy going reputation, was yet to embrace the benefits of solar energy. In fact, in the 1970s, California was yet to even acknowledge the potential of this now global industry.

Humble beginnings

That was the landscape that confronted Gary Gerber in 1976. At the time, Mr. Gerber was a mechanical engineering student who was completing his Masters degree at UC Berkeley. He went on to set up Sun Light & Power, which was started almost 38 years ago. He describes the start-up as ‘capital free’, a grass roots business started with three other people. Each brought something to the table that was necessary to get the company off the ground. “It was just four college students getting together and saying, ‘Hey, let’s start a solar company,’” he reflects.

While it may be correct to say that the company was founded by four students, the implication that this was not a serious venture would not be accurate. “I had offers to join the corporate world of engineering, but I just couldn’t let go of the desire to do something truly meaningful with the skills I had been acquiring in my 17 years of schooling. I was the teaching assistant at Cal for the solar class. On the last day of class I said, ‘Does anybody else want to start a solar company?’ Two people in the room raised their hands. One had a fair amount of carpentry experience, and he was an architectural student, so he would be our builder. The other guy was an interloper who had shown up in the class. He wasn’t even a student. He was just interested in solar. That is the perfect guy to do your sales. He knows no limits,” Mr. Gerber explains. “The fourth addition had a degree in economics and was interning at a local solar-conscious architectural firm called Interactive Resources that wanted to find a company to build their new solar designs. Voila!”

Creating awareness

In the year following the launch of Sun Light & Power, besides the work provided by Interactive Resources, it was not generating the sales that Mr. Gerber and his colleagues had hoped for. That was proving problematic, but even more worrying than the disappointing sales was the stark realization that the men needed to generate awareness of their product in a largely apathetic or disinterested community. “There was no market. There was no knowledge. Mostly what we found ourselves doing was educating people about the viability of solar energy for heating water. It was ground zero as far as I’m concerned. We had to talk people through the most basic concepts, convincing them that the sun is actually able to heat water! People just didn’t believe it,” Mr. Gerber recalls.

Another challenge that faced this group of entrepreneurs was the unavoidable fact that they lacked experience, so it was necessary to teach themselves ‘on the job’. “It was pretty much my job [to up-skill] because I was the engineer of the group,” says Mr. Gerber. “It was up to me to apply the engineering concepts I had learned and run the numbers and figure out how to make it work. There were no ‘rules of thumb’ so we had to create them ourselves.”

The numbers were run and indeed it did work. Sun Light & Power started out as one of the only solar power companies around – but it was not long before other people started to notice this opportunity. “We were right there in the launch of the movement. There were only a couple of start-up solar companies happening at around the same time. But within a couple of years there was a small cadre of solar companies,” says Mr. Gerber. It was, however, external events on both a national and international scale that really kick-started the industry, which led to a deluge of competitors. “We had the ‘79 OPEC oil crisis three years after we started, and that really helped the business to grow. Once people had to wait in gas lines, that got them thinking about alternative energy in general. We already had the federal tax credit of 10 percent but that was increased and then the state tax credit came in and things really took off. Of course, those tax incentives attracted more entrepreneurs into the industry. I would say, within three to five years, a healthy and growing industry existed in California and by the early 80s we had hundreds of companies involved in solar energy.”

Social responsibility

With so many competitors now on the landscape, it became important for the Sun Light & Power team to create its own path. Mr. Gerber emphasizes that there has always been a very cooperative and “teamwork focused” attitude at Sun Light & Power, which at one point in the early 80s was even organized as a co-op. “When B Lab came along a few years ago, looking to create a new type of corporation, suddenly there was a possibility for there to be socially responsible for-profit businesses. As soon as I heard about B Corps I thought, ‘We are already doing those things. We don’t have to change anything to qualify. We just have to sign up because we are already behaving like a B Corp,” says Mr. Gerber.

Sun Light & Power is now legally defined as a California Benefit Corporation. This means that among other things, the company uses the power of business to solve social and environmental problems, communicates with the amplified voice of other like-committed sustainable businesses, meets the highest standards of social and environmental performance, transparency, and – most importantly – accountability, and measures the impact on its employees, suppliers, community, customers and the environment. Socially responsible projects undertaken by Sun Light & Power make up over half of its total business. This includes providing engineering, planning and installation of solar energy systems in affordable homes, schools, and non-profits, among many other places.

The company’s work also involves solar power installations for commercial entities, a move that makes excellent financial and environmental sense for many businesses, and for residences. In all cases, Sun Light & Power works with the client to determine the solar power system – and the financing model – that best meets their needs.

New developments

This philanthropic business model also forms the backbone of future growth. Mr. Gerber identifies this area – and working in schools in particular – as a big opportunity for Sun Light & Power to have even more success. “We have recently aligned ourselves with a financing and development company,” he explains. “We are working co-operatively with a company that specializes in renewable power purchase agreements for schools. That is opening up new opportunities for us because schools need financing and cannot take advantage of the 30% federal tax credit. What we have is unique in that the company we are aligning with is also a Benefit Corporation, just like we are. Their mission, like ours, is a social one. What they have done, with the thought in mind of helping more schools to gain the advantages of solar power, is to limit the development fees that they charge and offer a better deal to the schools on their power costs. We feel that this is a unique new model, one that schools can take advantage of compared to the existing power purchase agreements.”

It is refreshing to see a business that it so clearly conscious of its social responsibility. In modern business, when profit is the sole aim, something like the environment can be overlooked. However, Sun Light & Power has a different outlook. The stewardship and responsibility of the planet and its resources are paramount. Concludes Mr. Gerber, “We all have to do whatever we can about global climate change.”

For more information about Sun Light & Power, please visit http://sunlightandpower.com/

August 18, 2017, 11:28 PM EDT

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