For almost 20 years after its inception in 1980, Borrego Solar existed as a small enterprise doing one-off residential solar installations within a small network. Jump ahead to August 2012, and Borrego has been named by Inc. Magazine as one of the fastest growing energy companies in the U.S. How did this come about?Triple Pundit had the pleasure of sitting down this week with Army veteran Jon Gensler, a project manager at California-based Borrego, who provided us with some wide ranging views on the factors that help a company succeed in today's hotly competitive solar market, including the connection between national security and renewable energy. Jon's engagement with the broad issues surrounding solar power is playing an important role at Borrego Solar, and it is interesting to see how his advocacy interlocks with some key steps the company has taken to accelerate its growth, and with the development of a legislative framework that supports alternative energy. Communicating about solar power Building public confidence in alternative energy is a critical task for Borrego Solar and the alternative energy industry as a whole, and it is no simple task. Today's media landscape is dominated by pundits and legislative leaders who promote the view that alternative energy is an expensive toy, not a serious form of future power. As a veteran of Iraq and a West Point graduate, Jon brings to Borrego Solar an ability to cut through the media clutter and focus on alternative energy from an objective point of view. "Much of what we fight over is water, food, arable land, oil, salt," he explains, describing his military history studies at West Point. "Massive wars have started over constrained resources." From this perspective, alternative energy is a straightforward national security issue. Oil is a finite resource that is increasingly difficult and risky to access, and it imposes severe logistical and budgetary constraints on military operations. Alternative energy and social responsibility. Jon also talks about solar power and alternative energy in universal human terms that apply regardless of political affiliation. Ensuring the well being of the next generation is a deep human instinct and a moral value that drives people to take action in many forms, both within their family circles and beyond, whether or not they consider themselves activists. From this standpoint, Jon's engagement is deeply personal, having lost friends and colleagues in the military to oil-related conflicts. "The next generation will still be fighting ten, twenty years in the future, being in the same shoes," he explains. "I made a commitment to try to have a positive impact." Taking the alternative energy message to the media For Jon, that impact has partly taken the form of amplifying his voice through involvement with Operation Free, an initiative of The Truman Project. He joined the organization prior to coming on board with Borrego Solar and the company has been fully supportive of his efforts, as a way of helping to build public awareness about solar power. Starting in 2009 as a temporary effort to lobby the Senate, Operation Free has evolved into a broad network of military veterans and experts who work to raise the profile of alternative energy from a national security perspective. An army of green ambassadors The Department of Defense has been aggressively pursuing alternative energy in recent years, but Jon still sees public awareness as the "greatest barrier" to breaking through into whole-hearted public support for new energy policies. "Most people are unaware of what the Department of Defense is doing and why they are doing it," he explains. "It's not connected to their daily life." That may be on the verge of changing. TriplePundit has previously noted that military experience is giving thousands of U.S. citizens first-hand contact with new alternative technologies and fuels. As they cycle back home they become a trusted source of new information for family and friends. The business sector is already beginning to take notice of this trend. For example, the major U.S. home builder Meritage Homes recently promoted its new net zero models with the help of personal testimony from a retired Air Force officer. Green ambassadors 2.0 Jon's immersion in alternative energy occurred after he left the military, while studying at MIT. Still, his military background takes the green ambassador phenomenon to a whole new level. When Borrego Solar brought Jon on board about a year ago, the timing was right both. Several years before that, the company had decided to leave the small residential solar market and focus on business and government customers. Borrego had won a contract for a utility scale solar installation at Edwards Air Force Base (the work was completed this year), but it had yet to develop a particular focus on the Department of Defense. Jon brought to Borrego an acute awareness of the growing military market for alternative energy, as well as familiarity with new Department of Defense policies and programs designed to encourage alternative energy companies to do more business with military facilities. By the way, we built something Borrego Solar's story also provides some healthy perspective on the current discussion over the role of public support in enabling private economic initiative. A broad range of public and private factors entwined to bring Jon's unique talents together with Borrego Solar at an opportune time for both. Jon's military experience and his education at West Point are unarguably part of this story, as is the fact that Borrrego's business plan grew to focus on doing business with public entitites. Another critical factor is a legislative framework that supports alternative energy. California first began offering financial support for solar technology in the 1970's, setting the stage for astrophysicist James Rickard to found Borrego Solar. He and the company are credited with building the first off-grid solar house in the U.S. Jon notes that another key legislative development took place in the late 1990's, when the California legislature passed laws enabling grid connections for solar installations. That observation is seconded by Borrego Solar on its web site, which notes that "the company transformed with the emergence of the California grid–tied solar market in 1999." Borrego Solar was poised for a quantum leap forward in 2001, when top-rated entrepreneur Aaron Hall joined the company as CEO after using it as a case study while a graduate student at Northwestern University. Expansion came rapidly under Hall's stewardship with a continuing series of growth pops, including 2007 when Borrego opened an office in the solar-friendly state of Massachusetts. The company's current plans for expansion include a heavy focus on New Jersey, which is also known for its supportive solar power legislation. Another example of Borrego's nimble response to new developments in the alternative energy market is its recent focus on financing power purchase agreements. In sum, Borrego Solar's story is the same one behind virtually every successful company in the U.S.: a democratically supported economic framework that provides motivated individuals from all walks of life with a secure springboard to exercise the upper limits of their capabilities. Image: (cropped) Solar panel. Some rights reserved by charlesfettinger. Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.