Solar panel company began in an attic and now installs in 14 states.
Michelle and Geoff Greenfield found the perfect plot of land in Athens County and were preparing to build a home. There were no power lines nearby, so the environmentally-minded couple decided to install solar panels.
They faced a big problem: “There weren't any obvious helpers in Ohio,” says Geoff.
The Greenfields became the helpers. They founded Third Sun Solar, a solar installation company they initially ran out of their finished attic. The Greenfields were their own first customer.
Fast forward 16 years, and their company has completed more than 600 installations across Ohio and the Midwest. Many are in central Ohio, such as the large installation on the Orange Barrel Media building along I-670 in Columbus.
It's been quite an evolution for Third Sun, which now does work in at least 14 states. The Greenfields have harnessed their backgrounds. Michelle, who is Third Sun's CEO, has a master's degree in economic development and has worked in that field in Appalachian Ohio. Geoff, who is Third Sun's president, has experience with affordable housing and has worked with the nonprofit Corporation for Ohio Appalachian Development.
In the beginning, their attic offered a cramped, two-desk headquarters where Geoff couldn't even stand up without hitting his head. There were boxes of unsorted receipts. They'd get work calls late at night.
Some Ohio University business students who had taken on Third Sun Solar as a project visited the attic.
“We were all sitting in this attic,” says Michelle, with some laughter. “There's papers everywhere, and they said, ‘Don't you guys get distracted in here, in this spot?'” They suggested the Greenfields get space at the Innovation Center, an incubator at Ohio University.
They got the smallest space they could for about $175 a month in rent. The company began expanding and now has 34 employees, some based in Columbus.
It hasn't been a straight path for Third Sun as they ride what Michelle calls “the solar coaster.”
“We came in really at the infancy of the industry, where it was still a lot of cabins in the woods or hippies in the backcountry doing it, or people in California, and now it's much more mainstream. We actually call it the solar coaster, because there have been all of these ups and downs throughout those 16 years as far as the price fluctuations and the equipment, the technological innovations, (and) the subsidies, because sometimes we have had subsidies, and sometimes we've had them taken away,” Michelle says.
Their customers are motivated by a mix of altruism and economics. “We've typically surveyed that (each) year, because we want to know so that we can market better, right? Do we come at this from an economic standpoint or from the green standpoint? It's really split; 50-50,” Michelle says.
Third Sun handled its largest number of projects ever in 2016, a banner year for the company. In particular, the company saw a large increase in residential installations.
“What happened in 2016 is we hit the magic threshold, where for many people going solar costs less than doing nothing. You know, there is a concept called grid parity: When will solar have parity, have the same price as buying power over the electric grid? And everyone is thinking when is that going to come? And I say it came at the end of 2015. We're there in Ohio,” says Geoff.
They also founded a sister company called New Resources Solutions that helps finance solar projects for investors. The company aims to “bridge the gap between investors that want to own project assets and want to invest in solar, but don't want to own and manufacture,” explains Geoff.
Ten years ago, Delaware resident David Carpenter was thinking about going solar. He had long been a solar booster, having volunteered with Green Energy Ohio and Community Power Network.
After doing research online, Carpenter chose Third Sun Solar based in part on its reputation and successful installs.
“My main thing at the time was a combination of concern about climate change and the fact that I'm a technology guy and I like using energy. How can I use energy guilt-free was the main motivation, to be perfectly honest.”
Carpenter finds that, on average, the solar panels produce about as much electricity as he consumes, though it varies by the time of year.
He has no regrets. “I was teaching high school at the time. I had an ordinary income and an ordinary house in an ordinary development in an ordinary town, and I was able to put panels up and profit by it,” he marvels.
Kevin Kidder is a freelance writer.