Even though mainstream solar is still a relatively young industry, some solar professionals have had the opportunity to watch the industry grow and change for decades. Solar Power World has launched a monthly “Ask a Vet” podcast series to highlight these individuals who have spent 10 or more years in the market. Through the podcast and excerpts we will share here in each issue, we hope to provide a platform to share the unique perspectives and insight of these industry veterans.
In this inaugural podcast, we spoke with Brendan Neagle, COO of Borrego Solar, who has spent 10 years with the company and 15 in solar. Neagle’s journey to solar started with studying American civilization and environmental studies at Brown University, working for a beverage distributor, becoming a school teacher and eventually selling residential solar in response to the California Solar Incentive program, which was paying rebates at $4.50/W.
We will also include excerpts from these interviews, such as the ones below, in our bimonthly print issue. Look for this one in our January/February issue!
SPW: Many of your peers on LinkedIn have mentioned your strong leadership skills. You’ve been quoted on Borrego’s blog saying you focus on “empowering other employees to take initiative and to lead and implement their own improvements.” What advice can you offer solar contractors trying to empower and inspire their own teams?
BN: First, listen. Even though I am in the role of the boss, I don’t think of myself as the boss, and I really like to listen to others’ ideas and encourage them. I try to look for people’s interests and strengths and then encourage those. In that way, employees feel empowered because they can do what they want. We’ve also had a strong culture of promoting from within, so trying to understand employees’ career paths and goals and trying to make those things happen for them.
A lot of the things I’ve learned about leadership, I also learned through my 12 years of summer camp in New England. I started as a camper and rose through the ranks to be one of the leaders of the different divisions. It’s a YMCA organization, which is really focused on leadership growth and development.
SPW: What has changed in solar since you started?
BN: When I started in 2001, it was a very small, underserved industry—not very well known. With skyrocketing electric rates, solar incentives being offered and paybacks of five to 10 years, I saw an opportunity. As the industry matured, costs came down, reliability improved and public perception became better. That’s where we really saw the growth of the commercial and utility market.
Probably the two biggest areas of change have been in cost and reliability. We are literally selling systems for about one-eighth the cost we were selling them when I started. That’s tremendous. It’s made the technology more accessible. The other side of it is, even with that rapid cost reduction, reliability and confidence in the technology has increased unbelievably. I remember when PPAs were a brand-new, crazy idea. Getting banks to actually finance based on the revenue from kilowatt-hour production from solar was a revolutionary concept. The reliability and bankability is probably the biggest change I’ve seen, allowing the technology to really reach the mainstream.
SPW: What do your children think about solar?
BN: I have a five year old, a three year old and a five month old. My oldest was first exposed to solar panels in our community, pointing them out on the roofs from the stroller. She’s come into work a number of times too and definitely knows “Daddy builds solar panels.” While she doesn’t know the finer details, she’s also familiar with coal and natural gas plants, and she’ll actually use the term “traditional energy generation” only because she’s repeating what I’d said. But she’ll get the twinkle in her eye and I really think she understands we’re trying to make the world a better place through clean energy.
We’ve also done a lot of projects on schools. I always make a point to say to my staff and to the management group at the schools that putting solar on schools is my favorite application, because not only does it do all the good that any solar project would do, but it exposes the children to the technology in a way that will allow them to grow up thinking solar is normal. They won’t think it’s alternative energy; they’ll think it’s the standard type of energy that was on their school roof. That’s how I empower my employees to get through tough summer sprints on school projects. It’s based on the additive good associated with putting solar on a school, rather than just another application.