SunEnergy1 might be one of the most recognized solar companies that you’ve never heard of. On any given weekend, upwards of 4 million people see the SunEnergy1 logo as it zips around various racetracks atop the No. 24 car in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. All the while, the large-scale solar developer based in Mooresville, North Carolina, keeps plugging away at its multi-gigawatt pipeline of solar projects.
“We’ve built this business under the radar,” said SunEnergy1 CEO and president Kenny Habul. “Generally, we’ve just been really busy doing what’s in front of us that we don’t really advertise. We’re probably not known as well as we could be given how much we’ve built and how much is in our pipeline.”
SunEnergy1 has completed 706 MW of projects since its founding in 2009 when Habul started the company after leaving a family business building luxury homes in Australia. He had some experience with solar thermal and PV, and North Carolina (Habul’s new home) had good solar incentives at the time, so he chose to focus on creating a solar business.
“I built a 3-kW system in 1997, so I knew a little but I really wanted to do more utility-scale,” he said. “So I went to Germany in 2008 and studied utility-scale and worked on a system in Hanover that was 160 MW.” Then Habul came back to the States in 2009 and started SunEnergy1.
The company first started in rooftops, including the largest rooftop solar system in 2011 (a 5.2-MW install for Shoe Show in North Carolina), before moving into large-scale ground-mounts in 2011. By 2013, SunEnergy1 was working on utility-scale projects 80 MW and larger. The developer currently has a 4-GW pipeline of projects for transmission connections within PJM’s territory, and Habul estimates an additional 1 GW in progress outside of PJM but still east of the Mississippi.
SunEnergy1’s quick success allowed Habul the chance to pursue other passions. The company’s headquarters of Mooresville, North Carolina, is essentially the capital of motor racing. Many NASCAR teams and other racing-related businesses call Mooresville home, and SunEnergy1 is housed in a former NASCAR team facility. A professional racer in Australia, Habul said it was difficult to be in Race City USA and not want to get involved again.
“It’s everywhere here,” he said. “I’m a road course guy and there aren’t many road courses in the NASCAR calendar. I tried a few of those and was lucky enough to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing. I decided the IMSA sports car series probably suits me better.”
The International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) is fielded by sports cars, but most Americans are probably more familiar with NASCAR’s stock car racing with sponsorships plastered over the car. Although Habul himself is actively racing the Mercedes-Benz AMG GT3 in IMSA under the SunEnergy1 banner, the company does still have a presence in NASCAR, sponsoring Chase Elliott’s No. 24 Chevrolet for a few races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series for the 2017 season.
“We get a lot of attention being a solar company in racing,” Habul said. “A lot of people at the tracks ask about solar. We have information and things that we hand out.”
While having SunEnergy1’s name on a car does bring more brand awareness to the company, Habul said solar sports sponsorships can only help the industry as a whole.
“We’re waving the flag for solar, like everyone should be in the industry,” he said. “It’s been a long, hard battle to get the general population to understand that coal is coming to an end. Getting that message spread across the country is helping all of us. A lot of people are intrigued.”
Each weekend at the track may be a fun escape from workweek solar struggles, but Habul said SunEnergy1 is dedicated to getting past regulatory hurdles and challenges.
“In general, permitting and approvals have become much more difficult. We used to go to public hearings and rezonings and no one would show up. Now there seem to be more people questioning solar in their backyard,” he said. “I’m proud to be doing what we’re doing here. I’m confident that it always seems to find a way. Incentives come and go. The solar industry adapts and prices come down and we find ways to build faster.”
SunEnergy1 will continue to overcome the industry’s issues and spread the word about solar, even through nontraditional outlets like auto racing.
“Don’t be afraid to put your name on a sports team, on a side of a car or on a charity event,” Habul said. “The more we do, the more that the general consensus swings our way. If you look at federal policy and all the varying state policy across the country, you realize it’s still a fight for us. The more we spread the word, the better for the industry.”