In light of our call to solar installers, developers and EPCs to apply for our 2018 Top Solar Contractors list, we thought it made sense to speak to one for this edition. Not unlike the construction field as a whole, solar installation is a male-dominated industry. Out of 500 companies that made the list last year, only 23 were led by women. Michelle Greenfield is one of them. She has served as CEO of Ohio-based Third Sun Solar for more than 16 years. In this podcast, she discusses what it’s like to be a female leader in a male-dominated industry, working in a state that isn’t exactly the first that comes to mind when you think of solar.
Read excerpts from our discussion below, and listen to the full interview for more.
I see you went to Miami University and Ohio University for business management, and international studies and economic development. What were you thinking of doing as a career?
I did my undergrad in business because my father was an entrepreneur and I liked watching his business and how things worked. I realized that I really wanted to use my business knowledge for something for good—the good of society, good for the community, good for planet. I began working for nonprofit organizations, and then in grad school my idea was that I would take that business knowledge to developing countries and work with women entrepreneurs. When I finished grad school, I didn’t really have much opportunity overseas, but I found opportunity locally in Ohio and worked with a nonprofit organization with micro-entrepreneurs. I managed a small loan fund and did business consulting for very small, mostly mom-and-pop type businesses.
How did you come to found your own solar business?
My husband and I had the opportunity to buy some land and decided to build our house on it. But that land was in a rural area and didn’t have a connection for electricity. We were faced with paying the utility a bunch of money to bring the poles in and paying a very high minimum bill per month. We had seen solar power when we had lived on the West Coast for a bit and thought it would be really cool to do the house off-grid. So we moved in with 600 W of solar to power the entire house. That is a small array; we used to turn our inverter off every night before we went to bed to make sure we weren’t drawing any phantom loads because we had to conserve energy, especially in the winter. We eventually expanded that system when we had kids.
My husband is good at the technical work so people were asking him to help them fix their old solar systems, or how they could do the same kind of thing. We decided to try it as a business, so with his technical skills and my business background we made the leap. We said, let’s give it a year and see if we can manage to feed the kids and pay the mortgage—that was over 16 years ago and we’re still doing it. We have two little boys and we joked that the business would kind of be like our third son, which is how we came up with the name.
Given your business and financial background, what advice can you share with solar contractors?
Oh, I probably have a lot, but the first thing that comes to mind is don’t be scared to hire your first employees and entrust them with their jobs. My husband and I were very “mom-and-pop” and wanted to do everything ourselves. But when we started adding quality people we saw this exponential increase in knowledge and activity. There’re some really smart people out there that want to work for a really cool company. We have 35 employees right now, some long-term. At our holiday party, I commemorated about five who have been with us for longer than ten years. People are key in your business and my husband and I would not be where we are without our team.
The other thing is partnering with trusted advisers. From the beginning, we worked with lawyers, accountants and business consultants. We don’t have a full-time CFO, but we have some fractional CFOs that we use at times and have been really key.
What insight can you share after 16 years working in the Midwest market?
What we’ve seen happen is the early adopters are not the only ones buying solar now. Residential solar continues to grow because it has become more mainstream. People are seeing it more often in their neighborhoods. The price is close enough to the utility price that people that have always wished they could do solar but found it too expensive now can. We did the most residential solar installations in our entire history last year. People think it’s not as risky anymore, especially working with a contractor who has been at it for so long.
Commercial solar is much more about the economics. It’s less about the perception or psychology and much more about the financial payback. So, it’s a little bit harder and a longer lead-time to work in commercial projects. A smaller percentage of the ones we work to get will actually come to fruition. There’re a lot more players involved, but we still continue to do some commercial. We are working with universities across the state, such as a large array we did on the field house at Kent State University.
We have people asking about storage, with all the hype around the Tesla Powerwalls, but we are still seeing it as harder economically because of the expense. It’s often times cheaper for people to add a generator to their system. I think it’s still a little bit more of a luxury item for residential customers to have any kind of a backup system.
We have done a few of co-ops or community buy-in programs. I think that’s actually helping drive that residential market. The thing we don’t see in Ohio is people buying into solar collectives where you build an offsite array and people can invest in it, because we don’t have the utility incentives to do that; we don’t have virtual net metering in Ohio, which would help that kind of market along.
What’s been your experience working as a woman in the solar industry?
I do have to say that it’s a lot better than it use to be. I use to go to SPI and I was one of, you know, five women there—it seemed like there was never a line for the women’s bathroom.
It’s changed. It’s still really male-dominated but I think with the increased professionalism of firms across the country we are seeing more women coming in, even on the ground. You see more women in the trades now, actually working as installers so it’s definitely better than it was 15 years ago. I think there’s still a need for women to kind of band together and assert that they’re there, but I think it’s going to continue to improve as solar stays as a really thriving and upcoming industry.
Check back monthly for a new episode of Ask a Solar Vet, in which editor Kathie Zipp brings you the unique perspectives and insights of those who have spent more than a decade in solar.