The Solar Power World editorial team spends every spring season reporting on what’s trending in the U.S. solar market. We see technology shifts and product advancements and write about the way consumers are interacting with solar — good and bad. One positive trend I’m happy to report with this Top Solar Contractors class is that it might be the most charitable one yet. Nearly 10% of applicants said they were involved with volunteering or other philanthropic acts, and I know many more are standing up in their communities, not thinking it’s exceptional.
“A lot of times, people that choose to work in solar and in the renewable energy industry have a desire to do good,” said Leila Kitts, VP and COO of EcoMark Solar (No. 173 on the 2019 Top Solar Contractors list). “[Volunteering programs] help scratch that itch a little bit.”
EcoMark formed the EcoMark Foundation as a way for employees to be more involved in choosing how to engage with the community. The company donates one food item for every kilowatt of solar sold during its annual Kilowatt Can Drive, and employees also donate items and volunteer at the local food bank during the holiday season. This first chartable effort opened the door to employees to choose other organizations to receive year-end financial giving, and the EcoMark Foundation now works with a Colorado children’s hospital, a no-kill animal shelter and a grant program for local military veterans.
“A lot of our giving efforts have been spearheaded by our employees who want to see us give back to the communities,” Kitts said. “Every employee votes and can say how much of our total charitable giving amount will go to each organization. It gives them a sense that those in upper management want us to have a deeper engagement in the communities that we all live and work in.”
National statistics back that up — corporations that have charitable opportunities have a better connection with employees and the community. According to research by Nonprofits Source, 88% of management surveyed at corporations believe effective employee engagement programs help attract and retain employees, and 86% believe employees expect them to provide opportunities to engage in the community. So companies are ramping up their philanthropic outreach — the Giving USA Foundation found corporate giving increased by 8% in 2017, totaling $20.77 billion.
Community outreach can also be a good brand-boost for solar companies.
“Our brand is being a local company and focusing on Colorado,” Kitts said about EcoMark. “Working with other organizations helps to reinforce that image that we really care about our communities and the people that live in them.”
The leadership team at Semper Solaris (No. 65 on the 2019 Top Solar Contractors list) likes to keep everything on-brand, too. Co-owner Kelly Shawhan, a former Marine captain, started the solar company in 2012 with co-owner John Almond in the spirit of the Marine’s motto “semper fidelis” or “always faithful/loyal.” Whenever possible, Semper Solaris will hire a veteran. The company took that one step further with its Semper Cares Initiative and now installs free rooftop solar systems for deserving vets in California.
“Back in my Marine days, we all said that when we became a civilian, we could give back by buying a beer or giving a Marine a job. If we could help out in any way, if we had the wherewithal to do so, we would do it,” Shawhan said. “We obviously have the ability to do it, so we do it. There’s been nothing but positivity to come from it.”
Semper Solaris works with local radio and television stations to receive nominations for veterans for the initiative, and the company secures donations from companies like Panasonic and SolarEdge for the systems.
“We get the panels and inverter donated, and we’re doing the racking and labor, so it’s not too oppressive for anybody involved, and we’re able to do something really good for the community and these vets,” Almond said. “It’s something we had in mind for a long time, and once we got large enough to afford it, we just started doing it. Our plan is to keep doing one every quarter hopefully as long as we’re in business.”
Due to California labor laws, Semper Solaris employees can’t actually volunteer their time to install the projects, but most of the company comes out during the Semper Cares Initiative projects to hang out with community members.
“We’ll get a couple dozen employees that will come to the big reveal. They just want to be part of it. They’re excited to do it,” Almond said.
For larger solar companies, office workers can lend a direct helping-hand when working with donated solar projects.
“To have employees who just work in our office and never see installs happen, it’s cool for them to see the project,” said Emma Austin, marketing assistant with ION Solar (No. 79 on the 2019 Top Solar Contractors list), which installs donated solar systems through community organizations. “They put together everything behind the scenes, like permitting. Now they’re seeing the real-life execution of what they’re doing here.”
ION Solar formed its charitable arm ION Earth as a way to give back to the communities in which it works. The Utah company has expanded into six additional states and pledges to donate a system for every 2 MW it installs. Last year, ION Solar completed close to 16 MW.
“A lot of larger solar companies do charitable acts in third-world countries, and we had talked through some of the ideas, but the problem with those is it’s generally a once-a-year thing. We wanted to create a program to continuously give back to our communities each month,” said Dave Rasmussen, president of ION Solar.
The ION Earth initiative frequently works with Habitat for Humanity to install solar for deserving families. ION Solar donates all supplies and labor, and the new homeowners receive all the same perks as paying customers. They can still access monitoring systems and are covered by all warranties.
Rasmussen said there are “more than enough” ION Solar volunteers that come out for each project, and they often have to find other odd jobs for them to complete at the site, like planting flowers.
Volunteering is good for the mind and body, according to an article by psychologists and hosted on HelpGuide.org. Participating in charitable acts can counteract the effects of stress, anger and anxiety; increase self-confidence; and keep people physically healthy — which are all great things for a large organization like ION Solar. Keeping people engaged with their community and their work is a good reason for more solar companies to make volunteering part of their culture.
“The goal for us is to not just be a sales organization but to be a part of the communities we’re in,” Rasmussen said. “It’s important to give back.”
This story was featured exclusively in our 2019 Top Solar Contractors issue. See the issue and full list of top U.S. solar installers here.