For the 10th anniversary of the Top Solar Contractors list, we’re sharing Q&A’s with the people who make the industry run every day. Read more interviews here.
How’d you get started in solar?
The genesis of the idea for the business came from work our co-founders, Reagan Farr and Matt Kisber, had done as the commissioners of revenue and economic development, respectively, for the state of Tennessee under former Governor Phil Bredesen (who is also our third co-founder). After attending a conference featuring GE’s then-CEO Jeff Immelt and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman speaking to the green economy’s historic opportunity as a conduit of economic development, the governor asked Reagan and Matt to develop what would become a highly successful clean energy jobs strategy for the state of Tennessee. As Governor Bredesen’s term came to a close, Reagan and Matt decided to take an entrepreneurial route building on their experience in and passion for renewable energy as a catalyst for rural economic development. With the support of Governor Bredesen as a business partner, the three created a full-service solar energy solutions provider — a revolutionary model at the time — to help C&I businesses, utilities and other customers achieve their renewable energy goals. Over the past decade, Silicon Ranch has grown from an idea to becoming one of the largest independent power producers in the country, recognized as a pioneering, innovative and principled industry leader.
What’s your favorite part about being in the solar industry?
We often remark that this industry is so dynamic and so much progress has been made, yet we are still in the second inning of this journey together. There is so much innovation happening in this space and we have not even begun to realize the full extent of the opportunities presented by the energy transition. We all recognize that we’re in a transformative business at a critical moment in history.
One thing I personally love about being in this industry is that every day I get to work with an exceptional team and an inspiring group of customers to provide Americans with low-cost, clean energy and give underserved communities a much-needed economic shot in the arm. Who could ask for a better job?
What has surprised you the most about the solar industry in the last 10 years?
The fact that even many of the boldest of predictions of what utility-scale solar would achieve over the past decade have been eclipsed by the industry, much of which has been covered by this very publication.
What are your solar predictions for the next 10 years?
We often say that you have to re-imagine what you can achieve every six months to a year, or you are underselling and not challenging yourself the way you should. As mentioned in my previous answer, every time the company has set a stretch growth target, we have surpassed it and then some. We still set stretch targets, but we always ask ourselves how fast can we responsibly grow to help meet the needs of our customers as the energy transition unfolds?
That said, as we enter our second decade, we look forward to building on the terrific momentum we have built with our partners and our customers over the past ten years. We believe the most compelling part of this shared story is the part that is not yet written, as the ripple effect of our work together strengthens communities and improves quality of life across this country in the years to come.
How’d you/your company stand out in the last year?
As Silicon Ranch adapted to the unpredictable circumstances of 2020, we worked together to execute our strategy and as a result we can incorporate many of the lessons learned as we continue to grow. Below are just a few highlights of accomplishments from across our organization during 2020:
- Our Project Delivery team built upon our legacy for successful execution and “doing what we say we will do,” especially meaningful in the midst of a global pandemic. According to the EIA, more than 50 utility-scale PV projects across the industry blamed COVID-19 for construction delays, yet our team proactively and adroitly worked to navigate these unprecedented conditions to procure equipment and construct a company record of 438 MW right on schedule for our customers, just as we have done for every project since our inception.
- Our Business Development team, with the support of every unit in the company, exceeded our ambitious targets and continued to execute against our growth strategy, both in part by earning repeat business from existing customers while pioneering the new LPC Flex program in the Tennessee Valley and opening up new markets for our company in multiple new states.
- Our Asset Management/O&M team continued to demonstrate the value of our feedback loop in pursuit of continuous improvement across our growing fleet of operating assets, which now exceeds 140 projects totaling well over 1 GW across 14 states coast-to-coast. Through advanced analytics, our team is proactively identifying actions to prevent failures and improve plant performance. Members of our team were frequently invited to share this thought leadership at industry conferences throughout the year.
- Our Regenerative Energy platform expanded to multiple newly-built facilities and is being integrated into 2021 projects. In addition, the team developed the RE Standard, issued its first EcoMetrics report to one of our C&I customers, created a stand-alone website and was selected by the DOE to negotiate a grant to research our CattleTracker concept. In recognition of this transformative model, Solar Power World named us 2020’s “Most Forward-Thinking” company.
- Our Project Development and Energy Delivery teams worked in close collaboration with our Business Development team to develop first-class project sites in our priority and expansion markets. This team has helped our local stakeholders in the communities we serve to recognize the value we bring through our steadfast commitment to be active members and good corporate citizens as the long-term owners and operators of our entire portfolio.
- Our Marketing team played a critical role to enhance brand equity despite the absence of conferences and opportunities for direct customer interaction. As the architects of our communications and messaging strategy, the team expanded our online presence through a range of channels, including social media, webinars and a highly-rated new podcast series, Silicon Ranch Radio.
Just as many of the accomplishments listed above were truly cross-functional efforts, this team answered the call time and again to support critical corporate activities and along the way we added 31 talented new colleagues and promoted 16 teammates. It is worth noting that, according to Mercom Capital Group, the $225 million equity raise we closed in December was the largest in the U.S. solar sector in 2020 and second largest globally, providing capital to help fuel our growth as we continue to execute against our strategy in a disciplined, responsible fashion.
How are you helping to improve the industry?
As recognized by SPW in 2020, our Regenerative Energy model is a transformative new standard of excellence for solar power plant design, construction and operations that normalizes regenerative agriculture practices on solar farm sites. The way we manage our land matters and we treat each piece of property as the unique environment it is, tailoring our land management approach and the practices we use to local conditions. What this means is that we manage the land and vegetation in alignment with natural systems to revitalize the soil, increase biodiversity, sequester carbon and improve water quality. In short, we are demonstrating that we can restore functioning grassland ecosystems as part of our management of each solar facility, all while enabling agricultural production from the site as well. Silicon Ranch further measures and third-party verifies these ecological outcomes using the Savory Institute’s Ecological Outcome Verification methodology, which was developed in collaboration with leading soil scientists, ecologists, agronomists and an extensive network of regenerative land managers around the world. And by producing standards and reporting results, we hope to encourage other developers and installers to incorporate these practices into their own projects to help “make solar do more.”
Beyond this effort, we maintain an ongoing commitment beyond our fence lines to help make each community we serve a better place. We engage our community stakeholders; we listen, learn and respond to their feedback; we join the local chambers; we provide scholarship opportunities; we help to develop curriculums and learning opportunities for local schools. We want folks to see what we do as value-accretive not only to their tax base but also to their quality of life.
Finally, we are helping to improve the solar industry through predictive data analytics. Silicon Ranch is a data-driven firm and as long-term owners, we’ve incorporated a robust feedback loop to help our engineers improve plant design and performance. I’m really proud of what our O&M team has accomplished and how they’ve shared the insights we’ve gleaned through data with our equipment suppliers to enable them to improve the quality of their products as well.
What was it like entering the market in 2011?
To appreciate fully the success of Silicon Ranch, one must first recognize the competitive landscape our co-founders entered when they founded the business. Industry dynamics heavily favored California and the desert southwest and the market was dominated by developer arms of investor-owned utilities and companies based in other parts of the country. The idea that a Nashville-based company could compete — and thrive — in this environment was unimaginable in 2011.
With marked determination, the Silicon Ranch team dramatically changed the industry landscape by developing the first large-scale projects in markets across the Southeast and by establishing deep ties with America’s rural electric cooperatives.
How has your solar business changed from when it started?
The speed at which the energy transition is occurring is staggering and we have scaled our business to meet the opportunities it presents. Over the past decade, we’ve gone from the founders and an intern in a shared office space to a company of nearly 100 employees in our expansive office in downtown Nashville that houses a state-of-the-art Network Operations Center that enables us to monitor our operating fleet of nearly 150 projects in 14 states from New York to California.
Through it all, we’ve maintained an unwavering commitment to the same guiding principles and the same core strategy and this disciplined approach not only established the strong foundation upon which we have built our business, but also provided Silicon Ranch with unique points of differentiation in a rapidly growing, yet relatively immature, industry.
Ten years on, what advice would you give yourself or the company back in 2011?
I wouldn’t have advised them to do anything different than what they did when they created the business. All three founders spent their earlier careers building unimpeachable reputations and therefore have always required honesty and integrity in everything we do. The solar industry is a highly technical one, but at the end of the day, it’s about people and therefore our founders were right to build this company based on their shared faith in a certain set of values. The business model of long-term ownership and the steadfast commitment to the partners and communities we serve have been critical elements of our success over the past ten years and will continue to underpin our success in the next ten years.