Sungevity Founder Danny Kennedy on Making a Difference With Solar

9/23/10Follow @wroush

Yesterday we published Part 1 of a Q&A with Danny Kennedy, the former Greenpeace activist and administrator who founded Oakland, CA-based Sungevity in 2007. The company’s mission is to make it easier and more affordable for homeowners to reduce their monthly utility bills by installing rooftop photovoltaic panels. The main strategy: computerize as much of the solar installation process as possible. For example, Sungevity has developed Google Earth-like tools that allow it to generate accurate cost estimates without having to send technicians to customers’ homes. Homeowners can apply for low-cost leases online, and the company manages the local permitting and other red tape involved in solar installation behind the scenes.

Sungevity thinks of itself as the “Amazon of solar electricity,” Kennedy says. By that he means the company has designed its systems to accommodate millions of customers while keeping the company’s own overhead low and profits high.

The focus on profits may be new for Kennedy, the former Greenpeace activist, who once led a campaign that helped to bring key solar installation rebates to the state of California. But to him, it’s all just another form of social entrepreneurship. While he’s working hard to make the 90-employee company succeed, he says his bigger goal is to help more homeowners bypass the fossil-fuel-powered electrical grid, make a real dent in carbon emissions, and blunt the impact of global climate change.

“Sometime in the next century or two we will make [the] transition from this dumb experiment from digging up sunlight and burning it to using fresh sunlight,” Kennedy says. “I am trying to usher in that transition faster than the current economy would have it happen.”

In the second part of our conversation, transcribed below, Kennedy and I talked about his history at Greenpeace, his transition to the startup world, how Sungevity stands apart from its competitors, and (for a bit of dessert) what he thinks about Bill McKibben’s latest book Earrth and President Obama’s record so far on energy.

Xconomy: What motivated you to leave Greenpeace and become an energy entrepreneur?

Danny Kennedy: I have been passionate about global warming and climate change for 20 years or more. I felt like we had turned the corner in 2005, where we had finally convinced the majority that there was a problem, and then there was Gore’s Nobel Prize and all these other things. Suddenly we were no longer arguing that there was a problem, but what are the solutions. In my theory of social change, it is actually incumbent on social movements to start demonstrating that there are solutions. Groups like Greenpeace are great at knowing what they are against, but not as good at knowing what they are for.

I had done a bunch of renewable energy campaigning, for Gray Davis’s Renewable Power Authority, and solar bonds in San Francisco, and other things in Europe and Australia and China. But I wanted to get more involved and roll up my sleeves and build a business that was leading by example. Deeds, not words. Then I partnered with these two great entrepreneurs, Andrew Birch [Sungevity's CEO] and Alec Guettel [senior vice president of corporate development]. Andrew is a serial entrepreneur and Alec was an old friend from 20 years ago when he was a student activist.

In 2006 and 2007, as we were coalescing around the plan, our common sense was that the industry was too fixated on the hardware. There were a bunch of geeks engrossed in their gadgets, but the gadgets were commoditizing before the market had matured. The customer is what matters. So we decided to build a business not on the hardware side but downstream, focusing on … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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