2012-08-03

Meet The Woman Who Can Convince Even Republicans To Use Solar Power

Sunrun’s Lynn Jurich helped create a new industry--selling solar instead of as an expensive home improvement. The results have been nothing short of mind-blowing, and the people who are buying in are not who you would think.

Stanford business school grad Lynn Jurich has always been an environmentalist, but after spending a summer in super-polluted China, she realized she really needed to get in the game. The global energy crisis is “the biggest problem our generation has to solve,” she says. “By 2030, we’re predicting the world will use twice as much energy as it does today. You just can’t avoid the economic and environmental damage.”

So in 2007, Jurich left behind her career in finance and venture capital to join fellow Stanford grad Ed Fenster and launch Sunrun, now the nation’s leading home solar company. “The utility industry and how energy is delivered had not changed in a hundred years,” says Jurich. “The key innovation we brought to the market was delivering solar as a service.” In a nutshell, Sunrun pays for the panels and the installation, and sells the resulting electricity back to homeowners at a rate that’s locked in for 20 years. “Imagine if you’d installed a gas tank in your backyard 20 years ago, when gas was $1 a gallon, and you could buy gas for $1 a gallon for 20 years?” Jurich says. Another analogy: It’s like Forever Stamps, but for your electric bill.

Starting a residential rooftop solar company (a.k.a. “distributed solar”) took the Sunrun team into uncharted waters, and Jurich will admit the learning curve was steep. “The good news is there was nobody who really knew much, which made it a little less intimidating,” she laughs. Eventually, they learned the technology was perfect for their business model: Unlike wind, for example, solar is peak-producing and requires little storage, and the declining price in panel hardware made the idea of leasing equipment to consumers cost-effective. Raising capital also came naturally, as the pair of finance vets turned to the venture capital world for their operating budget; they then asked giant banks to finance the project sums, like hardware and installation. Of course, with the latter, they faced what Jurich calls a “chicken or the egg” problem: “We had to get a lot of things up and running simultaneously,” she says. “You have to aggregate enough customers to make banks interested, but it’s hard to aggregate the customers with no reputation. You’re literally asking customers to trust that you’re going to provide energy for 20 years. So the biggest issue was, ‘Okay, we know this works long-term, but how do we make these initial few deals prove it?’”

Jurich and Fenster set up their first system on Fenster’s roof--his house also served as their office for a time--and then Jurich hit the road, looking for customers. “I went from this cushy venture capital job to selling home services at a county fair,” she says. “I was driving to Sacramento on the weekends and going to farmer’s markets. I still remember, I sold the first system in an agricultural center, like, next to the giant pumpkin. It was a hustle, I’m not kidding.” Five years later, Sunrun is installing $1.5 million in distributed solar every day, operating in 10 states via partnerships with everyone from local roofers to the Home Depot, and they just raised another $200 million in capital from Credit Suisse.

Jurich believes these first five years are just the beginning. By the time the contracts they’re signing today come up for renewal, she says, “I think there will be millions of homes that have rooftop solar, and we’ll be a very important piece of the whole energy portfolio. What we’re doing is analogous to what wireless phones did. When wireless phones came out, people said, ‘Oh, they’ll only probably penetrate two, three percent of the market. Landlines are the way to go.’ Well, clearly, fast forwarding, you see what happened there.”

The solar industry has indeed become something of a recent punching bag for those seeking to politicize the climate change crisis, thanks primarily to the infamous collapse of federal grant recipient Solyndra. But in light of that chorus of naysayers, Jurich says, the results of their customer surveys might surprise you. “Thirty percent of our customers are veterans,” she says. “Our target customer tends to be in their 50s, they have a couple kids at home, they could probably buy the system if they wanted to, but they don’t want to have the hassle of dealing with it.”

Even more unexpected: The majority of Sunrun’s subscribers self-identify as Republican. “I had a suspicion that that was the case, but I love it,” Jurich says. “Renewable energy is bipartisan. It appeals to anybody who is responsible about their home. All people believe in America, jobs, creating energy here, not being dependent on foreign energy sources. And then we save people money.”

This piece is part of Change Generation, our series on young, change-making entrepreneurs. Read the rest here.

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7 Comments

  • JenniWest

    Solar shares one major issue with cell phones and smart phones: How do you safely dispose of the waste? From the studies I have done, these MILLIONS of panels are made of some pretty dangerous toxic materials. MILLIONS of them have a lifespan of 10-20 years before they have to be landfilled. That requires vastly more space, and high tech hazardous waste infrastructure and SPACE. Did I mention space? Whose backyard are you planning on dumping them in? The ignoring of this major flaw in the plan is up there with nanotechnology in the scale of lives it can change and the scale of destruction it can potentially cause our fragile planet and more fragile species. 

    Something about it reeks of hypocrisy. Are you really as green as you think you are? NOT if you aren't considering the entire lifespan of the product from cradle to grave and beyond. 

    Which is why I am a tree-huggin' hippy FOR nuclear power. 

  • Leif

    My solar PV panels have been stress tested to 60 years with a zero failure rate,   

  • The Racket

    What kind of poorly researched nonsense is this? "Even Republicans...". Are you serious? Here's a little factual synopsis of things you'd be aware of if you were an actual journalist (rather than casual blogger) who did actual research on subjects before publishing articles in the name of what was once a reputable publication rather than just pecking out narrow nonsense to get your blog quota filled for the week (and get your finger-pointing out of your system).

    Conservatives and upwardly-mobile middles on average spend a notable amount more on energy saving aspects of their lives than Liberals. Conservatives and upwardly-mobile middles tend to own newer, more energy efficient homes according to Energy Star. Conservatives and upwardly-mobile middles tend to upgrade energy critical aspects of their homes more frequently – HVAC equipment, water heaters etc. according to Energy Star. Conservatives and upwardly-mobile middles are indeed the larger consumer of solar products in America, and have been for quite awhile now.

    Do you homework Whitney. It seems the bus dropped you off at the intersection of Sloppy Ave. and UneducatedBlogger Blvd.

    I'm not a Republican.

  • John

    Perhaps it's because the author is drawing a distinction between the Republican electorate and the bozo politicians in Washington, who would be terrified to endorse such a progressive concept lest the pilloried by the energy industry, campaign donors associated with it, and right-wing extremist.

  • Glo

    Yah I thought that was pretty odd too. The conservatives (Republicans?) I know are all about anything that will save them money in the long term. If the deal is good they will invest in it.

    Perhaps the author doesnt know any conservatives?  

  • The Racket

      – ball's in your court...to read up on it. Feel free to look it up (I have) – readily available if you're truly interested. The issue beyond basketball analogies however is that the author positioned her article as if Republicans don't, or don't care to participate in energy saving activities, or are against the idea by stating "Even Republicans", as if Republicans wake up every day and say "F**k the planet." (although some Dems would like to believe this is true)...later stating that it's unexpected that Republicans would be the larger consumer. My question is, why is it unexpected? The point is, had she done her research, as you may like to (rather than expecting me to lay it out for you), she probably could've written something a little...more intelligent.

    And again, I'm not defending political associations – I simply think there's a responsibility to publish accurate material without the MSNBC headlines. Especially when freelance blogging for FastCo., a reputable read most of the time.

    Vague tendencies...toward?

  • Rich Quackenbush

    @I'm not a Republican - the ball is back in your court... Where is your research?  Where are your references?  You've stated vague tendencies with no data to support it.