Contractors Corner: After four decades on the solarcoaster, Sun Light & Power is still down for the ride

The infamous solarcoaster–the ups and downs of the solar market–has taken out a few riders over the years. The last three years alone have been extremely bumpy. The will-it-won’t-it-be-renewed federal ITC headache of 2015 led to an explosive installation year in 2016. Then the uncertainty around potential solar panel tariffs in 2017 led to stockpiling modules and canceled contracts for 2018. Even the most seasoned solar professional is wrapping up this year with a little motion sickness. Now imagine staying on the solarcoaster for 42 years and still being excited to ride every day. That’s Gary Gerber, founder of Sun Light & Power, a Berkeley, California, installation company that opened its doors in 1976.

Gary Gerber using the latest technology advancements in the early days of Sun Light & Power.

“It keeps me getting up in the morning and enjoying going to work,” Gerber said. “What I do is being part of the solution to some very serious problems we have. People would rather be part of the solution than part of the problem.”

Gerber was a student at UC Berkeley, finishing up a master’s program and working as a teaching assistant for the one and only solar class offered on campus. A friend who was working at an architectural firm designing solar projects had complained to Gerber that no one was willing to build the solar projects. An idea was sparked.

“I don’t know what came over me, but on the last day of that class, I said, ‘Anybody here want to start a solar company? Raise your hand,'” Gerber said. “Two people actually did raise their hands, and they became two of my three partners.”

Sun Light & Power started off working strictly on solar thermal projects with the architectural firm Interactive Resources because that was the only major solar technology around at the time. Gerber and his associates were so early to the industry that they were making their own solar collectors.

“We went out and sourced copper pipe and we built the frames out of redwood and put glass in over the plates,” he said. “It was exciting times and really very fulfilling. There was nobody in the business at the time, so we felt very much like we were blazing trails.”

The 1973 oil crisis had people aware of energy usage, but they had little solar knowledge. Gerber said educating customers on a brand new industry was a challenge.

“A solar collector was a total mystery to people,” he said. “One of the graphics we had was a black hose out in the lawn, explaining the sun makes the hose hot. You run the hose and the hot water comes out of the hose. This is what we do. We really had to explain to people this could actually work, that we could boil water [with the sun].”

Sun Light & Power still works with solar thermal systems. Gerber estimates about 30% of the business is servicing and installing thermal systems. The other 70% is largely commercial PV, primarily in multi-family affordable housing.

“We want to make sure that as many people of lower-income are able to take advantage of solar [as possible],” Gerber said. “That’s very much in line with our Benefit Corp. mission.”

The company is both a Benefit Corp. and certified B Corp. and just recently transitioned to 100% employee ownership. Sun Light & Power’s 80 employees all seem to enjoy their work in the renewable energy industry as much as Gerber.

“We’re very selective about the people that work here. They’re very dedicated to solar, and there’s a sense of common purpose and camaraderie here,” he said. “This is the only business environment I’ve ever actually worked in. The job I had before this was a teaching assistant–that’s my professional career. What I hear from people who come to work for us is that things are really different here. Just the fact that the type of work we do is so self-satisfying lends itself to people who really love working here.”

A new hire prone to love working at Sun Light & Power is Troy Tyler, who recently joined as chief operating officer so Gerber can focus more on ensuring the company’s success for another 40+ years. He plans to explore how to incorporate storage into Sun Light & Power’s offerings. The first solar PV systems the company installed in the early 2000s had to have storage because the only inverters available then required a battery system. But the company has stayed out of the more recent storage cycle.

“We’re quite familiar with storage, and yet the new storage systems now with a whole different set of controls and with utilities standing in the way of storage… we’ve decided to stand back and let those things settle out before we subject our customers to the morass of rules and regulations that are being thrown at interconnection,” Gerber said. “I think that’s going to be settled out soon, so we’re just starting to install systems that are basically storage-ready, but we’re really not promoting storage to our customers yet.”

When the solarcoaster morphs into the solar+storage coaster, Gerber will have ensured Sun Light & Power is ready for another four decades of successful ups and downs.

This month’s Contractors Corner podcast is sponsored by DuPont.
For over 40 years, DuPont PV materials have delivered proven performance and lasting value.

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