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David Amster-Olszewski: “They told me it was impossible and I did it anyway”

One example of naysayers that stood out, in particular, occurred when I was looking for legal representation and was turned away from a law firm. They said utilities would never agree to let us sell an off-site solar option to their customers. One person jokingly referred to me as “the David going up against the […]

One example of naysayers that stood out, in particular, occurred when I was looking for legal representation and was turned away from a law firm. They said utilities would never agree to let us sell an off-site solar option to their customers. One person jokingly referred to me as “the David going up against the Goliath utilities” but in the end, it was the community that won. We built and sold out the nation’s first competitive-market community solar garden with Colorado Springs Utilities in the fall of 2011 — a three-acre solar project with thousands of panels — less than three months after the law changed.


As a part of our series about “dreamers who ignored the naysayers and did what others said was impossible”, I had the pleasure of interviewing David Amster-Olszewski.

David Amster-Olszewski founded SunShare in 2011 and serves as its Chief Executive Officer, has grown it into one of the leading community solar companies in the nation.

David’s foundational SunShare community solar garden with Colorado Springs Utilities was the nation’s first competitive community solar program. In true startup fashion, David developed that project out of his apartment with the help of interns, signing up more than 300 homes and educational organizations in two months. Since then, SunShare has moved its headquarters to Denver, opened offices in other states, and become the largest residential community solar company by partnering with utilities in multiple states and developing more than 100 megawatts of community solar gardens, which provide the benefits of clean, renewable solar energy to more than 10,000 customers.

David was featured in Forbes Magazine’s “30 Under 30” in 2016 and recognized as a national leader in the renewable energy market.

Prior to founding SunShare, David worked for PowerLight in Geneva, Switzerland in 2006, and then in California in 2007 for SunPower, completing an executive management training program at SunPower in 2010. He has a degree in International Political Economics from Colorado College.


Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you tell us your ‘backstory’?

Iam from Miami, Florida, and growing up in the warm sunshine state I was exposed to tremendous cultural diversity but a society with little awareness of our impact on the environment. I left Florida for Colorado College and got a first-hand introduction to a community with an environmental ethic, something I had exposure to from my family, but not in my broader community growing up.

As a freshman, I took an economics class during my first semester. This was during the time that oil prices were skyrocketing to over $100 a barrel, a scale of price increase that historically preceded a recession. And sure enough, shortly after, we hit the Great Recession. My studies that first semester of college, combined with my growing understanding of the negative impact our society was having on the environment, prompted my interest in energy efficiency and renewable energy. During my summers, I began my career in renewable energy through internships in the solar industry in Europe and the United States.

In my junior year, I became frustrated after attending a year of sustainability committee meetings and hearing different proposals for installing solar on campus, but not seeing any come to fruition. During spring break that year, I recall stewing on a chair lift (where all the best brainstorming is done) about that fact and decided we had to change the no-solar problem by the end of the school year two months later. In the three weeks following spring break, a few friends and I raised $200,000, and in the following four weeks hired a solar installer to install what was the largest non-military solar installation in Colorado Springs — surprising because it was only 25 kilowatts, or the approximate size needed to power just four homes. But in those days, solar was new to that part of Colorado.

Following college, I worked for SunPower, a large international vertically integrated solar company, with who I had interned during college. After approximately two years in a management training program there, I learned of a budding new segment of the market called community solar development in Colorado and started SunShare.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

This is a very exciting time for my company SunShare and the community solar industry. This year is the 10th anniversary of the first community solar legislation in the nation passing in Colorado. In the past decade,19 states plus Washington DC have followed Colorado and have community solar laws on the books, with more on state dockets in 2020.

Our home markets are Colorado and Minnesota, yet over the last year we have kicked off an exciting expansion into new markets around the country that will deliver exponential growth in the number of customers we can share solar with over the next few years.

Community solar helps people because it is unique among solar options. It allows homeowners, schools, businesses, and municipalities to purchase solar energy without having the panels on their roof or on their property. With community solar we build larger 10–50-acre solar gardens anywhere in a utility’s service area and transfer that solar energy over the utility’s power lines to our customers. Community solar is that perfect option for people who don’t own their home, don’t want to or can’t spend $20,000 on rooftop panels, have an old roof, have tall trees, or simply want a simpler solution than rooftop solar panels.

As fires rage in Australia, hurricanes get increasingly worse, king tides become more frequent, and a US presidential election looms on the horizon, it is ever more important that we put the power for creating clean energy in the hands of the people — and community solar is the one way that citizens can drive demand for renewable energy regardless of their rooftop suitability or socioeconomic status.

In your opinion, what do you think makes your company or organization stand out from the crowd?

SunShare has made many firsts in the community solar industry — first to develop a community solar garden in a competitive open market; first to develop 100 megawatts; first to subscribe 10,000 residential community solar subscribers — but I believe what truly sets us apart is our unwavering commitment to our original vision of expanding access to residential customers. While many have come into — and left — the residential community solar space since SunShare’s inception, few if any have remained as focused on a singular mission, much less achieved it. Being first is tough and at times unforgiving but surviving the tumult of a nascent industry finding its legs and doing so with an ever-stronger team has been great fun.

By engaging the individuals who live in the approximately 75 percent of homes that cannot put solar on their roof, we are giving people a pathway to their first big step towards significantly decreasing their carbon footprint. To have the option to participate in community solar is very empowering to folks. Often times, climate change seems to be out of our hands, the solutions unfathomably complex and seemingly impossible to implement on an individual level.

At SunShare, we believe that by empowering people to ‘go solar,’ we can help them take the first step. Perhaps the next step will be an electric vehicle, powered by their solar energy. And the following may be planting trees to offset air travel.

Ok, thank you for that. I’d like to jump to the main focus of this interview. Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us? What was your idea? What was the reaction of the naysayers? And how did you overcome that?

I started SunShare as a 24-year-old with a dream, and the belief that we as individuals needed easier and more accessible options to consume renewable energy. First out of an empty classroom at Colorado College during the spring and summer of 2011.

I ignored everyone who told me utilities would never accept community solar and pursued it anyway (this of course was before 20 states passed laws allowing it!) and started SunShare. In Colorado Springs, as is the case in most areas with monopoly electric utilities, it was illegal for anyone other than the utility to sell solar energy to customers if the solar was not on their property. And of course, utilities were not offering many of these options. So, we changed the law… That was fun.

One example of naysayers that stood out, in particular, occurred when I was looking for legal representation and was turned away from a law firm. They said utilities would never agree to let us sell an off-site solar option to their customers. One person jokingly referred to me as “the David going up against the Goliath utilities” but in the end, it was the community that won. We built and sold out the nation’s first competitive-market community solar garden with Colorado Springs Utilities in the fall of 2011 — a three-acre solar project with thousands of panels — less than three months after the law changed.

In the end, how were all the naysayers proven wrong? 🙂

We did it through perseverance, supportive policymakers open to changing the law, and a tremendously supportive community.

Colorado Springs didn’t always have the reputation as a leader on topics such as sustainability and renewable energy, and that made it all the more fun. The community bought into the challenge and became the first city and utility in a movement toward customer choice for solar that now encompasses utilities representing over 50% of the US population.

While the regulated monopoly utilities may still view community solar as a competitor, state legislatures prompted by their constituents are embracing the renewable energy movement and demanding progress.

Those of us in the battle for expansion see consumers pushing this movement with their feet as they march every Friday with Greta Thunberg, or vote for representatives who understand the looming climate crisis.

There will always be those who tell us no, or you can’t, or it’s impossible — but we have proven them wrong each time we’ve passed a new law, or updated a limiting regulation, or realized a new idea that allows collaboration and progress..

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My family has played the most impactful role in my success. My parents, sister, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and fiancé. Since I was a child, they have been supportive of my, let’s call it persistent, personality traits. While many of your questions highlight persistence or tenacity, I’m sure you can imagine a few other adjectives that could be associated with persistence as a personality characteristic. Many of which may ring true as it relates to me. Pain in the … perhaps. But in all seriousness, my family’s support of my drive, creativity, and inquisitive nature as an adolescent, along with providing for an environment where it was ok to question and debate, provided me with the tools and confidence to drive change in my professional career.

It must not have been easy to ignore all the naysayers. Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share the story with us?

As a child, when I was playing a game or trying to learn something new, I would be so focused on accomplishing the task or finishing the activity that sometimes my mom had to insist I stop just to come and eat dinner (and I often wouldn’t). I’ve never been good at giving up, and that has always been a part of my personality.

Based on your experience, can you share 5 strategies that people can use to harness the sense of tenacity and do what naysayers think is impossible? (Please share a story or an example for each)

  1. Don’t take “no” as final — it’s just the first step — Just because someone, even someone in power, tells you “no” doesn’t mean you can’t try anyway. My best example of this turned out to be starting a new industry in clean energy.
  2. Try a different approach — If the first attempt doesn’t work, don’t just give up; think of a different way to accomplish the goal and try again.
  3. Rely on your support system — Sometimes the challenges wear you down and you need to be reinvigorated or re-inspired to keep pushing. My fiancée Kirby does this for me. She shares my passion for conservation and leaving the world a better place, so when I get overwhelmed by obstacles or with running a business, she reminds me why I’m in this fight.
  4. Be appreciative and reflect — Go back through your own story and look at what you’ve already accomplished. If you take some time to reflect on how far you’ve come, it will usually give you the confidence to drive forward yet again… As this relates to my story, even though Colorado was the first state to pass community solar legislation a decade ago, over the past several years I watched other states leap ahead with more progressive laws while Colorado’s primary utility fought the expansion of community solar. There were times when I thought it would simply be easier to concentrate on other states and leave Colorado. But I reflected on where we started at the very birth of the industry, and I refused to give up on Colorado as our home market. In 2019, Governor Polis signed the Community Solar Garden Modernization Act and the Public Utilities Commission set out new rules. Now Colorado is within a few months of leading the pack in community solar once again!
  5. Don’t get mad; get working — Turn frustration into focus to keep driving forward. A big part of doing the impossible is just not giving up. Before I started SunShare, it was illegal for anyone but the regulated monopoly utility to sell energy across property lines. The regulatory attorneys with whom I spoke told me it was never going to happen when I said I was going to get that law changed. And I admit, my first response was frustration. But I took their negative statements and turned them into the fuel to keep pushing and proved them wrong. And I haven’t stopped since!

What is your favorite quote or personal philosophy that relates to the concept of resilience?

“I didn’t fail. I just found 2,000 ways not to make a light bulb; I only needed to find one way to make it work.” — Thomas Edison

As it relates to my personal philosophy, I believe in the power of creativity and willpower to turn walls into speed bumps. Most times, it’s just a matter of the perspective you take that can power you forward and build the resilience necessary to overcome obstacles.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would hope to inspire people to go against the grain. To not take “no” for an answer. To be confident in themselves and believe that they have the power to do what they set their mind to. To free themselves from the constraints that they might feel are preventing them from taking action. I think what’s needed to make progress is an overwhelming burst of confidence in the general population to take charge of our negative impact on the planet and turn things around.

I would like to see people focus more on the solutions that are available today, which range in simplicity and cost, such that there are options for everyone. And not just get lost in fear and sadness over the problem of climate change.

We’re at this amazing point in history where we have all of the technology we need to eliminate our carbon and methane emissions and prevent the pollution of our air and water. And we’re even at the point where most of these technologies are actually cheaper than the polluting alternative. Our task now must be to remove the barriers and allow change to happen. Such as simply allowing the greater than one hundred million homes in the United States to choose off-site renewable energy and prevent monopoly utilities from being able to block them. Studies show that over 70% of these people would switch to renewables today if they could and it was simple!

I would like to give people the confidence to get engaged in politics and share their positions and concerns, to choose renewable energy, to buy an electric car powered by renewable energy, or simply choose to walk or bike to work and benefit from the exercise and fresh air. It’s amazing what people can do when they feel engaged and empowered to make a change.

I would like to inspire a movement of increased confidence and empowerment to seek and make changes.

Can our readers follow you on social media?

Follow what SunShare is doing in community solar activism and development.

https://twitter.com/@mysunshare

https://mysunshare.com/

https://www.linkedin.com/in/david-amster-olszewski-4ba7355/

Thank you for these great stories. We wish you only continued success!

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