Immerse your kids in nature: It is hard to fight for the environment and a better planet for your grandchildren and great-grandchildren when your children haven’t experienced nature and created their own sense of wonder for it. Technology tends to play an outsized role in the lives of kids. Spending time interacting with nature; in the woods, on a beach, or even a city park, can help kids unplug from their electronic tethers. This begins the process: It allows them to learn and create that sense of wonder for our planet.
As part of my series about what we must do to inspire the next generation about sustainability and the environment, I had the pleasure of interviewing David Amster-Olszewski, CEO & Founder of SunShare. David Amster-Olszewski founded SunShare in 2011, and serves as its chief executive officer, having 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 to Denver, partnered with utilities in multiple states, and developed more than 100 megawatts of community solar gardens, serving more than 10,000 customers with long-term contracts for 100% solar energy; more than any other community solar company. David was featured in Forbes Magazine’s “30 Under 30” in 2016 and recognized as a national leader in the alternative energy market. Prior to founding SunShare, David worked for PowerLight in Geneva, Switzerland in 2006, and then in California in 2007, 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 doing this with us David! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
Igrew up in Miami, Florida, where I was exposed to tremendous cultural diversity but a society with little awareness of our impact on the environment. However, in my family we learned to avoid wastefulness. While the southeast US was experiencing drought conditions, I wouldn’t say that water conservation was a predominant theme in the community; actually, quite the opposite — it was a consumeristic society. Yet my mother used to tell me even as a small child, “Don’t run the water for your bathtub or at the sink for too long because you are taking fresh water away from the alligators.” She knew that I valued wildlife, and this reminder was how she connected my actions to better habits.
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.
The economics class took us to Washington DC, where we were taken to dinner by Colorado College’s Board of Trustee chair Sue Woolsey and her husband, Jim Woolsey, best known as President Clinton’s director of the CIA. But also known as one of Washington’s pre-eminent sponsors of renewable energy — from a perspective of national security (“our fossil fuel addiction is funding both sides of the war on terror” was one of his favorite quotes).
I happened to sit next to Jim that evening at dinner. Not knowing Jim’s focus on renewables, but rather his role running the CIA, I was entranced. We spoke about renewable energy, cellulosic ethanol, algal biodiesel, and electric vehicles the whole evening (not to mention the corollaries of our current problems and their solutions with those faced by President Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton). I ended up writing my college thesis years later on the impact of fossil fuels on the economy, recessions, national security, and the environment. The problems were clear in my mind, and the solutions apparent. During my summers, I began my career in renewable energy through internships in the solar industry in Europe and the United States.
During my years at Colorado College, I began my own journey in the industry when I started a non-profit called Energizing Colorado Springs to do residential energy audits and retrofits. Generally, for willing guinea pigs among the college’s terrific faculty and staff, who let us college students experiment installing insulation, efficient lighting, and perimeter sealing on their homes during the weekends. Quite brave on their part!
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, 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.
Ironically, my class at the time was Entrepreneurship. The professor felt I wasn’t focused enough in his course during that time period, and gave me a C, my lowest grade in college. It’s a fun joke now, because that project launched me into what became my career as an entrepreneur — fundraising and facilitating the installation of more solar. Years later, I ended up hiring one of the installers from that project to work for SunShare. A subtle message here for students, from my perspective, is not to stress too much about grades, but rather view your college experience more holistically. It’s sometimes what you do outside of the classroom that will lead to your future success; the people you meet, your personal relationships with your professors, and your extracurricular activities, whatever those may be. Had I looked at that grade too hard, I might not have decided to become an Entrepreneur.
Personally, that was the most valuable C I could have ever earned!
Was there an “aha moment” or a specific trigger that made you decide you wanted to become a scientist or environmental leader? Can you share that story with us?
As I mentioned, during a school trip to Washington DC, I had the privilege to sit next to Jim Woolsey, President Clinton’s Director of the CIA, during a dinner. He spoke to me about the geo-political impact of oil economics and his belief in renewable energy. He talked about the never-ending cycle of strife that accompanied oil funding, caused conflict in the energy producing areas of the world, and contributed to terrorism. He often repeated the saying, “If you want to know who is funding the war on terror, next time you pull up to a gas station to fill up your tank, take your rearview mirror and point it slightly down and to the left.”
For me, this sparked the idea that we as individuals needed easier and more accessible options to consume renewable energy. After all, most homes aren’t terrific candidates for rooftop solar. When the Colorado Community Solar Act was passed in 2010 while I was working for SunPower, a large solar company in California, my mom once again focused my path by suggesting I do something with this opportunity. So, I moved back to Colorado Springs and started SunShare, working with a friend out of an empty classroom at Colorado College during the spring and summer of 2011. When fall semester started, we moved it to the floor of an empty apartment (we skipped the furniture). We worked with the Colorado Springs City Council to get the local law changed that barred anyone other than the city-owned utility company from selling energy.
It was funny that when I was looking for legal representation, I was turned away from several law firms. They said utilities would never agree to letting us sell a solar option to their customers. One 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.
This solar garden for the first time gave more than 300 families the ability to choose solar energy without the need to install their own solar panels on their rooftops. 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, and the community bought into the challenge! They became the first city and utility in a movement toward customer choice for solar that now encompasses utilities in 20 states across the United States, which represent over 50% of the US population. The folks in the community that cared about being first in renewable energy banded together and did what many across the country never would have expected.
Is there a lesson you can take out of your own story that can exemplify what can inspire a young person to become an environmental leader?
I learned that my young age was not a barrier, but rather a strength. My enthusiasm brought people on both sides of the political aisle together to work toward a common goal. In Colorado Springs’ elected City Council, it wasn’t Republicans versus Democrats, with the latter supporting renewables and the former not. There were no elected Democrats on the City Council!
I still needed to learn the systems and protocols of how to get things done, but it didn’t stop me from driving to the goal. In fact, my cluelessness and innocence likely allowed me to sidestep barriers that existed. I started small with a single community solar garden and built a company that is making a real impact.
SunShare has helped spark a new industry that gives people an option to simply choose solar, increases awareness of energy efficiency, supports our environment, creates green-economy jobs and democratizes the choice for energy consumption — a choice that the far majority of Americans living in areas with monopoly utilities had never had. We have built more than 100 megawatts of community solar so far in Colorado and Minnesota, enough to power over 20,000 homes, an industry milestone, with expansion plans across the country.
Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?
Our business as a whole is based on supporting sustainability and addressing climate change. According to Consumer Reports, more than 70% of Americans say they would choose renewable energy if it was easily accessible and cost-effective. However, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 75% of U.S. homes are unsuitable for rooftop solar panel installation and nearly 40% of U.S. households are renters who are not able to choose to install a rooftop solar option. Community solar provides the option of solar energy to anyone, regardless of homeownership, and without requiring the installation of rooftop solar panels. With community solar, access to solar is no longer restricted to an elite group of homeowners who can afford it and have a roof that can support solar panels.
And each home’s community solar subscription in Colorado, for instance, generates solar energy equivalent to removing one gas-powered car from the road each year.
Can you share 3 lifestyle tweaks, things that the general public can do to be more sustainable or help address the climate change challenge?
1. Choose solar or wind energy if it is available to you in your community, either by installing solar panels on your roof or subscribing to renewable energy sources through a community solar or similar program.
2. If your utility or state does not have such a program, tell your elected officials they need to have one. They’re your representatives. If I could do it, so can you!
3. Switch to using an electric vehicle. After tax credits, I bought mine for less than a gas-powered vehicle, and saved over $1,000 in just the first 12 months by using electricity, which is cheaper than gasoline. Not to mention never having to change my oil. And it’s so much quieter, so you can hear your music better.
Ok, thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview: The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.
1. Give kids the freedom to take risks and opportunities, and the power to fix their own (and our) messes: The solutions to our current planetary problems will not be solved by continuing in the existing mindset of doing things the way we’ve done them in the past. They require a new way of thinking; an entrepreneurial one. One example is the carpet company Interface, where innovative thinking drives not just sustainability, but success. You want your kids to have the freedom to think like that, not the way everyone else thinks. So, foster it.
2. Lead by example: If parents take sustainability and the environment seriously, modeling positive behavior, so will their children. Walk or ride a bike instead of driving; turn lights off when not in a room; be water conscious around the house and in the yard; don’t buy things children don’t need. Live by example, eliminating plastic toys; pack their lunch with reusable containers; eliminate single-use plastic from your home. Teach children about shopping locally, for food and for goods. It all starts with daily practices at the home and an understanding of how to live simply. Practice what you preach. Kids will watch these small things, and form behaviors that will last a lifetime.
3. Parents and all adults shouldn’t assume kids aren’t listening: I was accused more than once of not paying attention, but in the end the things I heard and saw greatly impacted my own journey. From my mom’s message about wildlife’s need for limited resources such as water, highlighting water conservation; to a dinner conversation about oil funding terrorism that inspired my life’s work, who knew I would be able to drive change and make a difference? It was everything I experienced, heard, and learned that allowed me to be where I am today.
4. Parents and all adults shouldn’t assume kids aren’t listening (yes, I said it again): Kids listen to the positive but also the negative. Don’t tell them they can’t make crazy ideas come true, or that it is hopeless and there is nothing to be done. What do you know — would you have predicted Instagram?! While I was a bit older than a kid when I first began exploring the beginnings of SunShare (I was 23, although I still looked like a kid), many told me it couldn’t be done. But I was just stubborn enough and convinced it was worth the effort to ignore their input, and I did it anyway. Nine years later, community solar now exists in 20 states representing more than 50% of the US population. But it was hard, even as a recent grad, to not let those negative words affect my belief in what I could accomplish. And even now, every week I find that I’m told I can’t do something, or it’s never been done before, or it won’t work — sometimes every day. And sometimes they’re right. But far too often, they’re not.
5. Immerse your kids in nature: It is hard to fight for the environment and a better planet for your grandchildren and great-grandchildren when your children haven’t experienced nature and created their own sense of wonder for it. Technology tends to play an outsized role in the lives of kids. Spending time interacting with nature; in the woods, on a beach, or even a city park, can help kids unplug from their electronic tethers. This begins the process: It allows them to learn and create that sense of wonder for our planet. This leads them to be inspired to learn more, and then to appreciate the world around them and the delicate balance we exist in. and, finally, to protect and care for the Earth we enjoy.
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
The simplest answer is to look at our business, SunShare. Our whole existence is centered around reducing carbon, and meeting humanity’s need for energy but with this wonderful renewable resource we have in the sun. But I’ll give you another example because everyone can’t have a renewable energy company (although everyone should): A carpet company based in the deep south.
Innovation and sustainability play a valuable role in profitability for all companies, because less waste = less cost, and reduced costs = higher profitability. The innovation required by changing how we do and think about things generally leads to new and better ideas, and far higher employee engagement and motivation. With the growing focus on sustainability from everyday consumers, businesses can’t ignore the issue any longer and will find that taking a focus on sustainability will inspire innovation, which can improve their company’s bottom line as well as its top line.
One company that has stood out to me in this regard is a carpet business called Interface, founded by CEO-Founder Ray Anderson. He had instituted a program called “Mission Zero” years ago, which was focused on establishing Interface as one of (or the) first businesses to have a net zero effect on the environment (now they’re targeting net-positive, I believe). This is not an easy goal in the carpet business, an industry that has historically utilized petrochemicals in not just its supply and distribution network but also its primary product itself (most carpets are made with massive amounts of petroleum), and has a tremendous amount of waste that heads to landfills every day.
Of the many things Interface did as part of this mission, one story stood out to me because it was not simply tied to reducing waste, and thus reducing cost, but was actually about creating a better product through innovation, increasing the top line. One day, Ray sent his product designers into the woods for inspiration to develop a new product, and they created one that not only reduced their costs, but increased their market share.
In a nutshell, they were inspired by the forest floor. They recognized that the ground was covered in leaves, twigs, rocks, and branches. Nothing was linear or symmetrical. There was disorder. Yet it’s well known that humans feel more relaxed in nature. They started questioning why the industry always preferred symmetrical and linear designs for carpets — they asked if that’s what the consumer’s mind preferred or just what everyone thought a carpet should look like? They decided to design a series of carpets that ditched the symmetry and designed with the characteristics of nature’s ’floors.’ And that turned out to be one of their best-selling products! Consumers felt more connected and comfortable with the new designs, more relaxed in focus groups where that design was installed, which led to increased sales.
One other cool example: In an effort to reduce waste, Interface recognized that when removing old carpets, ~70% or more of the carpet didn’t need to be replaced. But customers were replacing the whole carpet because the well-travelled areas in primary hallways and by doors were worn out and needed replacement, even though the material under desks and lesser travelled walkways did not. To reduce waste, they popularized the carpet tile, which is now commonplace in the industry. The ability to simply replace worn out or damaged sections in walkways and high traffic locations saved tremendous amounts of waste as well as reduced costs for consumers, shifting more customers to Interface’s business from their competitors.
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?
I have learned a great deal from numerous people. Many of those lessons have changed my direction, refined my approach, or ignited my passion for conservation. However, with the growth of SunShare I am often inundated in the world of business, and my focus tends to become dominated by the issues and challenges of running a company: hiring, strategy, finance, operations, etc.
My fiancé Kirby Jones has a deep and abiding connection to nature and conservation and she always brings me back to focus on my overall goals that ground me. Our first topic of conversation when we met was about environmentalism and solar energy. It is her constant presence in my life that allows me to keep facing in the right direction and not get bogged down with the everyday distractions from the goal.
She helps keep me focused and connected with the purpose that inspired me to start SunShare and community solar in the first place, which was to spark change, lead a movement for more renewable energy through consumer choice of solar options in order to turn around the destructive path we are on as a society. To give people simple options to do the right thing. It’s always important to make sure you are surrounded by people who keep you grounded and focused on your purpose.
You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount 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. We’re at the point where all we need to do is remove the barriers that exist to allow this 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.
Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?
“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” -Jane Goodall
I’ve decided the difference I want to make in this world, and I work each and every day to make a positive impact for our planet, our future, and our children’s future.
What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?
Follow what SunShare is doing in community solar activism and development.
This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!