Alumni Profile – 1990s

Sun Volt

Entrepreneur engineers communities that let the sunshine in

by Tony Phifer | Photo: Getty Images

Paul Spencer has started enough companies – 10 in all – to know that planning and hard work don’t always equal success. But ask Spencer about his favorite business success story, and he’ll describe Clean Energy Collective, a startup that uses a new model to deliver solar power.

Spencer, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1994, conceived the idea of a solar energy collective for people who want to tap the power of the sun without installing solar panels on their properties.

He launched Clean Energy Collective in 2009; its first community solar project – the first in the nation – was planned the next year in El Jebel, Colo., near Aspen.

“We were just starting construction on this first project but hadn’t started advertising or selling,” Spencer said. “Then I spoke on a national press call with Sen. Mark Udall, who was working to change the federal tax credits to support our innovation – community solar. The local Aspen press got wind of it and wrote about our invention in the local papers.”

Chaos ensued. National news outlets sought interviews about the innovative, Colorado-based startup. The company didn’t yet have a phone number, so excited customers knocked on the office door and called Spencer’s parents.

The project sold out in a matter of days, and Clean Energy Collective has been on a roll ever since.

The company now has 175 community solar projects operating or under development with 33 utility partners across 15 states, representing more than 310 megawatts of capacity. Spencer said he expects total capacity to surpass one gigawatt by 2020; that would power an estimated 750,000 homes.

“The industry is gaining momentum through increasing numbers of legislators and government officials across the country supporting community solar, thanks to a well-informed base of industry advocates,” Spencer said. “This advocacy is fueled by solar industry associations, executives, employees, customers, and enthusiasts, and in 2018, we’ll see an even stronger and louder coalescence of stakeholders with an amplified grassroots movement that will more deeply engage with elected officials and regulators.”

Those factors are boosting solar’s profile in the national energy mix, though analysts say it is unclear exactly how the industry will be affected by newly imposed tariffs on imported solar panels. Spencer predicted that within five years community solar will overtake onsite and rooftop solar as the largest segment of distributed solar generation in the country.

Spencer, 46, has other ventures in mind, but is focused on growing Clean Energy Collective and expanding its award-winning concepts.

“I actually make a point to ignore my laurels – then I’m never at risk to sit on them or have them affect who I am or who I aspire to be,” he said.

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