Blog Published: June 2020
Part five of the Namaste Solar story covers a period of growth and expansion for our company when new business units were in development and when our company began work outside the state of Colorado. Read more about the lead up to this time period with the Namaste Solar story parts one, two, three, and four (Photo: Denver Housing Authority home solar installations )
After the big shifts in our employee-ownership structure and our certification as a B Corporation, the next phase in Namaste Solar’s evolution came with significant growth and expansion. Our team had built a strong reputation in solar, and opportunities for larger, more complex projects as well as jobs outside of Colorado started to come our way. The solar incentives offered by states, cities, and utilities pushed us to look for more out-of-state opportunities, which includes some of our largest projects to date. In the end, we learned a lot from our work outside of Colorado, sometimes through struggle and failure, and now Namaste Solar is bringing our focus back to our home state where we can best deliver on our mission.
Scaling Up in Size and Complexity
Starting in 2009, the commercial team at Namaste Solar was taking off. “This is the time period where we really bolstered our commercial team and when commercial started becoming its own operational unit,” said Jon Wedel, Co-Owner and Senior Director of Commercial Services. “We now had dedicated commercial designers, dedicated project managers, and eventually dedicated commercial install crews.”
In 2012, Namaste Solar was awarded two significant Colorado projects that were larger in scale and more complex than anything we had ever undertaken. The first was a project with the Denver Housing Authority (DHA) to install solar on 660 new houses, and the second was a project for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Boulder, CO.
The DHA project was a large, complicated project with a definitive deadline, and it required Namaste Solar to hire on a number of people, knowing that we wouldn’t be able to guarantee jobs after the project was over. This was a point of tension with the co-ownership that had just gone through a tough round of layoffs the previous year, especially because we value hiring folks for the long-term, not just for project-based work.
“It was very difficult for us as a co-ownership to work through that one,” said David Henry, Co-Owner and General Manager at Namaste Solar. “But at the end of the day it worked out really well. We tackled a complex issue as an employee-owned cooperative and scaled up to manage these 660 projects. We’d never done anything like that before, and I think that was one point of maturity for our company.”
The second project that helped develop our commercial expertise was a project with NREL where we installed a 2.3 MW system. “This was some of the most serious commercial work that we’d ever done with some high-profile partners,” said Jon. “It came with some serious requirements and strict safety measures, to the point where you had to get your gloves certified. And if you did screw up, the ramifications were severe.”
Not Just a Local Solar Installer Anymore
Our commercial team continued its growth, including multiple projects for Wells Fargo along Colorado’s Front Range. Afterwards, Wells Fargo asked Namaste Solar to oversee the construction of three solar projects for them in California – our first offer for out-of-state work. The next out-of-state job came from a fellow Amicus Solar Cooperative member on the east coast. Namaste Solar was asked to do the design work for the 1 MW project, and we were later also brought in to help finance the project while our Amicus partner constructed the solar array.
These two projects got our feet wet outside of Colorado and gave us some experience in dealing with larger projects, new jurisdictions, and project development. But they were projects that came to us, not projects we pursued. The decision to pursue work out of state came from a mix of factors. State incentives were largely dictating where larger-scale solar projects were being built at the time, and the market for solar incentives in Colorado was uncertain. There was some fear that our company would be left in a lurch when the incentives here no longer supported the commercial jobs that were increasingly a large piece of the solar market.
During the next few years, Namaste Solar pursued more commercial projects out of state while continuing to grow our residential and commercial offerings in the state of Colorado. Our out-of-state portfolio from these years includes four projects for Killington Ski Resort, a few community solar projects, and work for government and school partners.
“These were successful construction projects, but they came with many challenges and difficult lessons learned,” said Jon. “Was it everything we were hoping it would be? No, it was challenging. We recognized that absent a trusted partnership in the area, we weren’t able to leverage our brand and bring our expertise to the table in a way that really benefited us and the projects.”
Focusing on Our Home State of Colorado
After years of pursuing commercial work outside of Colorado, Namaste Solar is now bringing a renewed focus back to our home state. We still offer project development, consulting, and design services nationally, but we are focusing construction to in-state projects.
Today, the solar industry has stabilized and there is a strong future for solar in our state, as well as across the country. Our company has diversified its offering from home install to now include commercial, project development, operations and maintenance, and design and consulting work. On top of that, our culture has always been a strength at Namaste Solar. The growth of the company has challenged that culture time and again, but the cooperative continues to work through these growing pains.
“I think it is worth taking pause to think about 15 years ago, what our company and what the solar industry looked like compared to what it is today. I think the opportunity for this company is enormous, but it’s up to us to realize that opportunity,” said David. “There is a lot of inward looking in terms of some of the growing pains of what it means to be 180 people. There's a lot of operational work that continues to need to be done to optimize how we're running our business, but there's also this care and feeding of our culture. What does it really mean to be a co-owner? How do we support leaders? How do we live our values as a B Corp? We need a clear, unified vision of how we want our cooperative to be.”
“In the past, I was one of the people that would often say that we’re basically an electrical contractor,” David added. “I’ve been trying to challenge my thinking on that because I don’t want to think of us as just an electrical, solar contractor. We're Namaste Solar, and solar contracting is the vehicle with which we're building our cathedral.* But I want us to talk about that freaking cathedral.”
*What does it mean to be building a cathedral? The story goes like this: A traveler came upon three workers. He asked the first what he was doing, and the man said he was laying bricks. He asked the second the same question, and she said she was a bricklayer building a wall. When he got to the third worker and asked what they was doing, they said they were building a cathedral. They were all doing the same thing, but each had a different view of their work. The first worker had a job. The second had a career. The third had a calling. At Namaste Solar we have a calling to transform energy and transform business.