Exponential Growth and Improved Reliability in Solar

In one of our favorite interviews, Brian Atchley, a Renaissance Man in the renewable energy industry, sits down and shares his vision for a sustainable future. Brian shares how his passion for solar started at an early age, and since working in the industry he has experienced exponential growth, reduced cost, improved reliability in solar.

What is your occupation? Where do you work? 

I am an Engineer, Entrepreneur and a Solar Roofing Zealot. I work at the r&d lab, in Petaluma, California. It’s an awesome little city in the North Bay- close to the city and fun outdoor stuff. We are developing a roofing system- which uses existing labor and supply chains- to accelerate residential solar very quickly.

Oh- also- we just became semifinalists in round four of the American Made Solar Prize.

Tell us a little bit about you and your background: 

Solar power first piqued my interest in kindergarten when I played with a tiny solar powered propeller toy. Professionally, I’ve been working on it since 2005 when I worked for a consultancy that focused on clean tech and renewable energy. Since 2016 I’ve been working on the holy grail of integrating solar and roofing to make solar the obvious choice even for people who don’t care about it. The ultimate goal is to grow solar by tens of gigawatts a year.

What is a fun fact about you?

One time after interviewing a job candidate, I stood up to shake her hand and and fell flat on my face. My leg was numb from the way I was sitting through the interview. I think she thought she was being pranked.

What was your motivation to get into this industry?

I’ve always enjoyed the outdoors, natural settings, and our place as humans in this ecosystem. When I first started in clean tech the magnitude and urgency of environmental catastrophe wasn’t clear but I felt like this was something we needed to hedge against. I was concerned about climate change and peak oil but wasn’t sure which would be more impactful.

Later while I was working for GreenMountain Engineering in Boston in my 20’s I heard Vinod Khosla speaking at MIT during an energy conference. He presented materials similar to what Al Gore shared in “An Inconvenient Truth” and from then on the urgency of climate change has been central in my efforts.

The first part of my career was focused on getting costs down for solar so that it could take over fossil fuels based on economic incentives. We’ve done that, and now I want to grow the rate of energy infrastructure change.

In the solar roofing industry, specifically, there is an obvious opportunity to grow the market for solar and to impact climate change. By approaching solar as a roofing issue instead of an accessory, we have a new set of customers- moving from solar zealots to people who just need a roof.

Why do you think climate change and sustainability is such an important topic today? 

The big picture is that I am having a good fun time on this planet. I value the human experience and I want other people, future generations including my kids, to be able to have a good fun time, too. Right now we are not living in a way that is sustainable. We need new infrastructure. That’s what so many people are working on right now- things like regenerative agriculture, clean transportation, and clean energy.

People have become more aware of climate change recently because of all the fires and storms and technology has reached a point where we have answers- if we can just adopt it, choose to do it at scale. It’s a very exciting time in sustainability.

What do you envision your industry looking like 10 years from now?

I envision the gap between 3 million residential roofs and 320,000 residential solar installs will close. In 10 years, I’d like to see at least a 3:1 ratio. But I think we can do a lot better than that. And I see a revolution in roofing materials as well. Oil-based roofing that weighs 3 lbs per square foot- absorbs heat, fails in hail and wind, and produces 11 billion tons of landfill every year is not the way to continue.

We’ve got ideas and products right now that are so much better than that. With a metal shingle, for example, you have a lower lifecycle cost, it looks better, weighs less, performs better thermally and mechanically and it works with current labor and supply chains.

Mom and pop shops around the country can make a solid living on an integrated roofing and solar model. It’s not just about installing roofs. It’s about coming up with a great business model so that we can share it.

What can the average person do to make a difference? 

When you get a roof, make the easy choice- get a roof that includes solar- the roof will pay for itself. If you are a roofer or a solar installer become an integrated Roofer/ Solar Installer because it’s a better service for your customer. Everybody has something to offer, though. If you are a fiction writer- write about the future. If you are a teacher or a parent, talk about the future with your kids. Imagine and create a good one for us all.

The Golden rule is always a good one- in every interaction at work it’s a super easy way to solve a problem- just ask yourself “What’s the right thing to do? What would I want for me if I was on the other end of this decision?” For us, it’s about making great things for people. That’s it.

What positive changes are you seeing?

About 14 years ago, my boss, Tyler Palmer and I were at work and we were crunching numbers. What we found was that in order for clean energy to make the difference we needed, we would have to achieve high rate exponential growth. It was daunting. Super disheartening. I worked on that for the first 10 years of my career.

And collectively we did it! We’ve achieved exponential growth, reduced cost, improved reliability, and made satisfying careers for thousands of people. I recently saw a graph on energy production costs by type, and solar and wind are out competing every other type of energy. Looking at those graphs really inspires confidence in our ability to displace all those fossil sources. Those metrics are on our side now.

So that was the first step and we knocked that out. The next goal is to replace the other energy sources. That’s what we’re working on now.

A large part of that work is in getting the word out to people that the industry has evolved. That residential solar makes financial sense to almost everyone now. So thanks for what you are doing. Educating the public on these things is half the battle.

Going Green wants to thank Brian for sharing his work improving Reliability in Solar.

Going Green, hosted by Dylan Welch, interviews leading experts in cleantech, sustainability, media, finance, and real estate on the Going Green podcast. Tune in and subscribe to the podcast on Apple or Spotify to listen to interviews with leading cleantech and sustainable experts.

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Dylan Welch
Dylan Welch is the CEO and Host of Going Green, a podcast, website, and social media brand that highlights renewable energy, cleantech, and sustainable news.
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