In it for the Long Haul: The Third Sun Solar Story

ATHENS, Ohio – Michelle and Geoff Greenfield do not shy away from a challenge. From building an off-grid house, starting a solar business while raising a family, or living part-time in Colorado while maintaining their Athens-based company, Third Sun Solar, the two are always ready to tackle complicated circumstances.

Building the Beginning

Michelle has always been business savvy. After receiving a BS in Business Management from Miami University, she traveled abroad in countries like Guatemala and El Salvador lobbying for microenterprise development, such as providing small loans for women establishing businesses. She then obtained a Master’s Degree in International Affairs with a focus on Economic Development from Ohio University.

When looking for a place to live, Michelle and Geoff were presented with a beautiful piece of property, and a surprising project proposal – the property had no existing structures and was not connected to the power grid. Rather than continue their search, they decided on the labor-intensive path of building their own home and using solar power to make it self-sustaining.

It took two years to build the house using the timber frame technique with no nails, only joinery. Their only electricity came from the 600W photovoltaic system they installed themselves and the family used energy very conservatively.

During this project, Geoff realized his interest in solar installation, and not long after, he decided to start his own solar installation company. Taking yet another challenge head on, Michelle agreed to quit her job to run the administrative side of the business. And so, with the goal of helping others with solar installation, Third Sun Solar was born in 2000.

Nearly 20 years later, their decision was clearly a good one.

19 Years and Counting

The company’s first project was tied to a program that combined solar systems with school curriculum. Together, they installed 45 small solar arrays at public schools around Ohio.

Initially, business grew quickly, with the mandate of net metering and government subsidies in the early 2000s, which made solar power more economically enticing. But, as incentives for renewables are subject to legislative support, business has dropped off periodically.

According to Michelle, there are hard times “but there will be more best times” and “solar will be here for the long haul” as the continued decrease in the price of modules will solidify the industry regardless of political will.

In 2012, Michelle embarked on the challenging assessment process of making Third Sun Solar a Benefit Corporation (B Corp) because she wanted to show that they were using the business “as a force for good.” This means that they use a triple bottom line approach when doing business, equally considering profit, people, and the planet.

Not all solar companies follow these principles, making Third Sun Solar a unique choice for solar installation because, as Michelle describes it, of their “craftsmanship, longevity, and commitment to the environment and the community.”

Third Sun Solar frequently works on commercial and residential projects, but they also complete projects for businesses, schools, and agricultural facilities. While each type of installation varies, large commercial jobs require more structural analysis and public works consist of a long bid process, all projects require engineering proposals and evaluations. Third Sun Solar typically completes projects in about three months, including purchasing, financing, permitting, installation, and follow-ups.

For residential projects, Third Sun Solar can often install a new system for the same or less than the electricity bill. A 12-year loan is available to some customers with payments lower than their old electric bill while their new bill is reduced to almost nothing due to net metering and electricity powered appliances running off of what the solar module generates.

In addition to saving people money on their electric bill, solar is fairly maintenance free. If something does need repaired, Third Sun Solar’s workmanship is warranted for 16 years, the longest of any company in Ohio, and their membership with the Amicus Solar Buying Cooperative means their modules are warranted for 30 years of 80% power production.

Plantings Seeds for a Just Transition

Although running Third Sun Solar has been a formidable task as Michelle and Geoff have weathered a variety of climates and oppositions, Michelle finds meaning in her work by thinking of it as planting a seed for the growth of solar power.

To educate others on the benefits and realities of the solar industry, Michelle gives presentations to a wide variety of audiences, from schools and nonprofits to coal executives. Her advocacy for clean energy drew her to serve on Green Energy Ohio’s Board of Directors for 10 years, 2 of which she served as President.

She hopes that those who hear her speak about economic and job development within the solar industry takeaway that businesses like Third Sun Solar are viable long-term and can be a part of workforce development. In its 19 years, Third Sun Solar has supported a payroll of over $10 million.

The success of solar businesses has convinced some who previously believed solar was only for the distant future to accept that it is presently a profitable resource. This shift is fueling a Just Transition, powered by people like Michelle who have planted the seeds of support for the solar industry over the last 20 years.  She describes this as “transitioning the workforce and the economy from the older, fossil fuel based, polluting technologies into the newer, greener, more sustainable technologies.”

Solar is a Craft, Not a Task

As the industry continues to grow, more “life affirming jobs”, as Michelle calls them, will be available to more Americans.

The solar industry provides countless innovative, future-oriented jobs and Third Sun Solar has a company environment that is focused on more than simply monetary profit. Third Sun Solar looks for employees that are craft-oriented. Everyone in the company takes their workmanship seriously, using the best products and putting them together well, even if it takes more time or effort.

Michelle states that their triple bottom line approach as a B Corp benefits customers “because the people on their roof are integrated into a larger family company.” Employees also benefit because they receive improved retirement, health insurance, vacation, and finance transparency.

Working in the solar industry is more than simply installing panels, it is about engaging the customer and community to be part of a larger network of people who care about clients, employees, and the environment.

Increasing Feminine Presence

After being involved in the solar industry for over 20 years, Michelle has been to many solar conventions and conferences. She jokes that in the early days there was “never a line for the women’s bathroom at a solar conference,” but that is no longer the case.

As conferences have grown due to increased profit in the industry, there are more initiatives by non-profits such as the American Solar Energy Society tailored to “women in solar” specifically.

Although these initiatives have contributed to more women as “wrenches” (solar installers), project managers, accountants, design engineers, and in administration, to Michelle, these projects still beg the question of “why are we segregating women away from everybody else” instead of giving “them the same training that everyone gets?”

At Third Sun Solar, women are employed as an installer, the chief executive officer, general manager, accountant, salesperson, purchasing, marketing, and operational support. Michelle believes that “there are places for women to plug into any aspect of solar.”

Good Times to Come

Solar will continue to grow in the coming years, regardless of political action, because of its mounting economic and environmental benefits.

In Ohio, the state’s viable market is shown through the growth of smaller companies and the influx of larger ones from out of state. Though this creates more competition, any solar power advertisement raises awareness for everyone. Michelle isn’t worried, as she knows that her company’s unique values set it apart from others.

Third Sun Solar is “in it for the long haul” with the plans and means to stay in this business to help prospective customers and support their existing ones. The challenges will continue for Michelle and Geoff Greenfield, but they feel well equipped to handle fluctuating political and financial climates and look forward to the inevitable growth of the industry.

By: Allison South