Solar company grew from owners’ need, interest

By Kevin Kidder For Columbus CEO Magazine; Taken from the Columbus Dispatch


Michelle and Geoff Greenfield didn’t set out to create a business when they started researching solar power in Ohio at the beginning of the millennium. But what they learned in a quest for solar panels on the house they were building in rural Athens County pointed them to an unexpected opportunity.

Since Third Sun Solar’s modest start in 2000, the company now boasts more than 600 installations of solar panels in Ohio and 13 other Midwestern states, making the couple’s business focus as environmentally friendly as their surname. They talked recently with Columbus CEO magazine about the birth and growth of their company.

Q: Tell me about Third Sun Solar and its evolution. You started in your attic?

A: (Geoff) It’s a classic startup story — yeah, in the attic. Evolution is a good word for it. We didn’t really have a sense of what the future would hold and how the solar industry would take off. When we started it, we were our own first customer. We wanted to have solar on the house we were building, and there weren’t any obvious helpers in Ohio. There was some stuff going on in California at that time, and after we put solar on our house, we had lots of interest and questions, and we thought, well, there might be something to this. So I started the business, and a year later, Michelle joined. And 16 years later, solar is not quite mainstream but a lot farther along than when we started.

Q: Why did you want to install solar on your house to begin with?

A: (Michelle) We’re environmentally minded. We had lived in Oregon for a couple years, and we saw solar out there and in northern California, so we were interested. And the land we bought in Athens County to build on didn’t have power to it. So we had the choice. We either had to pay (a utility) $6,000 or so to bring in the power lines, and then they were going to charge us a minimum bill every month that was quite high. We knew we’d never use that much electricity. So we weighed that with, well, we could put our own system together and live off-grid and see how that works. And our site is perfect, south-facing.

Q: What is the market for solar like in Ohio?

A: (Geoff) The asterisk of ‘in Ohio’ makes a big difference! Ohio is a mixed bag. We’ve got some things incredibly in our favor. A lot of people don’t realize that Ohio is the fifth-largest energy consumer in the nation. It’s a huge market. So that’s a good thing if you’re running a business trying to serve energy users. A lot of people quickly ask about the sunshine. Ohio I would rate as a B-minus. If my kid got a B-minus in college, you know, I’d be all right.

Q: What challenges have you faced?

A: (Michelle) Quite a few. I guess there is the challenge of being a husband-and-wife team. I’m CEO, and he’s president, and we have a lot of implicit trust, which is a great thing to have in a business partnership, but running a business and a family and a household and everything can get quite intense, so we’ve had to really navigate the boundaries for that. …; And I think just the solar market itself has been a challenge over the past 16 years. We came in really at the infancy of the industry, where it was still a lot of cabins in the woods or hippies in the backcountry doing it, or people in California , and now it’s much more mainstream. We actually call it the solar coaster, because there have been all of these ups and downs throughout those 16 years as far as the price fluctuations and the equipment, the technological innovations, (and) the subsidies, because sometimes we have had subsidies, and sometimes we’ve had them taken away. And then they come back, and so it hasn’t been a stable economic situation.

Q: What’s the future for Third Sun Solar?

A: (Michelle) As far as Third Sun, we’re pretty well-positioned to keep maturing with the industry.