Green grads use their Learn by Doing experience to make their mark in the solar industry
By Cathy Enns
Judy Ledford Staley and Fred Sisson of REC Solar, amid the solar equipment their company installed atop the Costco in San Luis Obispo. (Photos by Aaron Lambert)
Temperatures often fell below zero in Ely, Nev., during the winter Cal Poly alum Mike Emrich spent measuring air quality for the Environmental Protection Agency.
It was 1973, the height of the oil crisis, and the residents of the old Pony Express town were hit especially hard. From food to heating oil, life’s necessities were trucked in via an energy-intensive journey along Highway 50 — the “loneliest road in America.”
Operating on a double dose of Learn by Doing tradition from his Cal Poly education and his ranch upbringing, Emrich (B.S., Industrial Technology, 1972) considered the implications of the oil crisis for Ely and for the country. “I started thinking about what I could do,” he said.
He noted that eastern Nevada enjoys 345 days of sun each year. “Pow! The light came on,” he said. “There’s a way out.”
The flash of innovation launched Emrich into the world of solar power. Twenty years later, two other Cal Poly graduates – Judy Ledford Staley (B.S., Environmental Engineering, 1997) and Fred Sisson (B.S., Engineering, 1998) – rode a similar train of thought into the world of alternative energy.
Today, these Cal Poly alumni are making major impacts in solar power, applying their learn-by-doing educations to alternative energy and making a difference in the world through their careers.
Solarponics founder Mike Emrich
Emrich moved back to the Central Coast and founded Solarponics in 1975. At the time, the most widely available systems were solar thermal systems — panels that heat water for homes and swimming pools.
Since then, Emrich has expanded and diversified his company. Solarponics now offers a spectrum of energy efficiency solutions: solar electric systems (including do-it-yourself kits); solar water heating systems; radiant heating systems; and even wind energy solutions for homes and businesses on the Central Coast.
Solarponics is the longest continuously owned and operated solar company in California, with more than 3,000 customers.
Experiential learning remains a core value for Emrich. “You’re not learning if you’re not trying new things,” he said — even if occasionally that means you “learn by failing.” Emrich urges his employees to experiment, he said. And he has set up a demonstration center in Atascadero to encourage customers to see and touch solar equipment and learn about energy options.
In 1997, Staley and Sisson felt the solar-power market was ready to take off. Photovoltaic (PV) systems that convert solar energy into electricity were approaching general affordability, the utility industry was about to de-regulate, and the California Energy Commission was preparing to offer rebates on solar system purchases.
Staley, an environmental engineer, and Sisson, a mechanical engineer, combined their complementary skills and founded REC Solar in San Luis Obispo, aiming to make PV systems commonplace.
Staley’s passion for solar drove her to figure out how to start a company from scratch. “Cal Poly taught me how to solve problems,” she said. “I felt I could apply critical thinking principles to any challenge I encountered – like teaching myself accounting. Learn by Doing gives you the confidence that you can solve almost any problem.”
The solar industry appealed to Sisson as a place to make a difference in the world by leveraging his interest in all things new and creative. With a background in electrical engineering in addition to his degree in engineering, Sisson said, “some of the things I do best are working with my hands and putting pieces together in a reliable way.”
That’s just what the industry needed at the time, the duo said. Staley and Sisson set out to change the market’s perception that solar technology was unreliable and risky. They developed standardized engineering practices, worked on bringing solar components to a cost-effective price point, and provided pre- and post-installation support.
As their company grew, Staley and Sisson hired other Cal Poly grads. Cal Poly students come in a step ahead of grads from most other universities, Sisson said. “Learn by Doing encourages you to play around with things, but in a real way,” he said. “It creates technical common sense.”
Today, the California Energy Commission rates REC Solar one of the leading installation firms in California. The company does business in five other states as well and employs more than 500 people. Its partnership with Costco is testament to Staley and Sisson’s vision: REC Solar equipment is now on the rooftops of 25 Costco stores.
Emrich, Staley and Sisson agree that solar power has tremendous potential to help solve a variety of the country’s challenges. Cal Poly grads, steeped in the tradition of Learn by Doing, are just the people to make it happen.