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Why We Became a Certified B Corp

Third Sun Solar is proud to be a certified B-Corp, a designation awarded by an outside nonprofit organization to businesses “who meet the highest standards of verified, overall social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability.”

Many folks ask us why we submitted ourselves for consideration, seeking to learn if it was purely for altruistic reasons, or if there were practical considerations as well. While we have run our business for “People, Planet and Profit” since our start in 2000, it was certainly still a hurdle to becoming formally certified by an outside organization; the process included time and resource-consuming logistical challenges, such as officially changing our LLC operating agreement to state that we must manage our business to serve people and the planet in addition to seeking profit. Since our first certification in 2012, we have since undergone recertifications as well as a random audit.

So why all the effort? There are many reasons, but these primary themes stand out:

Optimization

At Third Sun Solar, we use this word to describe the engineering and design choices we make as we come up with the best solar solutions for each customer situation. In our early days, I personally selected the best combination of inverters, panels and racking for each project, and spent a lot of time running the numbers and comparing the different options to arrive at an “optimal” solution for a customer’s goals. Today that work is carried on by our expert team, but I still apply that approach to running the business. I am analytical and curious by nature—running Third Sun Solar with my team involves hundreds of choices and decisions. With a focus on our mission, “To empower people to save the planet with clean energy”, we have concluded that focusing on a ‘triple bottom line’ (social, environmental, financial) is the optimized way to achieve that mission.

Differentiation

When we launched Third Sun Solar at the end of the 90s there were hardly any dedicated businesses focused on solar solutions. Today, solar customers have many choices, each promising that they are “the best”, “high quality”, etc. While Third Sun Solar’s long industry leadership helps us stand out from this crowd in many ways, we decided that achieving B-Corp certification would go a long way toward further distinguishing us as a leader. Our B-corp status is another way of showing we are fully committed to the highest quality and safety for our clients, our employees and the greater community (AKA our PEOPLE). Those who already do business with us can see firsthand that we’re trustworthy and honest; our B-corp status proves we stand up to rigorous scrutiny regarding our environmental practices (AKA our PLANET). While it is pretty easy to recycle cardboard, we go way further, including a 100% solar net-zero office, carbon-offsets for our driving, and even composting our kitchen scraps. By contrast, some of our supposedly environmentally-driven competitors don’t even recycle!

Competitive

One of the most important reasons we have become a Certified B-Corp isn’t altruistic at all. Like all for-profit businesses, we’re striving for a significant competitive advantage over our competition (other solar companies) as solar achieves its destiny as the preferred energy form in homes and businesses (AKA our PROFIT).

We’re also engaged in a “war for talent”. Third Sun Solar is primarily successful because of our people. Though we gain market advantage in areas ranging from internal software to low-cost purchasing through a co-op, at the end of the day the most important factor in our success and growth are the people on our team. From the first phone call or email communication to all of the human interactions along the way, and finally to the crew bolting equipment together and programming the electronics, our people are at the root of our success. Based on that understanding, we believe that recruiting, retaining and motivating the very best team members is our “secret sauce”. In this context, our B-Corp certification gives us a significant advantage (invisibility and attractiveness to high-quality candidates as well as employee satisfaction and retention), and it is one that we are glad to have.

Before founding Third Sun Solar as a business, I worked for several nonprofits in the social sector (focused on Appalachian poverty and affordable housing), along with my time in a government agency (the US Peace Corps). Those were formative experiences, and I have a lot of respect for many great people and programs working to solve big problems and make the world better through these sectors. I also have seen (and sadly continue to see) the destructive nature and short-sightedness of many conventional businesses, especially the largest of corporations where the conventional practice (and the legal requirements) focus only on immediate profit and only profit. The B-Corp movement is an effort to change this. Third Sun Solar and many other mission-driven businesses are harnessing entrepreneurial energy and drive to solve social and global problems that have vexed the nonprofit and governmental sectors for decades.

We are in the midst of an experiment and are excited to be part of a movement that takes the best of capitalism, creativity and market forces in an effort to use business as a positive force for social good.

Damage to solar panels

Most of the potential issues facing modules are covered by manufacturer’s warranties. Apart from those issues, we have replaced panels for the following reasons, not covered by warranties:

  • Tree branch fell on array
  • UPS truck backed into array
  • Bullets fell from sky and pierced panels

This is what insurance is for.

However, the bulk of potential solar panel damage can be mitigated by choosing an experienced solar installer and using top-quality equipment.

We know of other installers who have replaced modules for these reasons:

  • Baseball cracked modules mounted in the outfield of a ballpark
  • System caught fire due to combination of poor design and poor installation
  • Wind blew apart a poorly designed or poorly installed solar array

Find the Best Solar Panels

We are passionate about solar and believe that sourcing only the highest-quality products is best for the health and long-term viability of our company, our customers, and the solar industry. Whenever someone spends their hard-earned money with us, we make sure they get the very best solar power system that money can buy. We take our role as technology expert/advisor very seriously for every project, from the largest to the smallest. We’re in this industry for the long haul, and are determined to be here when less-careful solar installers fall away.

In evaluating solar panels and related equipment, we employ three main filters:

  1. Quality of the solar technology platform
  2. Specific solar performance indicators coupled with industry reputation
  3. Financial stability of the solar manufacturer

Some products perform, while others fall short. This is true in solar as well as all other technologies. We choose only the top performers to build our reputation upon. Our network of national peer companies amplifies our internal ability to vet and process the best available solar products. We are well-connected by virtue of our 14 years of industry leadership as well as our president’s positions on the NABCEP and SolarTECH boards of directors. We have interviewed executives and key science and operations officers at all of the solar manufacturers that we recommend and we monitor the real world performance of their equipment at multiple test sites around the world.

We do not recommend a product lightly. As a case in point, we are proud to have warned against using Solyndra, due to its unproven technology as well as the instability of its parent company. We had many customers asking for Solyndra panels when they were the “hot new thing.” We’re proud to have held those customers off by advising them, “that technology is not yet proven in the real world—we’re not using them. If and when they prove to be everything they claim, we’ll consider using them.” They never did, and despite government backing, Solyndra went under—and gave the entire industry a black eye.

In addition to quality, performance and long-term warranty assurance that apply to every job, for those customers who are concerned about where the products are manufactured, we can apply geographic filters as well. Whenever appropriate, we are pleased to provide equipment made in America, or made even more locally, such as in the Midwest.

On this note, it is important to point out that providing equipment that comes with a “Made In America” label is often more nuanced than it might appear. Per the “U.S. made solar panels” label, we always urge our customers to consider that statement in light of the global manufacturing basis for virtually all products. The Toyota Corolla is a Japanese car—made in California. BMW builds some of its “German” cars here in the U.S. Suniva designs and manufactures its solar cells here in the U.S., then ships them to Taiwan for final assembly of the solar panels. In many cases, for many products, the “Made in USA” label should have an *asterisk—because final assembly is completed overseas.

Today, there are nearly 80 solar panel manufacturers offering approximately 600 different models of solar modules. There are also hundreds of inverter models and myriad solar racking manufacturers. Every solar system includes each of these three main components. The main components are generally not “mix-and-match” and they are not plug-in interchangeable. While each of the respective technologies has matured and we have highly-reliable options for panels, inverters and racking, there are as yet no industry standards for evaluating the performance of the completed system as a whole. We are pushing hard for those standards to be established—for the good of consumers AND for the good of the reputable firms in the solar industry.

Our best solar advice to you: spend time choosing an experienced solar installer who will advise you and guide you toward the best solution for your energy needs, unique site characteristics, and budget.