Solar Schools – Planting Seeds of Solar Education

Back in the early 2000s, he was sometimes referred to the “the Johnny Appleseed of solar”. Planting the seeds of solar awareness and education across the state of Ohio, one kilowatt at a time, Glen Kizer was a leader in getting solar planted around the state in the first decade of this century. Through his Foundation for Environmental Education, Glen is still planting those seeds 20 years later. How did he do it first? Installing dozens of 1 kW grid connected solar power systems on schools around the state.

Sewing Seeds in Schools

It was 2001 when Glen first contacted Geoff Greenfield of Third Sun Solar to become an installation partner. His plan was to install dozens of 1 kW grid connected solar power systems on schools around the state. These systems would be a visible icon, planting the seed of awareness in the minds of students, teachers and administrators. Including a curriculum developed for the classroom that explored the way solar works, how to calculate solar production and using the actual data from that solar array, the program attracted many schools to the cause.

The Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE) found a partner in American Electric Power (AEP) and their Learning from Light Program. AEP had hundreds of previously used solar panels stored in warehouses that it provided to FEE for use in its mission. FEE established connections in the schools, then contracted with Third Sun to complete the installation process. The State of Ohio provided some funding to help train teachers, and FEE also partnered with the Ohio Energy Project. In all, Third Sun installed about 35 of these projects in several states between 2001 and 2006.

Ideas Blossoming

Although a 1kW solar array provided very little in the entire energy picture of the typical school, the system was more about educating than offsetting utility power or lowering emissions. Upon completion of the installation, the schools often had ribbon cutting ceremonies, sun celebrations and sometimes entire assemblies to christen their new solar array. Geoff Greenfield was tapped to speak at these events which often included local officials, lawmakers and school administrators.

The seeds sown by these 1kW educational systems have surely grown and blossomed over the last several years. This partnership was a key launching point for Third Sun Solar. This experience of  installing net metered systems allowed Third Sun to expand its work into many other markets. Third Sun has gone on to install systems 500 to 1000 times larger on schools in our state. Some universities have even gone further than that, coordinating installations of 2 MW or more – 2000 times bigger than these early arrays (see Third Sun’s installation at Denison University).

Where Are The Solar Schools Now?

Like Third Sun, 20 years later Glen is still working hard to install educational solar power systems. His geographic focus has changed to work primarily in the state of Illinois, but his influence in Ohio will not be forgotten. After all this time, we sometimes wonder what is happening with these systems? Some schools have been torn down and rebuilt, so some systems have been lost. Surely, there are still dozens out there that are still producing power. But, with ongoing changes in curriculum and focus for our educational institutions, are they still being used? If you have one of these in your community or local school, let us know what you know about them!

20 Years in Business: The Founder’s Leap

20 years ago they took a leap of faith. Geoff and Michelle Greenfield decided to launch themselves into the adventure of a lifetime and start a business. The year was 2000, the beginning of the new millennium. While starting a business wasn’t that unusual, the subject matter of this new business was. Renewable energy and solar power had yet to become mainstream or even a consideration in most people’s minds in Ohio and the Midwest, yet the Greenfield’s decided to launch a business installing renewable energy systems, wind and solar.

The Beginning

In the late 1990s, using solar and wind for powering homes, businesses and schools was a very unique proposition. After the invention of photovoltaic (PV) cells in the 1950s, the technology was reserved for space applications and tiny projects. During the 1980s the costs of using PV started to come down as production increased. The 1990’s saw some growth in the use of wind and PV, but it was still relegated to demonstration projects and experimental sites, and a tiny number of remote homes.

The Greenfield‘s were not the type of people to just follow the mainstream. When they purchased their property in rural Athens County in 1995 and it did not have any power connection to the “grid”, they decided to look at alternatives to mainstream power and build a home “off the grid” and powered by the sun. They moved into the home in 1997 with a tiny 600 watt solar array (that is 0.6 kW to use today’s sizing reference) to power everything. It was ironic that they were able to see, from the hilltop where they built their house, the smokestacks and pollution of coal fired power plants to the south along the Ohio River.

By the year 2000, they had two young sons, ages three and one, and were still working on finishing the house that they were living in. Geoff envisioned the plan to leave his permanent employment and go out on his own installing solar for the few people who were seeking it back then. Starting a business, continuing to build their home and also needing to provide for their children made this leap a little bit scarier. The risks were there, but the mission to enable people to take control of their own energy future was compelling. And what better way to teach their children that there is a clean alternative to powering our lives; that we do not have to use the polluting, unsustainable, and – now we know – climate change causing electricity produced by burning fossil fuels.

Third Sun

The name of the business became an embodiment of this small family. The Greenfields knew that starting a business would require constant nurturing and care, just as having children did. It would become their “third son”. The business grew, alongside their actual kids. Now, their sons are ages 21 and 23, and the business is 20 years old. All three have definitely brought thrills, excitement, fulfillment and love. All three also have presented challenges along the way, with ample opportunities for learning and growth for parents (and business founders) Michelle and Geoff.

Reflecting back to the time when Third Sun was an infant, it is evident how the business grew in a “bootstrapped” way. Picture the start-up office in the attic of the house, with piles of papers and makeshift desks. A lot of work and dedication was needed to get the business off the ground and onto stable footing. The path from the attic to their current location in Athens, encompassing more than 3,500 square feet of office and warehouse, passed through a variety of office spaces from 2003 to 2012 at the Ohio University Innovation Center. It was there that the Greenfields really began to understand that small business “helpers” were abundant in Athens, encouraging and providing tools and advice to entrepreneurs like them.

A Nurturing Environment for Entrepreneurs

During their 9 years as tenant clients at the Innovation Center, Third Sun Solar was able to go from the 2 founders to more than 21 employees, completing some of the largest solar power projects that the state of Ohio had ever seen. Business counselors and support from Ohio University’s Small Business Development Center, the Voinovich School and TechGROWTH all assisted the Greenfields in learning how to close contracts, manage employees, understand the financials and strategically grow the business. Third Sun also began to cultivate its network of outside advisers such as lawyers, accountants, business professionals and other business owners. Geoff and Michelle now felt comfortable asking for support. By 2012 they were “hatched” out of the incubator space into their own home office on West Union Street in Athens, where they remain headquartered today.

Even with all that support, nothing can replace the gumption, the persistence, and the intelligence of the owners to keep a business going. Entrepreneurs need to react quickly when faced with obstacles and understand how to capitalize on opportunities. Every day it is hard work to keep the ship moving forward and to keep growing, keep the doors open, and keep contributing to the economic health of the community.

Ohio is the 5th Largest User of Electricity in The Country

Third Sun Solar is proud to be the oldest continuously operating full service solar installation company in the state of Ohio.

In the very early years, on a visit to as solar conference in California, Michelle told a California solar installer that Third Sun was a young company based in Ohio. He looked at her and said “it takes guts to do solar in Ohio!” He was right. But the fact is that Ohio is the fifth largest user of electricity in the country. The state has a robust network of utility infrastructure and a large population of residents as well as manufacturing and commercial facilities. If a larger portion of utility customers in Ohio went solar it would leverage a great impact on reducing our carbon omissions in the United States and working towards the carbon emission reduction goals that need to be achieved in order to curb climate change.

The Impact

The Greenfield’s first two sons are grown and have left the house that the family built so long ago in the hills of Athens County. As they pursue their own paths and ideas of what work and careers that they want to pursue, their third “son”, Third Sun Solar, continues to enjoy the attention of its “parents”. With Geoff and Michelle still at the helm as owners and operators, the company has built up a professional team of employees that contributes to the continued growth and success of this “child”.

The impacts across the state of Ohio and even beyond this state have been great. Since 2000, Third Sun has installed over 23 MW of total renewable power, mostly solar, which produces over 26.5 million kilowatt hours of emission free power each year. As a result of Third Sun Solar’s work, 39 million pounds of CO2 emissions are avoided as customers switch from using utility power to their own clean power systems. The company is truly fulfilling its long-time mission to “Accelerate the Shift to Clean Energy”.

Over the next 12 months of 2020 Third Sun will be celebrating their 20th anniversary.

What a major milestone! Stay tuned to Third Sun newsletters, blogs and social media posts during 2020 to experience the rich tapestry of company history that will be presented. It will be fun looking back at favorite projects from the last two decades. There will be an interesting cost comparison of what it used to cost to go solar and what it costs today. Keep an eye out for archival photos, newspaper clippings and stories of the history of the company that might provide a few giggles. Expect to learn more about the forward thinking and sustainability mindset that has underpinned this company from it’s very beginning; our goal in sharing this history is to celebrate how far we have come and recognize how the current solar opportunity is built on the foundation stones laid in the past.



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