Ted Walsh: Selling Sunshine in Marin and Beyond
As interviewed by Mickey Nelson
I met Ted Walsh in the summer of 2020 when I began tutoring his bright son in English (another editorial job I adore doing!). It was during the height of the pandemic. When I asked Ted what did for a living, he modestly replied, ‘I sell sunshine.’
When pressed further, he eventually explained that he was in the solar industry, which led to an engaging discussion about sustainability in Marin County and beyond. It was clear that Ted was passionate and knowledgeable about renewable energy and all things green.
Only later did I learn that Ted Walsh has been one of the driving forces in the solar industry for nearly two decades and was a Partner and CEO of Novato-based SolarCraft, the largest locally-based solar provider in Marin, Sonoma and Napa. Before joining SolarCraft in 2017, Ted led two of the nation’s largest solar companies and has developed projects for many of the most well-known companies in the world . He is quick to point out that solar is a team sport, and that nothing is achieved without a great team, but it’s also clear that his leadership and dedication to the solar industry and our local community have helped keep Marin at the forefront of renewable energy and have helped evolve an industry from its grass roots beginning to one that now employs more people in the US than the fossil-fuel power generating industry.
Quietly leading by example, Ted lives in an eco-friendly, solar-powered house in Fairfax with his wife and two school-aged children, whose middle names are (appropriately) Sunshine and Wind. He drives an electric vehicle and doesn’t eat red meat. He says he deeply respects those who are vegan and vegetarian but explains that he simply can’t get there despite knowing how much better it would be for the environment.
Aside from coaching several youth sports teams, Ted leads neighborhood kids on creek clean-up adventures and gets excited about teaching solar classes in schools and arming students with inspiring solar facts with which they can stump their parents (for example, during which season is the sun closest to the earth?). He is very optimistic about the future.
Read on to find out all you need to know as a local resident about this important, fascinating industry and how it impacts you and your family directly and daily.
MN: Hi, Ted! Thank you so much for agreeing to share your fascinating life and work with Kentfield & Ross Living! For starters, what are your favorite parts of living in Marin?
TW: The people and the natural beauty are my favorite parts of Marin. I love the different communities that exist within a relatively small area. I like that some of the most intelligent, creative, and competitive people in the world live here, doing everything from farming to high tech to the arts to renewable energy. And of course, I love the California sunshine.
MN: What does your regular Marin weekend look like?
TW: I coach my kids’ soccer and basketball teams, so most weekends involve their games. We live on the Corte Madera creek, so we love picking blackberries and doing creek clean up adventures and hitting up the local festivals and events.
MN: About 60% of our readers have kids. How does the environmental movement in Marin impact how these kids are raised and what they know?
TW: Our children growing up in Marin are being directly impacted by mankind’s devastating effects on the environment—from the wildfires and toxic air quality to emissions from local power stations and oil refineries to pollution making its way all the way from China. They are experiencing a global problem firsthand. But they are also living in Marin, one of the most inspiring and environmentally conscious communities in the world. I love that they see solar on so many rooftops, on their homes and on their schools; they see more Electric Vehicles (EV) per capita than anywhere and live in forward-looking communities that were the first to ban the use single-use plastic bags in the entire country! Marin hosts so many important eco-events every year. Our community is also the first to launch local green energy power companies like MCE and is home to the editor of one of the most important books on the environment, Drawdown. So, our kids are seeing it all—the urgent need for change and also positive action and environmental leadership. My hope is certainly that Marin kids come to understand this level of environmental responsibility and action as normal and necessary and go on to be environmental leaders in their communities and the world.
MN: What do you love about your neighborhood?
TW: I live in downtown Fairfax. We just had more than a thousand people come by for Halloween! Just one of many things I love about Fairfax and appreciate so much about our unique, funky little neighborhood. I also love the surrounding towns and amazing nature all around us.
MN: You have a lot going on, especially during the pandemic.
TW: The world is in transition. It’s a great time to help change things for the better. I feel fortunate to earn a living doing something I believe in and can help rebalance our relationship with the environment.
MN: Is your primary motivation to fight Climate Change?
TW: I’ve never liked that term, Climate Change. It’s an oversimplification of what we are doing to the planet. I know the Guardian and other media outlets are transitioning to the term Climate Crisis or Climate Emergency, but whatever it is, it’s not just about the climate.
You managed to say that without sounding angry.
TW: It’s a reality. It’s frustrating to dwell on it, but anger doesn’t help. Anger only motivates me for very short periods. I think optimism is what keeps people engaged for the long term. We are making progress—renewable energy, electric vehicles, sustainable buildings, and much more. Working in the solar industry now feels like being a key part of a much larger shift in the economy than when I first started—it’s all starting to connect.
MN: In 2007, you helped Marin gain national recognition for clean energy adoption by executing the GoSolarMarin program. Why was that important?
TW: At the time, GoSolarMarin was the largest community purchase of solar in the country— well over 100 homeowners went solar together. It was a public-private partnership. Homeowners throughout Marin organized to negotiate for the best price and value for solar, and I led the solar industry side, helping our team execute their vision, creating best pricing and custom systems for every home and ultimately installing the systems. It was an exciting project, and I was proud that Marin took such an important and early leadership position in renewable energy.
MN: Clients that Ted has personally helped go solar include celebrities, musicians and his favorite US Congressmen as well as globally recognized brands like Apple, PepsiCo, eBay, Kendall Jackson Wines, and Ikea, yet it’s clear that the clients and projects that excite him most are more local. Do you prefer to work with businesses or homeowners? Do you have any favorite solar clients?
TW: I am still inspired by all homeowners and organizations that chose to invest in renewable energy, and grateful to be involved. Helping large companies, schools and government agencies go solar is important because of the scale of those projects and the attention inspires others to go solar. But yes— I have a special admiration for so many great families in Marin that I’ve had the privilege to help go solar and the many local businesses that really put their money behind their mission statements by being more environmentally responsible. I helped the Fairfax Six Theater become the first solar-powered multiplex movie theater in the world. Attending the ‘Green carpet event’ for the release of the Disney’s movie ‘Earth’ in my hometown was very cool. Helping to develop and deliver the first floating solar systems in the country (‘floato-voltaics’) for wineries in Sonoma and Napa was exciting and those projects helped lead to massive floating solar projects all over the world. The first solar company I worked for, San Rafael-based SPG Solar, also helped Kentfield become the first 100% solar-powered school district in the country with systems at Bacich Elementary School and Kent Middle School. There are too many favorites to list, but most people don’t realize how influential Marin and the SF North Bay communities have been in advancing the clean energy industry. I am very grateful to live and work here.
MN:: That’s great! In 2014, your work in solar was recognized by the Obama administration. What are some of the more exciting things you have done in solar on a national or international level?
TW: Yes. My team had developed some solar projects for Taylor Farms and other leading agricultural firms in California. It was a little surreal to get a call from the White House and it was great to help my clients received the recognition they deserved.
MN: Any solar deals that got away? Projects that you wish you’d been able to do?
TW: I proposed to put solar on the White House during the Obama administration. Didn’t win that one – and it was probably for the best. I was once on a roof down the street from the White House and asked a facility manager about a large container-like structure on the roof. Turns out it was a guided missile launcher. I backed up slowly and (said?)‘no bid’ that one.
MN: I’ve heard the regulations are changing, is it now or never to go solar in Marin?
TW: Never say never. But it’s always been true— people should go solar, as soon as they can, while they can. The utilities and fossil fuel industry have more power and money that anyone and a huge financial interest to keep control of how we use power. So don’t take it for granted or trust it will always get better or wait for the perfect time. The perfect time to take action is always right now, right where you are. Find a company you trust, meet someone in person, pay for quality, and protect your investment by owning the system. If you are so inclined, use the money you save from solar to buy an EV or for your next sustainability project!
MN: Now you sound like your selling sunshine. Do you have any favorite lines for selling solar?
TW: [Smiles] I try to make sure people understand that they are ‘paying extra to use fossil fuels that are polluting the air in the North Bay.’
When people start talking about Climate Change and how we need to save the world from Greenhouse gases, I usually suggest that they ‘start by saving the little part of the planet that you own.’
One sad thing about selling solar is that it often involves informing people about how bad the status quo is, buying power from the utilities – showing them how much they are paying for fossil-fuel based power, how fast those rates are increasing and how often rate plans and baseline allowances are changing for the worse.
One of my favorites is that ‘you’ve already paid the cost of your solar system, and you are going to keep paying that cost over and over until you actually go solar.’
I do like to make sure people understand that by not going solar they are choosing to financially support PG&E, and to invest in fossil-fuels and all the damage they are wreaking in our world, respectively. When you lay the numbers out for people and they see for instance that solar costs $15,000 and they save $3,000 per year. With the rapidly rising cost of energy, that means you are going to pay for a solar system every 4-5 years whether you go solar or not. I try to convince them to pay once.
MN: Why is it so important that Marin and the North Bay be environmental leaders?
TW: Marin, California and the entire country has to lead because we have the most to lose, and the most to gain. Many communities hardest hit by environmental disasters and pollution live in poor conditions and do not have the means or the power to change their circumstance. We are fortunate to live in one of the most beautiful natural environments in the world, but also in one of the most expensive, competitive communities in the county. Many of the most innovative and successful people and companies in the world are right here, living and working through these wildfires, droughts, breathing toxic air and dealing with other natural disasters. I really believe that Marin and the North Bay have the financial means and the resilient mindset and the life-safety need to solve this and set an example that other communities can follow.
MN: What is the biggest solar project you’ve done?
TW: I closed a deal to build a 10 Megawatt solar system for $25 million to power one of the largest oil production fields in California. Talk about selling to the skeptics.
MN: How did you get started in solar?
TW: I moved out to California to go to medical school. But once I got here, I knew I would never be able to lock myself in a library or a lab to study enough. There are just too many interesting people and things to do here. The solar industry turned out to be a great place to apply my background in science and be able to help people and make a positive impact.
MN: When I asked some of your partners about your leadership style, they speak about empathy. That you have the ability to meet people where they are and understand very different perspectives. That you succeed by helping others succeed. Where does that come from?
TW: That is nice to hear. I like team sports and I do like working with very different types of people from different backgrounds. My background is a little bit all over the place. I was born into a not-so-friendly part of New York City, but later moved to a big house in Austin, and then returned to upstate NY. My father is a scientist and my mother taught religion, and we had a big family that moved around a lot. So there were always many different points of view.
MN: What is the most challenging part of ‘selling sunshine’?
TW: I struggle knowing that a great deal of what solar companies do is compete with each other, rather than work together to make the greatest positive impact possible. It’s similar to hospitals competing with each other to care for people. Politics and policy make my head hurt, but the solar industry really is a great example of diversity at work. I am hopeful for the future!
SolarCraft is 100% Employee-Owned and has been one of the largest green-tech employers based in the North Bay for over 35 years. SolarCraft delivers Clean Energy Solutions for homes and businesses including Solar Energy and Battery Energy Storage. With over 8,500 customers throughout Marin, Sonoma and Napa Counties, our team of dedicated employee-owners is proud to have installed more clean energy systems than any other company in the North Bay. Visit us at www.solarcraft.com or follow along @SolarCraft on Facebook and Twitter.
Please contact us if you are interested in a free proposal.
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