Solar Might Soon Be the 'Main Game' in the Energy Field. This Man Made It Happen
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he helped bring solar energy mainstream.
By Blaire Briody
The 2018 RBC GranFondo Silicon Valley is a new long-distance cycling event in the heart of the Bay Area. It’s not too late to register for the event, which takes place on June 23.
The U.S. solar industry has gone through a bumpy ride over the past decade, but today it’s worth $1 billion and is growing rapidly — from $42 million in revenue in 2007 to $210 million in 2017. In 2016, the industry generated about $154 billion in economic activity. Typically working away from the limelight, one of the key players in making sure the industry shines through the dark clouds is 48-year-old entrepreneur Arno Harris.
“Harris was a key player in what I would call ‘the professionalization’ of solar,” says Danny Kennedy, a fellow solar industry entrepreneur and managing director at the California Clean Energy Fund. “The market needed to be assured that solar could mature as an industry. We’re now the main game — and that’s thanks to career professionals like Arno Harris who came to solar, lent their shoulder and pushed it up the hill.”
Harris came to solar in 2001 after leading major tech companies like RedEnvelope, Wine.com and WineShopper.com. He launched his first solar company, Prevalent Power Inc., to develop commercial solar projects. While there, he implemented the largest corporate solar power system at the time for Google’s Silicon Valley campus.
“I became concerned about climate change toward the end of the 1990s,” Harris recalls. “I wanted to have a positive impact on the world. Solar power was at the cusp of some big cost and scale breakthroughs. [I knew] I could take what I’d learned about entrepreneurship to help the industry make the transition to mainstream.”
Fifty years from now we’ll look back and remember this period as the time industrial giants of the solar industry came to dominate electricity, and Harris will be among them.
Danny Kennedy, California Clean Energy Fund
Before Harris came onto the scene, financers had little confidence in solar. It was viewed as expensive and unproven. “There’s been a shift this century from, ‘Oh, it’s impossible, it’s never going to happen,’ to today, less than 20 years later, ‘It’s inevitable,’” says Kennedy. “That required a change in scale that drove costs down through volume. Fifty years from now we’ll look back and remember this period as the time industrial giants of the solar industry came to dominate electricity, and Harris will be among them.”
In 2006 Harris launched his second solar company, Recurrent Energy, which quickly grew to become a major player, delivering electricity to partners like PG&E, Austin Energy, Sonoma Clean Energy and the city of San Francisco. He was also chairman of the Solar Energy Industry Association, the largest solar trade association representing over 1,000 companies, in 2012, and after the much-publicized collapse of the solar startup Solyndra. “Weathering that storm was hard for our industry,” admits Kennedy. “But Harris held the course and got us through it.” Instead of letting the Solyndra scandal undermine the industry, Harris focused on a series of industry success stories to help counteract the negative media attention.
Harris grew up in Petaluma, California, and graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in English literature. At first, he tried out book publishing and worked for a computer book publisher. He loved the technology aspect to his job and wrote a book about QuickTime. He then transitioned into marketing consulting, and at age 24 he launched his first business, media and marketing company, Novo Media Group, around the same time the dot-com boom began.
His career hasn’t been without bumps, however. Though he eventually sold Novo Media Group, its first IPO registration failed. And although WineShopper.com was incredibly well funded, it collapsed during the dot-com crash. But he says these experiences have only helped season him as an entrepreneur.
Harris is also a private pilot and a cycling enthusiast. In June, he’ll be participating in the 2018 RBC GranFondo Silicon Valley bike race. The 75-mile ride starts in East Palo Alto, weaves through the redwoods and continues up the California coastline before heading back. “I started competing in cross-country mountain bike racing in my 30s, then started road-cycling to train, and I was surprised how much I liked it,” he says. “It’s a great way to see the outdoors and ride with others.” He says in some ways, it’s similar to his experience running companies. “Cycling is not about being able to beat everyone all the time. It’s knowing where and how you can win in certain moments.”
He is racing to raise money for Tipping Point, a grant-making organization dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty and alleviating chronic homelessness in the Bay Area. He serves on its leadership council and was introduced to the organization through his wife, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician known for linking childhood trauma and toxic stress with harmful effects to health.
Tipping Point funded her clinic for underserved communities as well as her nonprofit, The Center for Youth Wellness. “I got to see Tipping Point first through the eyes of a grantee, and I was impressed with the way they approached diligence and measuring impact,” Arlo says. “They reject the idea that we should accept poverty as a necessary and unfixable condition of society.”
“He and Nadine have been extraordinarily generous supporters for a number of years,” says Daniel Lurie, founder and CEO of Tipping Point. “He’s a decent, kind, generous and thoughtful leader in our community.”
While Harris continues to serve on boards of solar power organizations like the Advanced Energy Economy Institute, he has moved into the electric vehicle field. He is CEO and executive chair at Alta Motors, which manufactures high-performance electric motorcycles in Brisbane, California. “Electric motorcycles and e-bikes are going to transform transportation,” he says. “Two wheels take up much less space than four, and our cities are getting more crowded and congested. An electric motorcycle opens up the landscape and makes it far more accessible.”
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