A Conversation With Lynn Jurich, Founder of Solar Company SunRun

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Jurich-Post.jpg Fun fact: The sun gives us more energy in an hour than the entire human population uses in a year. That's one reason why some eco-conscious homeowners have opted to outfit their roofs with solar panels, which use light from the sun to generate electricity. Unfortunately, many more are deterred from going solar by the high cost of installation -- about $20,000 with subsidies. That's where Lynn Jurich comes in. Back in 2007, she co-founded a company called SunRun to help ordinary people go solar without sacrificing savings. How does she do it? SunRun covers all the upfront costs, buying the solar panels and installing them for a small charge or for free. The homeowners then pay SunRun a fixed monthly fee for the solar electricity, a price that's usually about 10-15 percent lower than their energy bills.

Fortune magazine named Jurich one of the ten most powerful women entrepreneurs in 2009, and she received an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2010 along with SunRun co-founder Edward Fenster. Here, she discusses how savvy spenders can save the environment, why we need an energy revolution, and the reason she avoided a career in venture capital.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

I tell them I'm an entrepreneur.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on how people think about sustainability?

Innovative companies have started to realize there are not enough "green consumers" willing to pay more for something just because it's green. But, there is a huge market for products and services aimed at what I like to call the Pocketbook Environmentalist: a shopper who's savvy enough to know things don't necessarily have to cost more just because they're good for the environment. My SunRun co-founder and I built the company according to this mindset. We offer a smart financial choice that is also good for the environment. We are all Pocketbook Environmentalists, and the businesses that are making sustainability scale are those that focus on saving consumers money.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your field?

Much of the conversation today is around leveling the energy playing field, especially when it comes to allocating subsidies and incentives to specific industries within energy. What people need to realize is it's not about leveling the existing playing field, but creating an entirely new one. The potential for change is similar to the industrial revolution or the ascent of the wireless and Internet industries -- invest in a scalable, smarter, and more efficient energy network that will promote human progress. With the solar industry, we are already starting to see that happen. The installed cost of solar has come down 30 percent in the past year, and as a result, businesses like SunRun are installing over $1.5 million in solar every day. This is a growth industry and part of a revolution to reshape how energy is delivered.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?

Since I work in home solar, I can't resist focusing on the amazing developments happening here. What many homeowners don't know is that they can have solar installed on their roofs without owning the panels or paying the high upfront costs. This solar power service means solar is a common sense financial solution for median-income families.

What's a sustainability trend that you wish would go away?

Clean coal. It's misleading: Coal will never be clean.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

When my co-founder Edward Fenster and I first looked at solar, we were tempted to pursue a business focused on larger commercial projects. We thought we could help drive down the cost of solar more effectively by installing more of it at one time. Instead, we took a different approach to economies of scale: lots of smaller projects on residential rooftops. We saw a concept already in use in the commercial realm -- businesses paying for power from panels on their roofs rather than owning the systems -- and applied it to rooftop solar. From there, home solar power service arose.

Who are three people you'd put in the public sustainability Hall of Fame?

I'd choose New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg because his foundation made a massive donation to shut down coal plants and move the United States toward cleaner sources of energy through the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign; John Muir, whose activism helped preserve some of our country's most beautiful natural parks; and lastly, Alice Waters, because of her passion for food that's "good, clean, and fair."

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

Prior to SunRun I was headed toward a career in venture capital and then realized I wanted to apply my knowledge of finance more directly to helping change the world.

What's one website or app you wish more people knew about?

Mobile field guides from Audubon Guides are amazing. I use them to identify birds, trees, and other things in nature.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

The true answer: Jay-Z's "Forever Young."

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Samantha Michaels, a recent graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, is beginning a fellowship at The Jakarta Globe. She has also written for Condé Nast Traveler and PoliticsDaily.com.

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