“Hawaii is the furthest land mass from any continent. Its primary source of energy is imported oil. That’s how the majority of island nations support themselves. Anytime you are isolated, unless there’s a natural resource like geothermal energy, like on the big island, you have to come up with an alternative. In Japan they’re using nuclear energy. There’s also wind energy. But solar energy is easiest to deploy.”
Brad Albert ’86 lives in Hawaii where he harnesses the sun on a regular basis. An impassioned prophet of clean energy and literal self-empowerment for homeowners, he’s eager now to expand into commercial and school projects. Brad’s company, Rising Sun Solar (http://www.risingsunsolar.com), started as a two-man operation but it has grown to having 30 to 40 independent contractors and 100 employees. “There are people who live off the grid but what we do is ‘net metered systems,’ which he explained is a solar power collector installed on the home that works in tandem with a power company’s normal electrical supply. “That concept that everyone can be a power generator is part of a revolution. Today about 12% of Hawaii’s residential power use is solar, whereas nationally it’s more like .5%.”
He would love to see that dismal national number grow but in the meantime he remains focused on his own corner of the country. “The technology hasn’t changed much. It’s the financing and increased investor confidence in profiting from solar energy that have changed. There’s little or no maintenance required, no moving parts. Normally, any time you’re making electricity you’re spinning something, but not with solar cells. They degrade very little. Over 25 years it will lose less than 20% of its output, that’s about it.”
Brad grew up in Park Slope. He started at BFS in first grade. “I know that my mom was a hippie generation person,” he recalled. “It appealed to her. She liked that I could be a Conscientious Objector. Being a parent now, I’ve learned you have limited choices of schools to choose from and you make the best choice for your child, and BFS had the best philosophy for her.” His father owned Astroland Amusement Park in Coney Island. “My parents were divorced and I was raised by my mom,” he stressed. Some have suggested to him over the years that he learned about entrepreneurship from his father or perhaps inherited the genes for it, but he credits it more with his upbringing, and, to some degree, the freedom he found at BFS.
“I got a great education. Going to the University of Vermont was a big culture shock for me. At BFS you knew everyone.” Although he graduated BFS as an honors student he admits to not feeling like much of one while he was here. “I wasn’t career-oriented. I was a competitive skier. Even at BFS I was more focused on skiing, which is weird for a kid living in Brooklyn. They were flexible and allowed it.” Today he looks back in some amazement at this unique experience that would be hard to find in today’s educational climate. “‘Teaching to the students’ needs’ sounds hackneyed but it’s true. There’s not a lot of schools where the vice principal will sit down with you before school and tutor you in Latin.”
A bit of a wild card, Brad concedes that he was less successful in college. “I finished in five years.” It took him so long because he kept taking time off to work as a professional skier on the US Freestyle Ski Team. A friend asked him if he wanted to use his years of expertise on the slopes to become a sales rep for his budding snowboard company. “So I got into this sales and marketing position.”
The shift from being an athlete to talking and selling got new wheels turning and sent him into another unexpected career turn. “Oddly enough, I joined with a friend to start an ad agency. We were profiled in Paper Magazine as this cool, alternative design firm.” he said. When that company folded, a casualty of the dot-com collapse in the 1990’s, he was desperate for work. “A friend was doing tiling in San Francisco, so I did that for awhile.” Working with his hands at a construction job might have seemed irrelevant to him at the time but it would make a lasting impression on him.
After a snowboarding accident in Alaska left him with chronic back pain he had to face the reality that his professional skiing days were over and he’d need to find another line of permanent work. “I saw an ad in a yoga magazine for an alternative energy company called Green Mountain.” On a whim he contacted them and asked if they needed any sales reps. Soon he was working for them, but he learned that rather than just talking and selling, he liked being on-site and involved with the actual building process. He was itching to find work that would fuse his passion for nature and the outdoors with his desire to build.
A friend lived in Hawaii building homes. “He saw an open market [for solar energy], so we teamed up with an electrical contractor to install solar on a new home. The business took off from there.” He said he never imagined heading a company that had so many employees he doesn’t know all of their names. “People say, ‘Brad, you’re so lucky, you fell into this.’ But I earned it. It’s been a long, long road to create the foundation for us to have a market like this in Hawaii. There has constantly been a legal cap or an obstruction to do these systems. There aren’t a lot of case studies in how to run a company like ours. We are the case study.”
When he’s not working at Rising Sun Solar or the nonprofit he helped found, the Hawaii PV Coalition, a photovoltaic energy advocacy group, Brad enjoys Hawaiian life to its fullest. Snow skiing’s hard to come by so he sticks to surfing and paddle boarding with his wife, Amy, and 7-year-old son, Tosh.
His message to the current crop of BFS seniors: “You can do whatever you want. You just have to try hard and do it. That wasn’t preached to us at BFS but it was there, not forcing anyone into a pigeonhole. You have an edge on the rest of the world that you don’t even know you have.”
2016 Update: Hawaii recently announced a 100% renewable energy goal for the state. Brad’s company has partnered with Tesla Energy to meet new market regulations. Brad has also finished his new solar house . Dubbed the Rising Sun Home, it doubles as a model home for his company. He has also launched a new nonprofit in the state called Sponsored by the Sun, which is sponsored in part by the Surfing Triple Crown and the Volcom Pipe Pro Surfing Competition. For more information visit Brad’s Facebook page and GrindTV.