In 2013, we worked as consultants for a think tank exploring opportunities for scaling up the deployment of solar microgrids in India. Our research took us to the field, where we realized that the off-grid rural villages we visited were sometimes in a better position to access solar power than households in our own country. Upon returning to the U.S., we committed to change this. Steve first uncovered the emergence of community shared solar and Steph proposed leveraging the team's community organizing experience to build and offer shared solar at local institutions. Solstice Initiative was hatched shortly thereafter. Solstice was recently selected for the Echoing Green and Global Good Fund fellowship, and has been featured by the White House and in Forbes and Fast Company.
Class year: 2014
Professional role and organization: Stephen Moilanen, Co-Founder and CEO of Solstice Initiative, Steph Speirs, Co-Founder and President of Solstice Initiative
How do you define sustainability?
- Steve: To me, sustainability speaks to the idea that all of our actions—from the individual level up to the international level—can and must be regenerative, rather than extractive.
- Steph: Although sustainability often seems like a contemporary buzzword, I've always been a fan of the how it was defined in the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which called it a policy “to create and maintain conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.” To me, that means working to ensure that every action we humans take maximizes the long-term advancement of our world.
How does your work relate to sustainability and how did Princeton prepare you for your role?
- Both: 80% of America is locked out of the solar market because they cannot install solar on their roof. To address this social problem, Solstice Initiative takes advantage of an emerging model for residential solar power called “community solar,” which offers households the opportunity to buy a share of a solar farm in their neighborhood. This solar share enables households to access clean energy for the first time and save money on their utility bills--all without worrying about upfront costs or installing anything on their roofs. In doing so, our goal is to make solar power the default energy option for every consumer in the country.
- Both: The Solstice model overcomes numerous pressing social problems: Those who cannot currently access solar are brought into the market, more solar is deployed to offset climate change, and community organizations strengthen their relationships with their constituents. Meanwhile, households will enjoy immediate savings on their electricity bills, a hedge against long-term increases in energy costs and easy access to renewable energy. We believe it is crucial to bring solar to underserved consumers because these households spend a disproportionate amount of their income on electricity and because we will not make a dent on climate change until we broaden access to clean energy.
- Steve: We are deeply indebted to Princeton for making this work possible—for providing the resources, contacts, and exposure we needed to take flight as an organization.
- Steph: Princeton has done an incredible job of preparing us to run our company. In tangible terms, the Keller Center has given us generous seed funding and mentorship to launch Solstice. In addition, our Princeton public policy education has armed us with the knowledge and network necessary to navigate the confusing solar regulatory landscape in the United States.
What advice would you offer to students seeking to focus on or incorporate sustainability in their careers?
- Steve: One of the best pieces of professional advice I've received is to pick battles that are worth fighting. What makes a career in sustainability compelling is that it is, to my mind, the battle most worth fighting right now, despite—or because of—the enormity of the task.
- Steph: Be sure to pair your excellent academic education with a practical one. Go out and start interning ASAP for a startup or a nonprofit that you believe in working in sustainability, and don't be afraid to go abroad to a challenging country. Your learning will accelerate exponentially and you will gain skills that will make you more attractive to sustainability organizations when you graduate.