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Rob Erlichman '87 heads San Francisco solar panel company Sunlight Electric

Rob Erlichman '87 is trying to change the world, one solar panel at a time. Erlichman is founder and president of Sunlight Electric, a San Francisco company that designs and sells solar power systems to California businesses, particularly in the food, beverage and agriculture industries.

In six years, the company has completed many solar projects at wineries in Napa Valley, the area in Northern California with more solar-powered business than any other, along with projects in the San Francisco Bay Area at dairies, creameries and farms. Now Erlichman is expanding the business beyond the food and beverage industries.

What inspired you to start your own company?

The first two phases of my career were really quite corporate. I worked for two Fortune 100 companies and as a management consultant to very large companies. In 1995, I felt it was time to try something more experimental, something more creative. I got excited about … figuring things out that haven't been figured out before, as opposed to working on businesses where there is a 100-year history, and everyone knows how it works. That's when I began my entrepreneurial career and started a number of startups and early-stage companies.

Why solar?

In 2001 I began to think about a plan I conceived while I was at Cornell -- to spend the first half of my career life working for me and the second half giving back, paying rent for my space on the planet. I started looking for an entrepreneurial opportunity that was more socially conscious than just making money for me and shareholders.

I've always been interested in the environment and was looking for ways to do my part to combat global warning and pollution. I developed asthma as an adult, and I am saddened and inspired by skyrocketing asthma rates among children, and the risks power-plant pollution presents for the most vulnerable -- children and seniors. I looked around at a number of different opportunities and found myself doing research on solar power.

How do you apply what you learned at Cornell to what you're doing now?

My degree was in consumer economics at the College of Human Ecology -- economics as applied to consumer behavior, and the first stages of my work career leveraged that direction. In working for consumer products companies like Procter and Gamble and Bristol Myers, the customer is king. We strive every day to bring that focus to bear on behalf of our customers, and the understanding of economics is as relevant now as it was back at Cornell. I also benefited greatly from terrific training opportunities provided for me when I worked for larger companies.

What are the economics of solar power, and what needs to happen for more people to use it?

Contrary to what one can read in the popular press, we're already at a place where the lines cross between the cost of solar power and the cost of using conventional generated electricity. The reason I say that, although you don't read about it, is because most people don't take into account all of the costs of their use of electricity.

For example, if you're a utility customer and you pay your electric bill for 20 years, what do you have at the end of those 20 years? You have nothing. Your money has gone up in smoke. Wouldn't the more attractive alternative be to invest in your own power plant, and at the end of that 20 years, you own something that generates power? Our job is to help our customers understand the economic tradeoffs, illustrate the high cost of doing nothing and come up with creative solutions that enable them to finance projects that are economically appealing, on day one and for years to come.

What are some things that the solar industry can do to help make solar power more accessible?

What Sunlight Electric excels at is helping the customer see that solar can be simpler and easier than they perceive. A big part of that is reducing both the hard costs as well as the soft costs.

The hard cost is the number you put on the check. The soft costs are the challenges that homeowners and businesses have in figuring out all of this stuff and then executing it.

As a result, we've been pretty active in the industry with finance companies, helping them understand solar power so we can provide a more bundled solution for our customer. Instead of them having to go to the bank and do all of the paperwork to finance their project, we help facilitate that process. The car industry realized this a long time ago when they started offering car loans at dealerships. We're trying to take the same type of strategy and apply it to something that's a net positive for the planet.

Sheri Hall is assistant director of communications in the College of Human Ecology. This Q and A is adapted from an article that originally ran in the Spring 2008 edition of LINK, the College of Human Ecology magazine.

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