Future of Energy Future of Energy

Meet Eight Young Energy Innovators With Ingenious Ideas

From community “solar gardens” to energy pellets made from coffee grounds to a phone-charging device that you plug into soil

David Amster-Olszewski, founder of SunShare, at one of the "solar gardens" his company built in Colorado (Helen Richardson, Denver Post)
smithsonian.com

Inspiration can come from the oddest places. As often as not, the spark may occur during an otherwise mundane moment. But the difference between the truly inventive and the rest of us is that is that inventors zero in on something they've noticed and we don't give that something a second thought.

So it is with these eight young innovators. One man's business was inspired by a comment from his mother. Another developed his great idea after staring into a cup of day-old coffee, a third while standing next to a racetrack, still another while watching how fish swim in a school. Then there are the three Chilean women whose "Aha!" moment came when all of their cell phones ran out of juice. 

David Amster-Olszewski: Planting Solar Gardens

(David Amster-Olszewski, SunShare)

David Amster-Olszewski is glad he listened to his mother.

A few years ago, when he worked for a solar energy company in California, she told him that she would like to use solar power, but that installing panels on her home wasn’t really an option. That got him thinking.

Not long afterwards, he heard about a new law in Colorado supporting a concept called “community solar.” That spurred Amster-Olszewki, who's now 29, to move back to the Colorado Springs area, where he had attended college, and start a company he named SunShare. It was based on the concept of building a shared “solar garden”—like a community garden, except that instead of tending plants, a homeowner or business buys shares in a handful of solar panels. They then receive credits on their utility bill based on how much electricity their panels produce. If that turns out to be more than what the customer uses, the extra credit rolls over into the next month.  

SunShare’s initial solar garden, near Colorado Springs, was one of the first in the country, and it caught on quickly. In less than three months, the company sold all of its solar panel capacity there to 300 customers. The company moved its headquarters to the Denver area, where it built several more solar gardens. Then, in 2014, SunShare opened an office in Minnesota, where it hopes to finish a handful of community solar projects by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, the solar garden trend has taken off in the U.S., largely because while the cost of solar keeps dropping, many homeowners and renters can’t install rooftop panels. Already, 89 community solar panel projects are operating in 25 different states.

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