As the solar movement gains traction in Virginia, one installation company, Sigora Solar out of Waynesboro, is experiencing particularly explosive growth – some 1,200% over three years. This has earned it a ranking as one of America’s fastest growing companies of 2015. WMRA’s Jessie Knadler heads to Waynesboro to find out more about the company that seeks to be more, way more, than your neighborhood solar installer.
Andy Bindea is a born entrepreneur—a real American success story…by way of Romania. Just one thing—don’t call him a solar contractor.
ANDY BINDEA: The passion that we have for what we do is the key to our success. A lot of times people are like, Oh, the solar contractor. And we get a little offended by that because we’re not just a bunch of dudes who bolt things on to your roof.
Andy is 31. He’s tall and skinny and really passionate about solar. He wears cowboy boots. When he was a teenager, the town in Romania where he grew up was the site of one of Europe’s biggest eco disasters. A gold mining company spilled massive amounts of cyanide-tainted waters, which poisoned rivers and wells and made people sick. The experience roused in him an environmental consciousness. He joined Greenpeace, but discovered he wasn’t interested in simply protesting; he wanted to build stuff that makes things right. He eventually found his way to Waynesboro, where, in 2011, he launched his own solar panel installation company -- Sigora Solar -- with $4,000 and a beat up ’97 white Honda with a ladder rack on top.
BINDEA: Solar is, if you think about it is pretty amazing. You take this box. You point it out in the direction of the sun and you create energy. I think Elon Musk called it indirect fusion. When you realize that, it’s like, whoa, it’s amazing!
When he first started out, he was doing a handful of installs a week, and charging a premium for each one. The company was making a decent profit, but as a long-term business strategy, it was stalling growth.
BINDEA: We basically decided that proliferation of renewable energy and clean systems was our goal, was our vision. We realized one of the hindrances is the high cost of our solar energy systems and we were selling at a much, much higher price at that point. So what we did, we changed our business model entirely. Rather than having a few projects with a higher profit margin …..we moved in the direction of reducing the price as much as possible on each individual system.
The risk paid off, and it dovetailed with the growing solar co-op movement, in which neighborhoods in places like Harrisonburg, Charlottesville and Augusta County go solar as a group, so the equipment can be purchased in bulk, reducing costs by up 30 percent.
The high volume, low profit model has been a game changer for Sigora Solar. Revenue went from $237,000 in their first year to $3.2 million in 2014. This caught the attention of the national business magazine Inc., which ranked Sigora Solar number 376 on its annual list of the top 500 fastest growing companies in the United States. Not bad for a lapsed Greenpeace volunteer.
BINDEA: Seventy percent of our customers do it for financial reasons. And contrary to common belief, they’re not all tree-hugging liberals.
The company now does three installations a day with offices in Waynesboro, D.C. and, somewhat randomly, Port au Prince, Haiti. Sigora Solar opened the Haiti office in March as part as its overarching mission to bring affordable, renewable energy to people in energy poor places. Only a quarter of Haitians have access to the national electrical grid and of those that do, they have power only 30 percent of the time, something like five hours a day.
BINDEA: I’ve started to take my colleagues from Virginia down to Haiti, one by one, we have a permanent staff down in Haiti, and each and every one of them’s reaction was, “Wow, we do not value to the proper extent how important and how precious it is to have power 24/7.”
For everyone else, they have to rely on gas powered generators, which, when you factor in transportation costs to these remote towns, becomes incredibly expensive for the average Haitian. Andy says he can deliver power to these places at a cheaper price and still make a profit. One sub-powered town, Môle Saint-Nicolas, population 30,000, just signed a 50-year power supplier agreement with Sigora. The company is building a micro power station comprised of solar, wind, battery, and diesel that customers can tap into using Sigora’s own specially designed meters and prepaid cards.
In other words, Sigora is kind of becoming a utility, at least in Haiti, an irony that is not lost on Andy. And the experience has given him a whole new respect and appreciation for Virginia’s state utility -- Dominion Power.
BINDEA: We are seeing the other end that a lot of our colleagues in the solar energy industry don’t get to see, and my personal belief is that we give utilities a lot of grief, which a lot of it is deserved but we take for granted having power 24/7. It’s rare that we pause and say, “This is amazing. We should applaud this.”
Whether Sigora can operate successfully in two separate countries remains to be seen. It’s a gamble. But it’s also opportunity.