By Eric Laschever
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What do a Maasai village, a Puerto Rican school, the City of Mercer Island, and Spark Northwest have in common? The answer: Edwin Wanji, founder of Seattle-based Sphere Solar Energy, a community installer for Spark Northwest’s Solarize Program.
Growing up in Kenya, Edwin learned to appreciate electricity the hard way—by living without it. He recalls his time at a boarding school where the lack of reliable electricity limited his study time to daylight hours. There he used his tinkering skills to, in his words, “MacGyver” clever, if rudimentary lighting solutions. A solar panel on his mom’s pocket calculator, which intrigued and impressed him, introduced him to what would become his passion and profession.
After a childhood dismembering calculators, cameras and radios, Edwin arrived in the United States, via stops in Germany and Poland. Here he got a job in construction and began moving up in the field. In 2010, he started working in solar energy. Edwin was surprised and impressed that solar worked as well in cloudy Seattle as it had in sunny Kenya, and three years later he started his own company.
While Edwin was launching Sphere Solar Energy, a similar light bulb was flashing for Kim Rice, a retired physician living on Mercer Island. Kim, who was inspired to action at an Al Gore training in 2017, was initially surprised to learn about the Northwest’s solar potential.
“The economics of going solar is a well-kept secret, especially in the Pacific Northwest,” observes Kim. “People don’t understand that there is more than enough sun here and they don’t realize that the price has dropped 80% in the last several years.”
To help get the good word out, Kim joined the effort on Mercer Island to go solar. She then learned about Spark Northwest’s Solarize program when she heard Linda Irvine, Spark Northwest’s Director of Community Strategies, speak at a Solar WA meeting.
“I was very impressed by her command of the topic,” says Kim.
It was Spark Northwest that introduced Kim and her group to Edwin and Sphere Solar Energy as a possible community installer. Edwin had visited Spark Northwest’s office to introduce himself shortly after opening his business. He was surprised and delighted two years later when – out of the blue – an email from Spark Northwest popped up on his computer, inviting him to submit a proposal to solarize Mercer Island.
Kim’s team invited Edwin to interview with their Solarize outreach committee and Mercer Island Sustainability Manager, Ross Freeman. After meeting with Edwin and hearing his hands on, “boots on the roof approach” they were unanimously impressed and felt they needed to look no further.
Edwin’s owner-savvy approach confirmed their choice. Recounting a conversation between Edwin and a homeowner who was worried about the aesthetics of the solar installation, Kim observes that the owner “felt that Edwin had listened well to his concerns and was delighted with the low profile all-black panels that Edwin recommended.”
Kim even documented this happy meeting. “I have a great shot of Edwin pointing to the utility meter explaining that it was spinning backwards on a sunny day.”
The City of Mercer Island, Spark Northwest’s ninth Solarize community, began its first Solarize campaign in 2014 and credits its partnership with Spark Northwest with greatly expanding the number of solar installations on the island. Before the 2014 Solarize campaign, the Island had just 32 arrays, with a generating capacity of 170 kilowatts. As of June 2019, the City had 152 known installations, with a combined capacity of over 1370 kilowatts according to Ross.
“Fighting for renewable energy gives me hope,” says Kim of the Solarize campaign. “I’m thinking of the world we’re going to leave to our grandchildren. This is something we can do locally that will make a significant impact.”
Thinking ahead, Kim describes how her group has mapped all of Mercer Island using Google Project Sunroof to help target the sunniest homes for outreach. Her group is also working to make solar accessible to churches, nonprofits, small businesses, and condominiums on the island.
Solarize Mercer Island also helped solidify Sphere Solar Energy’s economic foundation.
“The timing was perfect,” explains Edwin regarding the Spark Northwest Solarize program. Concentrating his work in a discrete geographical area with a self-selected client base helped him bring on six additional staff. All together his team installed panels on more than 40 houses through the Solarize program, and now Edwin is leveraging his success to introduce solar energy to communities around the globe.
In June 2019, Edwin returned to Kenya to solarize a Maasai village that he had visited on an earlier trip – helping families install rooftop panels that power lights inside their homes.
Edwin recalls his first meeting with village elders as he described his plan to help the community solarize. The kerosene fumes in that enclosed hut were palpable, but his vision of that same meeting powered by clean solar packed an equal, but positive, punch. With his own boarding school days in mind, Edwin plans to return to help the Maasai solarize the school that serves many of the village’s children. Similar plans are on the drawing board for Puerto Rico and Haiti.
This is just one way that that Spark Northwest is igniting change. By acting locally to build Washington’s green economy, Spark Northwest is helping solar champions like Edwin transform energy use around the world.
Learn More about Edwin
In this video interview on Chams Media TV, Edwin shares more about his journey and his work in Kenya. Edwin was also interviewed by Crosscut and featured as the City of Seattle’s Small Business of the Month on the Bottom Line Blog. You can learn more Sphere Solar Energy here and check out their local services.
Learn More about Solarize
Solarize is Spark Northwest’s community-driven, neighborhood residential group purchase program. Solarize campaigns follow a three-step process: