Sunrun CEO Lynn Jurich is at the forefront of an industry that might just save our planet.
By Heather Wood Rudulph
The most important part of Lynn Jurich’s day happens before the sun comes up. Shortly after she wakes, and before her two-year-old daughter disturbs the silence, Jurich spends 10 to 15 minutes meditating. Sometimes it’s self-guided, other times she allows the Headspace app to lead the way. As she opens her eyes, the blazing star that allows for life on Earth is hovering above the horizon. Acting as its agent is her life’s work.
Jurich’s journey to CEO of Sunrun, the nation’s first residential solar company that offers solar power as a service, started in the woods. Nature has always been Jurich’s happy place. She grew up in the lush forests that surround Seattle, going on hikes and playing sports outside until her parents had to yank her indoors. Visiting Shanghai, China, after finishing her undergraduate studies at Stanford gave her a wake-up call that defined her career.
“This was 2005, when Shanghai was really getting built up,” Jurich says. “To see the pollution and the amount of natural resources being used was shocking. I remember having a piece of silver jewelry, and it was tarnished by the time I got home from the office. Nature has always been such a big part of my life, and I took for granted that it was a part of everyone’s life. I knew at that point I wanted to work on something to help change the effects of pollution.”
The idea to start Sunrun was born from both entrepreneurial intuition and activist spirit. Shortly after finishing Stanford Business School, Jurich and partner Edward Fenster saw a problem in the marketplace—energy is expensive—and married it with a personal passion for changing the world: reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.
“I always knew that it was a life goal to be in control and shape my own culture and shape something that would be meaningful to society,” says Jurich from the Sunrun headquarters in the San Francisco’s Financial District. “I didn’t necessarily have a specific idea in mind. But when Ed said, ‘Hey, solar is looking like it can be cost-effective now,’ I thought, Oh, cool! I get the chance to be an entrepreneur and be involved in something I am passionate about. Let’s go for it.”
The idea was radical in that it hadn’t been done before. Sunrun creates custom solar installations for residential customers, foots the bill for the equipment, installation and upkeep, and customers buy back the power—which on average is 20 percent cheaper than standard electricity—on a fixed-rate, 20-year contract.
Solar power technology has actually been around since the Industrial Revolution, when solar energy plants were developed to heat water that created the steam that powered machinery. More than 100 years later, the first solar cell was created. In the 1950s, the United States started using solar panels—in space. It’s an innovative industry that has evolved rather slowly. But time and technology have a way of making things easier and more affordable. Warehouse-sized mainframe computers have turned into handheld glowing rectangles owned by billions of people. The first toasters developed by General Electric in 1909 cost $25, the equivalent of about $400 today. By the early aughts, solar technology had become cheaper and easier to produce en masse. Jurich and Fenster, who is Sunrun’s executive chairman, had timed their business perfectly.
“No one had done it before because the price of solar panels was so high,” Jurich says. “Since we started, we’ve taken 70 percent of the cost out of our installations. How many industries can say that?”
Even the best ideas need investors, and fundraising is perhaps the most intimidating part of becoming an entrepreneur, especially for women CEOs, who often find themselves standing in rooms full of men as they pitch their businesses. Jurich, who spent three years in private equity with Summit Partners, knew what she was in for, and she didn’t flinch.
“Having experience in venture capital was a very big advantage for me,” she says. “I was not intimidated by the financial side or negotiating. When I worked in private equity, I was almost always the only woman in the room. I would get commentary on the way I looked, and CEOs often tried to set me up with their sons. I still became one of my company’s top performers. I built confidence over my time in that job. I didn’t enter that way, but I exited saying, Oh, I can do this.”
Investors lined up for Sunrun. The economy was strong, more Americans were buying homes than ever before, and potential customers were showing interest. Then the market crashed.
“We had all these banks that wanted to do it, and then one by one they started dropping off. Sorry, we’re not in this business anymore. Sorry, I don’t have a job anymore. Sorry, Lehman Brothers doesn’t exist anymore. It was quite traumatic,” Jurich recalls. “My comment to Ed at the time was, ‘We are going to do this because we have no choice.’ You put the blinders on and you don’t even consider any other option.”
One bank stuck with Sunrun, and by November 2008 they had raised $40 million. The next challenge was getting customers to commit. Jurich hit farmers’ markets and county fairs throughout Northern California trying to convince homeowners to invest in solar.
“The biggest issue up front was that this sounded too good to be true,” Jurich says. “We were saying, ‘You don’t even have to invest in this. We are going to pay for it, and you are going to get cleaner, cheaper power at a fixed rate for 20 years.’ On its face that sounds like a very easy decision. There were a lot of people who were interested in it, but an expensive piece of equipment up on your rooftop is really intimidating. And people couldn’t look ahead 20 years. I remember one person’s comment was, ‘Most marriages don’t even last 20 years.’”
Jurich kept at it. She posted fliers on cars at BART stations, and spent time with hundreds of people, telling her story and listening to theirs. “I think that personal touch by me and a lot of the early employees made the difference,” Jurich says.
Today, Sunrun has more than 100,000 customers, and counting. It has raised $550 million-plus in venture capital, and while other residential solar companies have popped up, it maintains its position as the leader in the market.
Overcoming the hurdles of starting a business during the recession—not to mention going public in 2015, just as Jurich gave birth to her daughter—pales in comparison to the challenges that face the clean-energy industry as a whole, particularly in our current political climate. President Trump has rolled back EPA regulations. Both Nevada and Florida used legislation to try to block solar companies like Sunrun from establishing themselves in those markets. Traditional energy companies have pushed back, claiming solar homes don’t contribute their fair share of energy to the grid—the way we get and use power is actually a big cooperative—and that clean energy is putting people out of work. When asked about these challenges, Jurich smiles slyly and recalls a favorite quote from the Dalai Llama: ”Even death is not serious.”
“I have been through some very stressful situations [at work] and hard times with family and friends, and I still subscribe to the fact that in life nothing is really very serious if you take a step back,” says Jurich, who lives in Cow Hollow with her husband and daughter. “I think resistance to our industry will actually marshal people to switch over to solar in their homes, or embolden them to vote for somebody who shares their values. Climate is an issue that is really important to most Americans, but it’s not always the top-of-mind issue for people. Now there is actually something waking people up to say, Look, it’s more important now than ever that individuals and businesses fill the need to drive us to the goals we want, which are a clean planet and no pollution.”
Sunrun now operates in 22 states, including Nevada and Florida, where voters overturned the bills that tried to block solar. Jurich predicts that a third of American homes will have converted to solar in 10 years. But she’s not looking to put traditional energy out of business. In true Zen fashion, Jurich—whose easygoing management style includes beginning staff meetings with a Japanese tea ceremony—favors collaboration and compassion.
“I’d love to figure out how we intelligently move our system from dirty fossil fuels to clean distributed energy in a collaborative way with the existing utilities,” Jurich says. “I don’t want to be out for ‘us versus them.’ I want to figure out how we make the system more effective, and that involves utilities. I don’t want to waste unnecessary time and resources undergoing friction and battles—because that doesn’t help society.”