Keeping It Clean
Troy Helming may have an unusual childhood chore to thank for his current role as a clean energy evangelist and entrepreneur. Troy, the co-founder and CEO of Pristine Sun, a full service renewable energy company focused on developing small utility-scale solar farms, grew up in Kansas in a house whose furnace and water was heated by solar panels – needless to say, a highly unusual arrangement for the Midwest in the 1980s. His dad tasked him with maintenance of the system.
While Troy dabbled in a variety of other careers — he was a cheerleading champion in college, a runway model, and a telecom executive and founder, among other roles — that experience stuck with him. When he was first starting his career, Troy says, there weren’t really any obvious opportunities for someone to enter the renewable or clean energy sector. But in 1998, he read an article about the potential of wind turbines in three states – Kansas, Texas and North Dakota – to power the entire country.
That same year, Troy sold the telecommunications company he’d founded six years earlier and started Kansas Wind Power to develop wind farms in the region.
“I made my share of mistakes,” says Troy,” but I also learned the business from the ground up.” And it wasn’t always easy. “I got death threats from employees of the Koch Brothers’ company,” he says. The company raised $5 million from angel investors and was eventually recapitalized and purchased by Italian electric utility Enel S.P.A. in 2004.
When Troy started Pristine Sun in 2009, he brought with him a few lessons from his previous experience in the sector. “One thing I learned was the importance of cooperating with utility companies,” says Troy. “In my first company I was a little adversarial with them — and then they’d ultimately have to be my customer, or at least tolerate me.”
Another lesson was around focus. At his first company, “we quite frankly wasted some of our investment capital by chasing too many rabbits,” Troy says. Pristine Sun operates in a very specific niche, developing relatively small-scale (30-50 acre) solar farms, which they then use to sell energy to local utility companies. The farms each produce enough energy to power approximately 75-100 homes (though in practice, the energy is distributed more widely across the grid).
Says Troy, “we almost always put features into our projects that make the power grid more resilient in the face of natural disasters, terrorist attacks, or other problems. Our systems help keep the grid operating if there’s a problem elsewhere.”
Their business model differs from many larger, publicly traded solar firms, which may focus on residential solar or larger-scale farms. Pristine Sun found success very quickly — the company became profitable in 2013, is still cash-flow positive, and is targeting aggressive growth in the coming year. Originally backed by a private equity fund, the company is now 90% owned by its employees.
Troy says a third party valuator recently estimated the company’s worth at between $100 and $400 million, depending on how many of the late-stage construction ready projects are installed near term. Pristine Sun’s goal is to achieve a billion-dollar valuation by 2017 and a two-billion-dollar valuation in 2020. This year, the company is planning its first capital raise since its original private equity investment.
From Land to Water
Part of the way Pristine Sun plans to achieve its aggressive growth goals is by exploring emerging technology and markets in the industry, says Troy.
The company was recently tapped to build a floating solar project in Sonoma County, California — expected to be the largest of its type in the entire country. Troy says the project, which will be situated on wastewater ponds that serve as water sources for wineries in the region, has a number of benefits. The floating panels will reduce evaporation by 80-90% — welcome news for the drought-plagued state — while the water will have a cooling effect on the panels, allowing them to operate more efficiently. Plus, by building on water, the land that might otherwise be used for solar farms is free for agriculture or other uses.
The project is about a year into development, and is slotted for completion in 2016. Based on their innovation in California, Pristine Sun was also recently awarded a $900,000 joint award from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Israeli Department of Energy to collaborate with an Israeli solar company on floating solar technology.
Troy and his team look for new hires with three key characteristics: they must be hungry, humble, and transparent. “We run personality tests on new employees, and even on existing employees,” says Troy, to make sure that there’s a cultural fit. Troy tries to model those same traits as the company leader. “We have regular all-hands meetings where we lay out in detail everything we’re doing from a strategic level — whether it’s raising capital or challenges we’re facing.” This transparency extends not only to employees, but to external partners as well — from landowners the company is leasing from, to vendors and subcontractors, to lenders and capital partners.
Pristine Sun’s 60-plus employees enjoy many of the perks of your typical San Francisco startup. “Depending on when you walk in,” says Troy, “you might see a third of the company or more practicing yoga over lunch.” The team’s pretty tight-knit: “You really get to know people when you’re doing yoga with them every week.”
The physical workspace too lends itself a feeling of zen. Painted in the company’s signature blue and yellow, the offices are on the tenth floor overlooking Yerba Buena Island. Pristine Sun’s ambitions may be large, and the pace of daily work fast, but there’s a certain perspective lent by the peaceful natural landscape. “The water,” Troy says, “has a calming effect on us all.”