Profiles in Process Improvement: SolarNexus

Humble Beginnings

Deciding to work in solar began as a matter of the heart for Michael Palmquist, founder and CEO of SolarNexus. While studying Mechanical Engineering at UC Berkeley in the mid-90s, the young Palmquist made the decision to do something with his life that made an impact. The obvious choice for him was to go into energy.

“I thought, ‘I need to go into energy, because energy touches everything,’” Palmquist recalls.

 

After graduation, Palmquist set forth towards his goal by taking a job with a San Francisco Bay Area solar contractor. But that dream became a nightmare of low pay, a lack of specialization, and disinterested management. For starters, Palmquist was bothered by the amount of waste generated by the company’s ad hoc processes.

“Every person at the company used their own process. It was like we were running separate companies from every desk in the office,” he remembers.

Palmquist set out to improve operational efficiency, submitting a series of proposals to the company’s leadership. But his urge to improve fell on deaf ears, and his suggestions were ignored. When he suffered an injury in 1999 that prevented him from continuing to work as a contractor, he decided to jump into the software economy then in full swing in the Bay Area’s Silicon Valley.

Imagining a Better Process

Michael poses with his solar install truck in 1999

Still, as a full-time systems engineer at a software company, he couldn’t shake the dream he’d had in undergrad. While the lack of specialization at his previous job had been a detriment to growth, it had given him experience in every phase of the solar contracting cycle, from proposal to completion. The tools he’d used 10 years before were largely still in place as contractors worked with a Frankenstein of spreadsheets and other unsuitable tools to perform their processes. 

“I know solar, I know software, and there’s nobody else doing it.” Palmquist remembers thinking. “I need to make a software solution for the solar industry.”

When the solar market hit an upswing in 2009, it was time to take action. Every day during his commute to and from his office in the South Bay, Palmquist began to build the project that would become SolarNexus. By 2010, Michael had a product he could take to market and he went all in, leaving his software job to strike out on his own.

The SolarNexus Solution

The core of Palmquist’s vision around improving solar contractors’ processes was standardization. His education in mechanical engineering along with his early experience in solar taught him that variations in process result in waste and poor quality, and that these results are barriers to a successful business. He also felt strongly that a single unified platform that could automate and standardize processes across the entire lifecycle of a solar deal would be invaluable to solar contractors. So, he built a flexible, scalable tool tailor made for solar.

SolarNexus manages and automates processes from sales to build. For sales, the platform provides Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tools found in most industry-agnostic services like Salesforce, tailored to solar. It also offers proposal tools that take utility rates and tax incentives into account when calculating system payback. On the design side, SolarNexus offers remote PV system design taking advantage of satellite imagery to do production modeling. For build, SolarNexus boasts a sophisticated project management system tailored to the kinds of tasks typical to a solar build. In recent years, SolarNexus has added modeling incorporating storage assets like batteries and reductions in usage by modeling the deployment of energy efficiency measures. And rather than operating in silos, SolarNexus combines all these tools into one unified platform.

The Purpose-Built Advantage

By creating the SolarNexus system around the needs of solar contractors, Michael Palmquist and his team created a tool that not only does what the other tools before them did better, it does them with less initial configuration because the software starts its user about 80% of the way there. Its purpose-built design enables solar contractors to get up and running faster. 10 years later, it continues to be a favorite among industry veterans like A1A Solar and Allterra Solar, and new clients continue to choose it over the competition.

“In 2010 it was whiteboards and spreadsheets,” Palmquist muses. “Today people are migrating from a much broader mix of tools, everything from Salesforce to,” he pauses for effect, “whiteboards and spreadsheets.”

Some things do change, but groundbreaking improvements to process stand the test of time.


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KIT KOHLER

Kit has spent the last three years as a cleantech marketing executive after transitioning from over ten years experience in media and marketing for Fortune 500 companies. He brings a passionate interest in user stories to his role as marketing and projects lead at Sustainabilist.