This is the third in a series of stories about Clean Energy Champions—real people who are taking action to support or join the transition to a clean energy economy. Their stories illustrate the many ways you, too, can become a Clean Energy Champion.
In 2014, Bill Nussey was a self-proclaimed “tech guy” who had just sold his software startup to IBM. That day, he says, “I felt pretty great for about 20 seconds.” Then he was overwhelmed by a feeling he didn’t see coming.
“What flashed in my mind was a vision of people who don’t have financial comfort or business experience, who are working every day to make the world better for others—and I was hit with the sense of ‘How could I do anything less?’”
At his job, Nussey had been looking at dozens of industries to determine which would benefit the most from becoming digitized. The power industry surprised him: It was huge and mostly analog. He started researching the energy sector and was stunned and excited to learn that solar energy was about to become the cheapest way to generate electricity.
“This was not just an upgrade but a complete disruption,” he says. “There’s no precedent for what’s happening.”
Nussey, who identifies as an environmentalist and a capitalist, was coming to the conclusion that electricity is the foundation for all economic development and that business engagement unleashes more capital than nonprofits and government aid can do alone. Clean energy is “the biggest business opportunity in history,” he says. And the most competitive part of the market was small-scale, local installations.
Clean En∙er∙gy Cham∙pi∙on
/klēn/ /ˈenərjē/ /ˈCHampēən/
1. A person or group that takes action to support or join the transition to a renewable energy economy, with the knowledge that reducing carbon emissions provides daily benefits to every American so they can live happy and healthy lives.
A 2015 trip to Kenya convinced Nussey he had to write a book about this. There, he visited a woman who lived in a mud hut. She had a small wood fire going for light, but even with a small hole in the roof, smoke filled her home. Nussey had trouble breathing. It spurred him into action.
He sought out scientists to explain the physics of solar cells and modules, and manufacturers to explain the economics of their production. He contacted Dr. Ben Damiani—knowledgeable in both these areas—and they joined forces. Damiani told Nussey he had ideas about how to make solar energy systems more efficient and cost-effective so they were accessible to more people. Nussey was committed to turning those ideas into reality. And he discovered a pathway, because he happened to be in the right place at the right time.
In 2017 Nussey was at a solar trade-show event where someone from the U.S. Department of Energy was talking about a new competition called the American-Made Solar Prize. The Solar Prize was the first of the American-Made Challenges, which are designed to speed up the concept-to-commercialization timeline for clean energy technologies. Nussey was intrigued. Damiani said he could design a solar cell that required fewer raw materials and could operate more efficiently. They thought the application process was relatively simple, so they went for it.
To date, there have been nearly 30 American-Made Challenges across clean energy technologies, and they generally require competitors to form companies, to help increase U.S. manufacturing. To compete in the Solar Prize, Nussey and Damiani formed a company called Solar Inventions. They progressed through the competition, winning cash prizes and accessing technical and business support through the American-Made Network along the way. In 2018, Solar Inventions won the grand prize of $500,000 in cash and $75,000 in vouchers redeemable at the national labs and qualified fabrication facilities.
Today, Nussey hosts the Freeing Energy podcast, sharing stories of other Clean Energy Champions, and his book by the same name discusses the benefits and economic opportunities of small-scale systems like rooftop solar and microgrids. He says he’s on a mission to expand “local energy” to help provide resilient, affordable electricity everywhere, including states like Texas, Louisiana, and California, which have been impacted by severe weather events.
Learn more about EERE funding opportunities and the American-Made Challenges to see how you can get funding for your clean energy innovation.