How to Make Solar Electricity

At Powerhouse’s downtown Oakland office, the sounds of the city’s traffic were marred only by the tapping of keyboards and the occasional phone call. As the entrepreneurs worked, a forgotten blue beanbag sagged in an office window. Two bright orange photos above their heads contrasted against the plain concrete wall. On one, a complicated set of symbols lay under the heading, “How to make fossil fuel electricity.” The other was a picture of a sun with an arrow pointing at a house. It read, “How to make solar electricity.”

The industrial-style office is home to 20 companies and eight organizations that aim to cut costs in the solar power industry. They work on everything from loans for rooftop solar installations to software that can speed up installations.


At 2 p.m., the hum of hushed voices and clacking keyboards fell as Powerhouse CEO Emily Kirsch bustled into the room. She smiled and nodded as one entrepreneur approached her with a question. Turning to the rest of the room, Kirsch announced the start of its weekly networking meeting.

Everyone pushed back from their desks and shuffled in their roller chairs to form a circle in the middle of the office. A giant purple beanbag lumbered over, and plopped down to reveal Connor English, CEO of PV Bid, whose software estimates the cost for solar panel installers to mount panels on roofs. Kirsch high-fived him as the rest of the room tittered. Unfazed, English nestled into the bag.


Throughout the half-hour meeting, Kirsch sat tall as she listened to each member’s challenges and successes.

Kirsch co-founded the company back in 2013 with Danny Kennedy, CEO of solar panel maker Sungevity. At the time, the idea was to create an affordable space for Oakland-based entrepreneurs working independently on solar projects.


Today, the solar industry is booming. Since 2008, the U.S. Department of Energy estimated that installations of solar panels in the U.S. has grown seventeen-fold, from 1.2 gigawatts to around 30 gigawatts. While solar still only accounts for less than 1 percent of the nation’s total energy mix, the International Energy Agency has predicted that solar power could be the largest source of electricity worldwide by 2050.


Still, the industry in California has struggled to keep up with low-cost foreign panels flooding the U.S. market. To combat stalled growth in the industry, solar startups at Powerhouse have focused on ways to cut costs for consumers. Kirsch said that the future of clean tech lay in apps that could decentralize energy and allow users to consume their energy more independently.

She said the community and culture of Oakland mirrored what she wanted for Powerhouse.

“We’re putting Oakland on the map for the renewable energy that we’re bringing to the city, and the state, and the world,” said Kirsch. “I mean, who wouldn’t support that?”

read more: