James Richards

James Richards's picture
Basic Info
Wild Gift Class Year: 
Better World Expertise: 
Affordable/Green Housing
Conservation & Stewardship
Sustainable Food & Agriculture
Current Occupation: 
Founder, Sunbank Solar & Solar Dividend

Over the past several years I have been fully consumed by solar water heating.  My business, Sunbank Solar, was born out of this interest and my Wild Gift project, Solar Dividend, springs from the desire to see this technology become more commonly utilized.  

Solar water heating has been around for a long time.  It is simple technology that does not create electricity–but instead offsets the use of electricity by directly heating water.  It is much older and in many ways more developed technology than its solar panel cousin, yet the solar thermal industry is a disparate one that lacks a simple and cohesive message.  The Sunbank, as it's known, is 6 times more efficient than the modern solar panel.  Which is to say that it would take 6 times the amount of collector area for solar panels to create the same amount of energy.  It also costs much less.  This combination of factors makes solar thermal energy very attractive.

Solar Dividend uses these financial factors to its favor.  By employing a financing model that has become popular among solar panel installers, Solar Dividend removes the traditional barriers (technological uncertainty and high up front cost) to adoption of commercial solar thermal energy systems.  This, coupled with the current incentive structure, means projects that are financially very attractive for investors and the host site, alike.  Large consumers of hot water, from hotels to hospitals, dairy farms to breweries, stand to save a lot.  The potential environmental and economic impact is big.  

My story?

Born and raised in West Virginia, I grew up surrounded by verdant hills and people working hard to extract coal from them.  I tended to appreciate the hills more for their trails to ride and slopes to ski than the metric tonnage of coal that they contained.

Fast forward to junior year at Vanderbilt: I get my first passport and study abroad in New Zealand.  A seed was planted.  When senior year came and my fellow Economics majors were lining up jobs on Wall Street, I wanted exactly the opposite.  So when a friend suggested that we try teaching English in Venezuela, I was up for it.  A job in Caracas was the front door to a continent that I would spend 9 months traveling around via bus, boat, fruit truck, motorcycle, etc.  It may be a bit of an understatement to say that I learned a lot on this trip.  Over the next few years I would repeat the pattern of coming home to work on something that I thought would interest me, only to eventually feel stymied and yearn to be back on the road where I was in charge of my own schedule.  

The last big trip south came with a mission to work in Nicaragua with a group called blueEnergy and to learn more about alternative energies.  I had kept a list of business ideas for years, and it was there, working amongst volunteers from all over the world, that I came up with the idea for Sunbank Solar.  

Sunbank brought me back to the hills of West Virginia.  Although ideologically it may be one of the tougher places for renewable energy, West Virginia is where my network is and would provide a rigorous testing ground for the “proof of concept.”  Sunbank is taking root in West Virginia and our systems are starting to be incorporated into the construction plans for new schools and other prominent commercial projects; however, change comes slowly to West Virginia and progress is often met with a suspicious glare.  

Solar Dividend was born out of the desire to hasten the adoption of this incredible technology and that is where my relationship with Wild Gift begins.