An Interview with T.R. Ludwig, CEO at Brooklyn SolarWorks and Brooklyn Solar Canopy Co.
Meet T.R., CEO and co-founder of Brooklyn SolarWorks and Brooklyn Solar Canopy Co. Their solar canopies are not only a sure way to step up your outdoor living space game, but are also solving a real challenge in the residential solar space.
Whenever you see a “^”, check out the footnote section for an explanation in layman’s terms.
Can you give us an overview of Brooklyn SolarWorks?
Brooklyn SolarWorks is a local solar installer based in Gowanus, Brooklyn. We go after homeowners who previously thought they couldn’t go solar or were told they couldn’t go solar. We recently had one customer get rejected by four to five installers before us. That’s mostly because those solar companies focus on pitched roofs^—think of Staten Island. We focus on the flat roofs in Brooklyn & Queens. We either install our canopy, which we designed, engineered, manufactured, and patented, or we install the tilt rack system, which is a series of racks built up with pipes. You get fewer panels on a tilt rack than on a canopy, but sometimes the tilt rack system is the way the customer wants to go.
We have about 30 people working for us. We used to have about 2 people. We have a warehouse location, and HQ is here in Gowanus. We are a pure solar company—we don’t do storage yet. It’s very tough to get through the Department of Buildings. We have a bunch of customers who want to do it, but it’s not quite prime time for us.
Can you elaborate on why your customers were previously turned away from other solar developers?
It’s more that the other solar companies don’t have expertise to build on a flat roof. Most solar installers just do pitched roofs You think it’d be easier to install solar panels on a flat roof than a pitched roof, but most developers have experience with pitched roofs. It’s a different process to install on flat roofs. We target buildings with four to six stories, but your traditional developers mostly do two story homes. The buildings we target tend to be older and that requires familiarity with older electric systems. It get’s messier, so other companies don’t want to touch it. They generally tell these people they can’t go solar, or can’t figure out how to get enough panels for them. We’ve built up that capability.
So is it safe to say that if it weren’t for Brooklyn SolarWorks, most residents in New York would be discouraged from installing solar on their roofs?
So we spun off a company from Brooklyn SolarWorks that just focuses on selling the canopy. It’s more of a hardware or a racking company, if you will. Some solar developers are starting to buy the canopy so they’re opening up the possibility of doing more flat roofs at solar installers that previously stuck to pitched roofs. There are just so many flat roofs here. It would be crazy to discard all of those opportunities to go solar. I don’t think we’re ever going to be the only one building solar in NYC--There will be hundreds of companies that do that. We’d rather work with them. We might compete against them on some jobs, but through our canopy company Brooklyn Solar Canopy Co., we can work together too.
So how does Brooklyn Solar Works interact with Brooklyn Solar Canopy Co.?
We used to make the canopies under Brooklyn SolarWorks, but it got too complicated as we went out to other people to sell the canopy only. So we made a different company to focus on the canopy product. Brooklyn SolarWorks focuses on the panels and the solar installation now. It’s a UL listed product^ and it has its own patent. We needed to get that UL certification to be a legitimate product. Now how it works is Brooklyn SolarWorks buys the canopies from Brooklyn Solar Canopy Co.
What’s your geographic focus?
We focus on central Brooklyn. We try to keep it local. We’ve gone into Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island, but Brooklyn is really our focus. We have the most installs here and we’re probably the best-known solar company here in Brooklyn. We try to keep it as close to home as we can.
Do you have plans of expanding to any other cities?
No, not right now. There is so much runway here. We figured it out using our own back of the napkin math. We think there are 350,000 flat roof buildings that could have solar just in NYC, so it wouldn’t make much sense to uproot from here or divert resources from here when this is such a big opportunity. On any given block, there may be one solar system, but there are 150 houses on that block. We’re lucky that we are here now. Twenty years from now, I think it will look a lot different.
How many installations have you done thus far?
We’ve done 400, so we have lots of upside. We don’t think we’ll get all of that, but if we can participate in that, either through installing or just through selling the canopy, that’s a big opportunity.
What makes Brooklyn such an ideal market?
Its high cost of electricity and the incredible incentives available for residential solar. Between state, federal, and city incentives, it’s extremely rich. Depending on where you are, you can receive up to 90% of the total cost back through incentives. Also the psyche of most people here is very friendly to solar. As a leadership team, we’ve been in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Connecticut in other solar jobs. We’ve seen the buyer profile there and people are not nearly as excited about solar as the buyers are here.
Does Brooklyn SolarWorks only do residential solar systems?
We do a little bit of commercial—nothing that’s large-scale C&I^ level. We do small 20 kW systems.
How did you become CEO of Brooklyn SolarWorks?
So I got in by starting another business about 10 years ago. I had a strong interest in solar. I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do, but I thought solar was a cool business. One of my majors was environmental studies. Then I got a chance to start a business doing residential solar finance, basically designed to compete against Sunrun on the East Coast. It was a good idea, but the business didn’t really take off. Through that, I did meet my two partners here, Gaelen and Mark. We all bonded and stuck together. I went on to work at Sunrun. I ran their East Coast sales and marketing. We realized there is such a huge market here, yet people weren’t doing much. The market was taking off in Long Island, in New Jersey, and upstate, but nothing was really happening here. The canopy is really the thing that enables the residential solar industry to thrive here in New York. Even if people don’t put a canopy on there, it creates the possibility that you can go solar in a way that wasn’t possible before. That’s awesome. I’m glad somebody did it.
What advice would you give to somebody who wants to get into the solar or cleantech industry?
The main thing I observe is that a lot of people want to get into solar, and it seems like this magical industry. It is magical—we’re doing things people haven’t done before but at the end of the day, solar is really a construction business. Some folks that are jumping in need to be clearer eyed about that. They come to realize that they need to get up on hot roofs and crawl around in basements and deal with potential ornery customers. It’s a real business. We have to sell, engineer, permit, construct, and make sure it’s working. We have to work with utilities. There are some things that may seem like downers, but they’re also just the reality of how it really works. I feel like people can be so sold on this being a magical industry, and we sometimes have to level-set their expectations a bit. We need way more people, but it’s also important for people to realize that we’re real businesses. We need to make money. Our industry isn’t just venture-funded.
There’re also so many translatable skills we need in this industry like sales, design, and installation. I would say if you really want to get into the industry, just get a job. Don’t be so concerned about what that job is. Do it for a while and get to know people. If you try to be really particular about it, it won’t go anywhere. I see people in the finance space who want to get into the industry and they want to come in with super high salaries. I tell them, you know, this is construction. We have some margin, but it’s not going to get you an insane salary.
It’s interesting, though, because just a few years ago, people were working for West Coast cleantech companies. Nobody really knew each other, but that’s changing. We have a group here now, a group of companies strictly focused on the East Coast market.
Footnotes from Watts Up
^ Pitched roof: A roof that slopes downwards. Think of what you would draw if somebody told you to draw a house—that has a pitched roof. Flat roofs, on the other hand, are often what we see atop apartment buildings or townhomes. You can usually walk on a flat roof.
^ UL certified: Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (UL) has more than 1,000 safety standard for products, including solar products. UL Standards are recognized nationally and internationally as the benchmarks for product safety.
^ C&I: Commercial and Industrial solar projects are the mid-range of solar systems in terms of size. Residential solar systems are the smallest (typically 5-10 kW). C&I systems refer to the larger arrays sized for businesses. Utility scale refers to the largest projects, which typically are connected directly to the electric grid and owned by utilities (typically 1MW or larger).