Growing up in Kenya, Edwin Ngugi Wanji says he was the kind of kid who was always “trying to figure out how stuff works.” “A solar panel on my mom’s little calculator was always very fascinating to me, and I pulled a lot of those out as a kid,” he remembers. Edwin is now the owner and founder of Sphere Solar Energy, a small business that installs solar energy systems for clients across the region, and for communities around the world.
After a childhood spent dissecting calculators, cameras and radios, Edwin arrived in the United States and got a job working on a construction site, where he began working his way up in the field and picking up expertise along the way. He started working in solar energy about eight years ago, and left his job to start his own company three years ago. “The fact that we can fully solar power homes in Seattle, 100 percent, in the cloudy weather, was just a big, ‘Whoa! We can do this anywhere,’” Edwin says of his decision to go into the industry.
He took the leap into entrepreneurship out of a desire to do things his own way, and to pursue his philanthropic vision: “My goal was, you know, just a global goal, making solar energy more accessible to communities that typically would consider solar energy very expensive, and maybe are the ones who actually have trouble with those recurring costs, those energy bills.”
Sphere Solar Energy buys most of its solar panels directly from Pacific Northwest manufacturers and provides its customers both a 10-year warranty and yearly maintenance and service
inspections for the systems it installs. The warranty is rarely needed, however, Edwin says: “Solar is very reliable and very low maintenance. It doesn’t go down.”
Edwin has big plans for his business: he hopes to work with more commercial-scale clients, such as the project Sphere Solar Energy recently completed at Hellbent Brewing Company in Lake City. With 72 solar panels on its roof, Hellbent is now home to the largest solar system on a brewery in Washington State and generates 30 percent of its energy. Edwin is particularly interested in working on projects with local schools so that he can involve the students in the projects—having early experience with solar energy means the kids will be more likely to apply the technology in their future.
Edwin didn’t make a profit on Sphere Solar Energy’s early projects, at first just trying to get his name out there and prove the quality of his work to attract more customers. As one of very few immigrant-owned, black-owned solar energy companies (“I think I’m the only one!”), Edwin built his business within a society that isn’t set up for his success. “Some people will see your name and go, ‘Oh, no, I don’t want to work with you.’ That’s life, you know. Same way as if I went to apply for a job somewhere. They might see my name and automatically, I’m out.”
People of color who start their own businesses often face barriers in accessing loans as well, as Edwin has experienced. “For instance, if I need to buy tools or anything, I need to pay cash. I put money away and go buy it,” he says, explaining how he’s had to pay his business’s costs out of pocket due to a lack of financing.
At the same time, Edwin appreciates that he is in a unique position to help others pursue a similar path. While working on the Hellbent Brewery system, Edwin and Hellbent owner Jack Guinn invited low-income teens from the Lake City neighborhood to job shadow for a day. Edwin hopes that by seeing someone they can relate to—someone who arrived in the U.S. with $40 in his wallet—being successful in the field, kids will be able to see themselves working in the industry someday too.
Sphere Solar Energy is getting involved in its community in other ways too. The business is providing a solar system (plus maintenance and support) for a BLOCK Project home in the Greenwood neighborhood. The BLOCK Project aims to provide tiny homes for people experiencing homelessness in residential neighborhoods across the city, and are designed to be completely off-grid. BLOCK Project co-founder Rex Hohlbein says Edwin jumped at the chance to offer his solar energy services when he heard about the project.
Edwin’s humanitarian efforts go far beyond just Seattle. He is passionate about growing his company’s philanthropic efforts, since even small systems can make a huge difference to communities around the world that don’t have existing infrastructure. “A system that I can put on a house here [in Seattle], over there, three or four hundred kids would benefit from it,” he explains, describing a planned project for a school in Haiti.
His team has already completed a project in Kenya and has a project in the works in Haiti. Edwin says the impact of the new systems is clear and immediate. “I built a system in Kenya that’s pretty much running irrigation. So, a journey that took people a few hours just to pull water from point A to B, now is seven gallons a minute.”
Whether it’s in Kenya or in Seattle, Sphere Solar Energy’s mission is to make energy affordable and accessible to the people who need it the most. “I know the struggle to pay my power bills when I was broke. I can imagine the mother with families, assisted living, barely making ends meet,” Edwin says. “It’s like, ‘Hey, this $200 a month can go towards other things.” As Sphere Solar Energy continues to grow, it will continue to pursue its vision: “a world where energy access is a basic human right, and where that same human right does not harm the planet.”