Interview with Erick Sipila – Sisu Solar
In today’s interview we have Erick Sipila, the owner of Sisu Solar, a company that specializes in residential rooftop solar photovoltaic systems.
| Can you introduce yourself and maybe talk a little bit about yourself and the company?
My name is Rickey Sipila. I’m the owner of a residential solar installer called Sisu Solar. We started about two years ago, and we basically put solar panels on people’s houses.
| Before we talk about the company, can you talk a little bit about your story? I read in your bio that you did some solar car building and racing… That sounds super interesting, can you expand on that a bit?
I can say I’ve always been passionate about fighting the climate crisis and advocating renewable energy. During my time in college (I graduated at the University of Minnesota in 2021), I joined a group called the Solar Vehicle Project. Basically, a group of students getting together and building full size cars from scratch – a fully electric car that has solar panels on the roof that power it while both on and off the road.
We would build these cars and then race them against other solar car teams from across the globe. We’ve even shipped our car twice to Australia and raced it in what was called the World Solar Challenge.
I was lucky enough to be able to go on that race twice, and then also race against several other American teams in a race called the American Solar Challenge. It was really a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience that taught me not just about solar but a lot about technical stuff and the engineering aspects of it, as well.
It’s really a large project, especially for undergraduate college students, but it’s pretty incredible that we were able to build such a thing.
| Is that something you did more as a hobby or did you have a chance to pursue a career in building solar cars?
There’s always been a big topic of discussion about whether solar cars are viable or not. In Europe, there are a couple startups, I think one of them is called Lightyear, where you’re actually making solar cars for the consumer market. But at least here in the US (here in Minnesota especially), we’re a long ways away from having cars out on the road that have solar panels on them.
I can understand that it’s not very efficient. I think the much more efficient way of powering moving vehicles is having stationary solar panels and then charging the cars.
But definitely that team that I was on, prepared all of us for whatever career we wanted, since we had to deal with all different aspects of running such a complex project.
| Are you the only one of the group that started this solar company, or were there others?
I’m the only one that I know of that started as a company owner. I do know several other people from that group who are in the solar industry and work for other companies, building massive solar arrays everywhere.
| Did this idea of having your own business start back then when you were building these cars, or was it something that came after?
Well, I guess the idea of getting into solar business was stirred up in an internship I had, while I was in college, working for a different solar installation company here in Minnesota. And that’s where I learned all the tricks of the trade, that’s when I first thought to myself “Hey, I could do this.” And sure enough, here we are!
| Was it hard getting the company off the ground?
The hardest part is just the anticipation. It did not take much to start it up, the biggest expense I had was just buying an enclosed trailer. I don’t have an office, I don’t have huge tools. I’ve got some ladders, some drills, impacts; all of the essential stuff you’d need to get the job done. And then basically just putting yourself on Google. That’s what I did.
I have Sisu Solar, and if somebody types in “solar installers near me,” I’ll be one of the ones that shows up. That’s really all I needed to do to get “the ball rolling”, at least initially. Last year, I installed 12 different residential systems, and it was just me and two other people.
But that’s kind of how it started; getting my name out there and then finding people to say, “Yes, put solar on my house.”
| Before we talk about your team, I wanted to also ask you about the name of the company. I saw that there’s an interesting backstory to it, that our readers might find interesting.
It is an interesting situation where my father is half Finn and my mother is also. I have several relatives out in Finland as well.
As for Sisu, it’s a Finnish word… but not just a word, it’s also a Finnish way of life. Basically, it stands for resilience, competence and a strong mindset of how to go about life. It’s really a special thing, both for me personally as well as people of Finnish descent.
So, back before I started the company and was thinking about the name, I had all kinds of ideas popping up in my head but as soon as I thought of Sisu Solar, I said to myself that’s got to be it!
And, luckily for me, there wasn’t another company with this name so I was able to go with it.
| Talking about the services, Sisu Solar pretty much covers everything, from construction and roofing to setting up the solar panels. Can you guide us through these services you provide?
The main bread and butter is solar installations. If somebody comes to us looking for solar, we’ll guide them through the entire process – getting all the paperwork done, securing the permits, making the necessary agreements with their energy providers etc.
Once the paperwork is done, we pack up everything and head out; even though I am the owner of this company, I’m also still the person up on the roof, putting the plan in action. And once we get all the work done, we commission the system and turn it on.
That’s one of the more important things about these solar systems; is not just about building them, it’s being able to turn them on. Because once you build it up, you actually need to pass a lot of inspections and regulations before being given the final go-ahead.
Then, we also do solar repair work, which I specialize in. When I was working for a different solar installation company, I worked as a solar service technician. I would go to somebody’s house whose system wasn’t working, troubleshoot it, figure out what was wrong with it and getting it to run again.
So, there’s repair work and then there’s also, which is coming more and more prevalent these days, re-roofing or solar detach and reattach. Basically, people need to re-shingle their houses because of hail damage and whatnot. So, we come in, take the solar panels off the house, redo the roof and then get the panels back.
| Can you maybe tell us a little bit about your team? How many people are there?
When I started this company, it was just me. But, to install solar panels, you need to be an electrical contractor because this is electrical work after all. So, one of the first things I did was I found a licensed electrician to join me.
Then I also have hired some interns, basically people who are still in college and want to work for the summer to get some experience under their belt.
And, for the most part, that’s how we operated. But, since the company’s started to expand, I’ve hired another full-time employee (in addition to the interns) and hope to get some more people on board!
| Do you work every day? Do you have weekends off? What’s it like being a company owner?
It’s important to have a good work-life balance. So, I specifically don’t work on weekends, but I always have my phone on me, and people are always calling me.
But usually, I’m sitting down on the computer, emailing people, setting up jobs for the summer, because we don’t install solar while there’s snow on roofs. Since we’re in Minnesota here, it’s very snowy, and so I want to make sure we do things as safely as possible. So, in the wintertime we look for customers, and then once the snow’s gone, we start installing the systems.
| What are some of your plans for the future? I mean, obviously you want to have some sort of a steady growth, but do you have any plans for the upcoming year or years?
Growing the company into something more sustainable is what I want, or is what I’m aiming for. Basically, having enough people, I want to say like 10 or so, that if one person drops out, everything will still be fine.
So, the goal is always sustainability and a steady workflow.
| What do you think about the state of solar and its future, in general? Do you see it expanding and growing?
Right now the solar industry is doing very well, and more and more people are joining the workforce. We’re selling more and more systems, but it does need to be better, since the climate crisis is such a big deal… and it’s just getting worse.
I’ve done some advocacy work for different climate organizations so I know how important reducing people’s carbon footprint and the dependency on coal and natural gas actually is.
Yes, we’re trending in the right direction, but it needs to go towards renewables even more, at a much quicker pace!
When it comes to solar specifically, the technology is great and continues to advance. These systems we’re putting on people’s houses will last over 30 years, and probably even more than that.
So, we are heading in the right direction, we just need more people to join the workforce as well as to educate more and more people on the importance of going solar, invest in renewables and move away from our dependence on fossil fuels.