In today’s interview we have Frank Rieger, the owner of SolUp, a full-service energy solution and conservation company offering top-tier products since 2009.
| Can you introduce yourself and maybe tell us something about yourself and the company?
My name is Frank Rieger. I’m originally from Germany where I used to run a software company for 20 years. I made that decision to move over to the US, to start a solar company, partly because I was tired of the software business and partly because I wanted to do something more meaningful. I’m an engineer by trade, and I have the opinion that us engineers are the ones that have to be held accountable to change this world and make it a better place!
I came in 2009 to the United States, and I picked one of the best places for solar energy in the world, in my opinion – the southwest of the US, Las Vegas. I picked Las Vegas for obvious reasons – there’s a lot of sunshine, there is almost no shading and you have pretty much the opportunity to outfit every house with solar panels here.
So I founded the company back in 2009, and slowly moved forward. Today, we are the biggest solar company in not only Las Vegas, but the entire state of Nevada! We also are heavily invested into battery storage, which is a natural extension of our solar mission.
| So you came to the United States with that specific goal in mind to start a solar company? Or was it something that developed over time?
No, that was my reasoning from the beginning. I picked Las Vegas, especially for this purpose. I forgot to mention, one of the biggest clients in my software company was the German company Solar World, which used to be the largest solar module manufacturer in the world at that time.
That’s how I got into this industry, understood how it’s working, and became interested in it. Unfortunately, when Germany stopped subsidizing solar energy, the entire industry in the country collapsed, and pretty much none of these companies stayed alive.
| Did you have any help? Did you have any people in the United States or maybe some partners from Germany who came along with you?
No, I pretty much started all this on my own! I had people I hired in the beginning, to help me set up the business and run it when I wasn’t in the country (since I wasn’t spending the entire time in the US, in the beginning of my journey).
You have to understand, 15 years ago, solar wasn’t very popular, and most people didn’t even know what it was and what to do with it. So it was a very educational task in the beginning, and it took a while until it really became a popular choice for the people.
The market really picked up, I would say, seven, eight years ago when people realized it’s not just something to do for the environment, but it actually makes sense for their pocket too, because here in Las Vegas, solar is a no-brainer from a financial standpoint. If you do it right, it’s always going to save you money. So, what better can you do? You save money and help the environment at the same time. That’s the perfect combination.
| It was 15 years ago. What were people telling you? Were they supportive of your idea or was it something like, why are you doing this? Did you have to fight that opposition in the beginning?
It was tough in the beginning. Here in the US, there’s a lot of people opposed to renewable energy, especially people connected to the fossil fuel industry. It’s still to this day that there’s plenty of people in this country trying to fight solar or other forms of renewable energy.
I don’t mind being challenged by competition, but if you’re confronted with regulations that don’t make any sense and only intent to restrict your business, that’s a very difficult pill to swallow. The reason why solar picked up in 2016 is because politicians in the state finally established new, stable regulations that gave homeowners the perspective to invest into solar energy based on a long term business model which would secure their investment for at least the next 20 years.
| I read on your about page, you say you wanted to differentiate from the area’s sale based solar competitors. What did you mean exactly by that?
I mean, here in Las Vegas and the US in general, people love sales. They’re not so much into engineering. Unfortunately, the solar industry has a very bad reputation here in the state because of hundreds of companies actually operating illegally, without the correct certifications, licenses and insurances. The driving force behind this is the temptation of being able to quickly make a lot of money by neglecting the warranty obligations in connection with the installation of a solar system.
So for instance, what’s so special about the solar industry is that it comes with these incredible warranties that are incomparable to any other industry. You typically receive 25 year warranties on most components of a solar system but, if your business model is purely focused on selling cheap equipment without building reserves for the long term, you can very easily make a lot of money with the idea of closing down your business after just a few months and the cost of leaving desperate customers behind you.
There are hundreds of solar companies here that operate exactly like that, with salespeople who just want to quickly sell you a solar system, very often knocking on doors and using deceptive practices to close the deal. Unfortunately, a lot of people here are very naive and easily fall into that scheme which has caused a very bad reputation for the industry.
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I come from a very different mindset and culture, so my approach has always been different. I simply try to do the best job I can, build the best product, offer the best services, and focus on customer satisfaction. I think this is the only route to take if you want to build a sustainable business that will last for many years to come. So far, success proved me right since this philosophy helped us becoming not only the biggest but also also the most trusted and best reviewed solar company in the region! It stands as a testament that with honest, ethical business principles, you can run a successful organization.
Even now where we’ve grown so much and are installing 30 to 50 systems a week, we’ve been able to maintain this idea of thorough engineering and total commitment to quality.
| It must be challenging to keep that level of professionalism on such a high volume of solar installations?
Yeah, especially because you have to work with the people that live here and are not used to this kind of mindset. You have to encourage them to strive for quality and take pride in their work. That’s the culture we have developed in our company, that it’s an honor to be a Sol-Up employee!
Again, everything we do is based on engineering, so we’re not making things up. What we are telling our customers is a result of our long term experiences in this industry and its products.
We ask our sales people to adopt this way of thinking as well. Many sales people are proud of their ability to sell junk. That this makes them a good sales person. Not with us! In our organization, sales people take pride in being able to explain our complex products in depth and educate customers in a truthful way.
| What are the services you provide besides solar installations? I see you also do HVAC and window and door installations?
We are trying to diversify. The problem with the solar industry is that it lacks recurring revenue, which is not healthy for any business. So, you sell a solar system, and then basically what do you do with your customer? You have to serve them for 25 years but you don’t have any regular income. That’s an unsustainable business model. To avoid this trap we’re trying to diversify by going into related industries, and this is why we developed the idea of a windows and doors division.
You see, becoming self-sustainable not only requires the ability to produce your own energy, but also to use it efficiently. That energy efficiency part is what we’re trying to address more in the future by starting to offer new products and services ranging from highly efficient doors and windows to significantly less energy consuming AC systems.
| And you also do solar systems with the option to store excess energy using batteries?
Battery storage is a big topic these days. It’s a natural extension of every solar system. Without a battery your solar system doesn’t do anything for you in a power outage situation. Imagine, you have this full solar power plant on the roof, but when you really need it, you can’t use it. So, a battery actually keeps the solar system running when the grid is down and obviously can provide electricity at night when the sun is not shining.
There is another huge argument for battery storage which is called “load shifting”. Here in Nevada (as in many other states in the US), we have the option to choose an electricity rate that is impacted by demand peaks. With this, in the summer afternoon, when you have the highest energy demand, the electricity is most expensive while it is cheap at night and in the winter. What the battery helps you do is, in those times when the electricity is cheap, like here in the morning, until 1:00 PM, you just charge the batteries with your solar system. Once the rates go up in the afternoon, you then use that stored electricity in addition to your solar production to avoid pulling expensive electricity from the grid or even feed back into the grid allowing you to earn significant credits based on the high rates at that time.
| Is there maybe something you would like to say that we didn’t cover so far in the interview?
Well, I’m from Berlin, Germany and people often ask me, why in the world did you move to a crazy place like Las Vegas? This town is wasting energy like there’s no tomorrow!
But for me, it’s important to show that you can have a rich, full, enjoyable, fun life and still be completely environmentally conscious. I want to have a great life. I want to have fun. I love Las Vegas!
But I also want to demonstrate that it is possible to produce all the electricity this crazy place needs on a daily base, with renewable energy in an environmentally friendly way. If we can do it here, we can do it anywhere else in the world. That’s my goal. That’s what I want to show.