Solar Energy – Idea to Reality with Jon Carson

June 23, 2020

Jon Carson is the Founder and Managing Partner of Trajectory Energy Partners, a Midwest-based solar development company that works closely with landowners and communities to develop community solar and small utility scale projects with strong local support. Prior to founding Trajectory, Jon spent 2 years at SolarCity, serving a year each as Senior Director on the Policy and Electric Markets team and as the Senior Director of the Solar Ambassador program.

John Shegerian: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast! I am John Shegerian. I am so honored to have with us today my good friend Jon Carson. Welcome to Impact, Jon!

Jon Carson: Thank you for having me on, John. I am really glad to be here.

John: Hey, listen, we go back a long time and we are not even getting into that part today, but I would love for you to share a little bit before we get talking about your great company Trajectory Energy. I would love you to share a little bit about your biography, your history, your journey coming out of college, what you studied in college, and what led up to the founding of Trajectory Energy.

Jon: Awesome. Absolutely. I grew up on a dairy farm in Western Wisconsin that is still in my family. I was actually the first person in my family to go to college. I went to the University of Wisconsin Platteville. It was about two hours away from me to study Civil and Environmental Engineering. I think I selected that major because I thought they were going to teach me how to save the Amazon River or something like that, but I am mostly actually learned about pouring asphalt, building wastewater treatment plants. I actually ended up when I graduated, I ended up being one of the few people from my school to get into politics. I shifted over at the time to work on a political campaign which was back in the mid-90’s the economy was doing great. A lot of my classmates were getting nice starting bonuses working for engineering firms in Chicago, but I went off to work on a US Senate race back in 1998.

John: I got it and then, how did that go and where did it go from there?

Jon: Yes, that started about 15 years of working on campaigns where I would work on a political campaign, maybe in New Jersey, South Carolina, Iowa, Wisconsin. After every campaign, I would convince myself that it was going to be the time I would finally find a job in the renewable energy world. I tried a couple of times but politics is a little bit like they say “the mafia” is I guess once you are in, you are in for good. So I would find myself in the next campaign. I did [inaudible] out two years to join the Peace Corps worked in Honduras from 2004 to 2006 and ended up on the Obama campaign in 2008, which I thought was maybe going to last six months. We ended up winning that one as it turned out which was an honor of a lifetime to be a part of that campaign and then to get to work for President Obama in the White House in his Environmental Office. And then in his Office of Public Engagement. Finally, I did make it out to the renewable energy side in 2014 when I went to work for what was then called SolarCity. It was just a fascinating two years finally back in the private sector working on solar renewable energy. I was there through when it was acquired by Tesla before I finally took the leap and started my own company Trajectory Energy.

John: So let us talk about lessons learned you have now. You had a lot of years working on campaigns. You got to work for a great president and you helped get him elected president. I knew you are humble about all that and all that experience. But share with our listeners, Jon, some of the great lessons learned from running and being involved with campaigns and then being in the political world after the campaign because as you know campaigning is different than governing. What were some of those lessons learned that you were then able to take and to help lead to your journey in entrepreneurship?

Jon: Absolutely. I think one of the benefits of working on a campaign when you are younger is it is a very intense experience to go to and you learn a lot about management and building a team really early on. You can be 23 years old and be an organizer one year and the next thing you know, you are a regional organizer with a team of six people that you are supervising. If you worked on the 2008 campaign as a field organizer, you probably had a couple of hundred volunteers that you were managing. So I learned so much early on about building a team and empowering a team. That is just an old adage about hiring really good people. Give them the tools they need to succeed. Set the North Star goal for everyone and then get out of the way and let them do their job.

Jon: I think a lesson I then also took from campaigns is just really instilling a culture. You can try to be a micromanager. You can try to and it just does not work, right? You are only able to micromanage so much but when you really said a culture and a value system of not just hard work, but incredibly smart work and empowering people. That is the number one way to be effective, I think. The interesting thing I have learned about how campaigns different from governing or how campaigns different from the business world when you are in it– What is that saying about what is the one thing fish do not know anything about is water because they are just surrounded by it. So they do not think about how it is different.

John: Right.

Jon: On a campaign, everything is governed by a deadline. Election day is actually enshrined in the constitution. So there is just this constant pressure and a timeline and a clock that you are working against that everyone takes for granted. So, you never have to have a meeting about the urgency of getting ready for election day. It is coming. When I made the transition over to the government, I think one thing that I had to learn and especially in business is if you do not focus on a timeline and if you do not create the urgency, you wake up six months have gone by and you have not gotten that initiative done in government. You have not got that program up and running. In business, you wake up six months later, you have not hit that goal if you do not just constantly create the urgency to get these things done. Those are some of the lessons. Just another one I would say I have learned from politics early on is to be nice to all the interns because you never know which one is going to own a company 20 years later that you are trying to do a deal with.

John: Great lesson. Great lesson.

[crosstalking]

Jon: What former volunteer becomes the US congressperson 20 years later.

John: That is a great lesson. For those of you who just joined us, I have got my very good friend on with us today on the Impact Podcast. His name is Jon Carson. He is the managing partner of Trajectory Energy Partners. You can look up Jon’s great company at www.trajectoryenergy.com. I am on your website now, Jon. I love your website. It so represents all the things that you love to talk about and the journey that you have shared with me personally on building this great company. Let us go back then to your transition from the Obama campaign, some of those lessons you learned, and then what exactly were you doing then? You have got involved with SolarCity. What was your main mission there? What did they bring you on to do exactly there? Did you already start to see your political skills transfer over into the business world?

Jon: I loved my time at SolarCity, John. I was there for two years and I had two very distinct different roles for and I ended up not really using, I used the lessons from politics but not maybe the ones I thought that I would. When I went to SolarCity, my title was Senior Director of Solar Ambassadors, which basically meant I worked with the sales team to teach them how to get more referrals. In the solar world, you spend a lot of time and money just acquiring customers, and digital ads for customers can be very expensive and time-consuming. The cheapest way to get a new customer is to have a happy existing customer refer someone to you. So that was what I was brought into SolarCity to do, to work with at that point five thousand person sales staff, to teach them organizing and teaching them approaches to engage people to drive referrals.

Jon: I think at the beginning, the reason I was brought in and sort of what was in my head at the time was to bring someone like Obama organizing magic and sort of razzmatazz. What I [inaudible] learning was that the number one thing I could do with salespeople was to teach them to be organized instead of a fancy new program or a fancy new website. Just teaching them to block off two hours a week and call all your old customers and ask them if they have new referrals and how to just be organized which is absolutely a skill you bring from politics that ended up being the top advice I could give.

Jon: Then one year into my time at SolarCity, I have got a call from our CEO who said, “Hey Jon, you know politics, right? Do you think you could go fix what is going on in Nevada?” And that led to me switching over to the government relations side of the team and just being part of a crazy and fascinating many months-long fight around the policy fight that was going on in Nevada at the time to get rid of Net Metering, a policy that allows residential customers to put solar on their own roof. I spent about 40 nights in various Las Vegas hotels as I was out there. At the end of the day, it was probably a year later, but the legislature in Nevada did reverse that bad policy and bring solar back to Nevada.

John: So in essence, you got that accomplished. That was mission accomplished. The initiative was overturned and the bad legislation was pushed away. So, you got a really make a great impact before Tesla took over SolarCity. So your days there were well spent.

Jon: And I met such great people and learned so much, both from my time in the Obama world and then at SolarCity. It was such a fascinating network of people and those alumni are now everywhere. I run into them in all sorts of interesting places.

John: Well, one of the alumni happens to be my son and he gets to be one of the few alumni that is a dual alumnus. And he, thanks to you, got a chance to work out of the New York office on the Obama campaign, in the second campaign. And he just said when you used to host a conference or a conference call, it was magical. So he remembers his days and your leading calls and leading events in the Obama era. But he also then unbeknownst to him took a job as a salesperson at SolarCity when you were in your position there and also happened to be on calls and in rooms. Sometimes, when you were leading the charge and said, “Wow, that Jon, he just is magical.” He used to talk about you and almost a Tony Robbins ask-type way which is so funny because I know you so differently in terms of your mild-mannered temperament and way of being. But it is almost like Clark Kent in Superman the way my son, Tyler, speaks about you. So, he got a dual opportunity to work for you and just said both experiences were amazing.

John: So I am sure there are hundreds or thousands of young people across this country who you have impacted in your leadership at the Obama during your Obama years and your SolarCity years that are going to continue to go out. You have set the seeds by influencing them positively and there they are going to go out and be the change-makers and the impact makers in the years to come. So, I could speak personally from the Shegerian family experience, but I am sure there are other parents like me out there that I have had similar experiences with you, Jon. So I just wanted to share that as I thought back before we did this interview today that you have had a big impact on our family itself. So I wanted to say thank you for that.

Jon: Well, I was very lucky to have Tyler on my team both those times, John. I am a big believer in doing everything you can to pay it forward. I was the recipient of so much great mentorship, advice, support at so many stages in my career. The first people who got me involved in politics, people who made the connection for me to be able to make the jump over to SolarCity. As you know well, John, when I was thinking about starting my own company, you were one of the very first people I reached out to advise and would not have been able to do it without you. So, I am always trying to find opportunities to pay for those things. You cannot really ever pay them back that you can absolutely pay them forward.

John: Well, that is so nice of you. I do not think that is really true in terms of my involvement. But I do want to say for truth and advertising, I am an investor in Trajectory Energy. So I always like to say that in any show that I have, in the entrepreneur that I am financially involved with and I was an original investor. I have nothing to do with the success of the company. That is all Jon Carson and the great people he has surrounded himself and the team he has built around himself. For our listeners out there if you want to get involved with Trajectory or want to learn more about all the great work Jon’s doing, please go to www.trajectoryenergy.com.

John: Jon, talk a little bit about then, your evolution from working in the energy field at SolarCity and post-Tesla BYOP to then starting to decide how to build Trajectory, why Trajectory, why the space that you chose. Alternative energy is a big field. Talk a little bit about what niche you chose, why, and how that was applicable to your experiences prior to in politics and other [inaudible].

Jon: First and foremost, I just always and fascinated by clean energy. I always wanted to be a part of it for so many years. There was always that next campaign to hop into but I have always been passionate about it. I think in my head, I was a solar developer for the last 20 years just happened to be working on campaigns for most of it. My time at SolarCity really just taught me so much about business in many ways. The first thing is a little bit like learning a second language. They are just concepts and ideas and ways of looking at the world that you need to learn about. I could not have started my own company without that time at SolarCity first. But what I was so passionate about was not just clean energy writ large, but I really wanted to do something here in the Midwest. So, it is taking off in many parts of the country. It is really taking off everywhere now. But I really wanted to help make this transition possible here in Illinois. The other thing I knew is that I love being at the front end of things. Being an early part of that Obama campaign and being part of putting together the new approach that we took, being there in the early days of the first Obama administration. So we decided that Trajectory, we were going to be on the front end of this. We are early, early-stage developers. We are the first people to identify a good location for solar, the ones to reach out to those landowners, build a relationship there and do all the early work that is involved in building out these solar projects.

John: How has it been going? Talk a little bit about what you expected going into the whole process and what you did not expect that actually occurred and some lessons you have learned in the last years running Trajectory and then where are you going?

Jon: It has been such a fantastic three years. I would say I have learned so much. I was probably wrong on the details but right on the big picture. The core fundamental thesis we had was that we could be good at developing projects because of our understanding of people, of communities, of community engagements, and that quality would matter. Those were our two founding pieces and they have really proven out to be right. We have had thirty-one zoning hearings in the last two years. We won every single one. Now, have I learned a million things about how zoning works in the United States, here in Illinois? Absolutely. I am not sure I knew exactly what a special use permit or a variance was when I started Trajectory, but my core fundamental thesis that we could be good at this and there was the right way to do it has absolutely proven out to be true. I mean, it is just so much fun for me to get to work on clean energy but at the same time do this work in rural America. It is a part of the country I care so much about, I grew up in, and I feel like I understand. After three hard years of work, we will see our first projects get built here in Illinois. That will be a really proud moment when those first electrons are flown onto a grid because we walked out onto a parcel of land and said there should be solar built here and made it happen.

John: When is ETA of the first one’s going live?

Jon: It should be this fall. Our project in Rockford should be the first one across the finish line. That project is a project that helps out low-income communities. It is based in Rockford, Illinois built on a brownfield site of an old gravel mining operation and later municipal dump. That project should be completed. So far, it looks like construction projects are continuing. It is an exempted activity with the COVID situation here in Illinois. I guess if I am thinking a little further back, we do already have one project that was built last year when we started Trajectory. Even though we were a brand new company, we decided to do a little pro bono work. We helped a small non-profit boarding school in Jackson, Mississippi that works with low-income African-American students. We had pro bono and developed a hundred-kilowatt system for them. We actually won a Department of Energy grant for that project and that project I built last year. It has reduced the school’s utility bills by thirty percent so far.

John: That was awesome. So that was already a win that did not show up as a win really on the P and L statement, but it was a win for Trajectory and your leadership and your team, nonetheless.

Jon: Exactly. Then we learn so much from going to that process. That was something I would recommend to others. You may not feel like you have the balance sheet for a pro bono project like that early on, but for us, it ended up being a really great learning experience.

John: Jon, talking about learning experiences, you growing up in Wisconsin on a dairy farm. That has served you well and has continued to serve you well as you go out and meet with farmers and that whole community in rural America pitching your solar opportunity. Is that a correct statement because whenever I call you, whenever we had catch up discussions, sometimes deeper, sometimes just on the fly, so many times on the road in just a rural part of America. Many times I have not even heard of that area and your meeting or just have come with from a meeting with a farmer.

Jon: It is so interesting. First of all, if we are going to switch to renewable energy in America, we need to put solar everywhere. We need to put it on every roof that we can, every school that we can but that is going to be a tiny percentage of getting there. We need big projects. We need medium-sized projects and that land is just not going to be found in urban America. It is not going to be found in suburban America. If we are going to tackle the climate crisis, if we are going to switch to renewable energy, it will be rural America that gets us there. That is true everywhere and it is certainly true here in the Midwest and an Illinois and it is so interesting. There is a certain pride about that that I find in rural America. The landowners I work with may not think about climate changes as much as others do but they have enormous pride in the idea of American energy, in the idea of energy independence driven through nobles in their community, in their county. But farmers, landowners, and rural America, they want to know that they are dealing with is someone that they trust. Of all the different backgrounds that I have had, my work at SolarCity, at Tesla, in government, the fact that I bailed [inaudible] when I was a teenager, the fact that I can talk to them about what kind of dairy cows my grandpa had is probably the number one thing that helps me build relationships with these landowners.

John: Well, it is trust. They feel like you speak their language and you are one of them.

Jon: Absolutely, and I have really developed some great friendships with some of these landowners across the states.

John: You know Jon, I typically do not want the impact. It is all about the great entrepreneurs and I do not like to talk politics a lot on it, but given that we are in an election year. I would love you to share with our listeners a few of your thoughts. It is not about who is going to win or who is going to lose. That is not really the whole essence here. But when it comes to renewable energy, how much is politically driven now and what would it do to your business? If there was, if there was a change in the administration given that there are a new generation and a new push with regards to both climate change vis-à-vis Greta Thunberg and both from top and bottom from Jane Fonda to Greta Thunberg. There are new excitement and a new push that I had never felt before since Inconvenient Truth came out. So, once you have that working in your favor too if there is. If there happens to be in November a change in administration and parties, how does that affect a renewable energy company like yours now or does it not affect it at all? What are your thoughts on that?

Jon: It will be positive. There will be benefits but it probably affects us less than almost any other issue just because of the enormous groundswell towards renewables. The enormous momentum that is being created from so many different sectors. First of all, I would say renewables are not really bipartisan. They are almost nonpartisan. I have never lost a deal. I have never lost a zoning hearing because someone thought this was some liberal plot. They do not care about climate change. They absolutely see the economic benefits. This administration that is currently in is doing everything they can that top up the coal industry and it is not working at all. Coal plants are closing faster than ever. With a new administration, help with some incentives. With a new administration may be slow down natural gas a little bit. Absolutely. But it with renewables, it is just a matter of how fast not if and a big bit of the credit for that really has to be given to corporate America. Corporate America has stepped up and said renewables matter and not just Facebook and Google doing it for their data centers. Today, it was not [inaudible] company but a different company announced today. The biggest solar project that has ever been planned to be dealt in Illinois at a 200-megawatt project in Coles County, Illinois in the off-taker is Cargill. Cargill, agriculture company profits to buy renewable energy. So this train has left the station a long time ago. I will be thrilled if we have a new administration and it will help but not like other issues like immigration for instance, where everything comes down to federal policy.

John: I got it. I got it. Jon, before we sign off today, there is a lot of young people out there especially during this tragic period in our history were all dealing with the self, staying at home, a process that we are living with, a lot of loneliness, a lot of self-reflection on careers and career choices and paths and what they are doing with their lives. A lot of young people come to me and always say, “Hey, listen, I listen to your show. I want to be the next blank, I want to be…” I am sure the same will go for you. What advice do you have for our listeners out there that might want to change career paths and not make widgets anymore or not sell stocks and bonds anymore? That might want to just make an impact and make the world a better place in terms of changing careers and really being a more impactful entrepreneur than just financial capitalist-driven entrepreneurs.

Jon: Well John, I think there are two different pieces of advice. The first is one that I have often heard my old boss Barack Obama talked about and he used to say, “Focus on what you want to accomplish not who you want to be.” Now that is easy for him to say, right? He got to be President of the United States but his point was he saw so many people who have impacts, maybe from not being the person at the podium, maybe you care deeply about an issue and there is an opportunity not to be the CEO or entrepreneur yourself but to join a team. Focus on what you want to be a part of and what you want to accomplish, not what the titles going to be.

Jon: My second piece of advice is years from now, you are going to have much more regret over the what-if than the failures so take the chance. Go for it. You will regret so much if you never took that chance than when you tried and worked your butt off and did not work. I worked in politics. I spent two years trying to get Al Gore elected president that did not work out. But I do not sit up at night worried about that you worry about the things you could have done that you did not do.

John: Interesting. That is so interesting. Jon, you are just doing so much wonderful work at the Trajectory and I just want to thank you as your friend, a long time friend. It is just a great the impact that you are making on this planet and thanks to you for spending time with me today. You are always welcome back on the show just to talk about anything political or non-political business and updates with Trajectory and other great projects you are working on. I just love to have you back as you continue to grow your great brand. For our listeners out there, again, to connect with Jon or his great company, you could go to www.trajectoryenergy.com. T-R-A-J-E-C-T-O-R-Y energy.com. Jon Carson, you are making an impact. You are making the world a better place. I am honored to be your friend and thank you for being on the Impact Podcast today.

Jon: Thank you for all you do John.