How Mennonites are helping solar energy flourish in Virginia
By Melodie Davis
German-Mennonite families migrating from southeastern Pennsylvania in the 1700s eagerly settled in Virginia’s scenic Shenandoah Valley.
It’s not too surprising that environmentally aware Mennonites have worked for decades to protect the natural beauty of the valley and beyond—including early solar energy businesses.
Rachel Smucker, a recent Goshen College graduate and formerly of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, now works on solar policy and advocacy in Virginia. She finds the field and opportunities, especially right now, to be exciting.
Historically, Virginia has not been among leading states Virginia is not in the top ten states of businesses facilitating solar energy use. California is first on that list and Virginia’s neighbor, North Carolina, is second. But things are changing in Virginia.
Smucker noted that in 2020, Virginia’s General Assembly passed one of the most ambitious clean energy omnibus bills in the nation in one year. This is currently attracting many new businesses and millions of dollars of investment to Virginia.
Smucker notes, “It is exciting to see policy in action, and Virginia is only at the cusp of a huge renewables boom.”
“Growing up Mennonite, it is rewarding to have the education I received solidify in my work and align with what I believe and value.”
Smucker’s first solar gig was working for Secure Futures, one of the leading solar installers in Virginia. This connects directly with 95-year-old Cal Redekop, a longtime Mennonite solar advocate and business owner. He was an initial investor at Secure Futures and still holds the rank of “partner” in the firm.
When you talk to this older crowd—age 90 and up—many in the Mennonite community who are active in environmental leadership credit their farming background. It’s how they learned to care for, preserve, and protect the earth God gave us.
Redekop remembers the Dust Bowl era as a child. Born in eastern Montana, his grandparents were Russian Mennonites who immigrated to the U.SS. for religious freedom and free land. They settled first in Minnesota and later in eastern Montana.
The immigrants did deep plowing and Cal recalls his father marveling about the “beautiful job the tractors did plowing, disking, harrowing, and seeding, all in one operation.” As Cal writes in his book Enchantment and Despair, his father exclaimed, “It is really wonderful to work the field, with soil so light and loose and mellow and rock-free.”
Of course, this kind of plowing tore up layers of grasses and sensitive organic soil that previously kept dirt from blowing away. Cattle, sheep-heavy farming, and drought also contributed. Terrible dust storms clouded the landscape, both on fields and the family’s hopes to keep the farm afloat, year after arid year.
Cal Redekop was between the ages of six to ten during this formative time. Later he became clearly convinced that environment had a huge impact in trying to make a living farming. “I also began to realize the opposite, that we were affecting the environment, because Natives before us didn’t have the dust storms and soil erosion that we did,” he points out.
This initial experience with environmental disaster propelled some of Redekop’s scholarly research and social energy, forging a deep desire to help build a better future for planet Earth.
We are going to see a big solar and clean energy technology boom over the coming decades.
– Rachel Smucker
Kenton Brubaker, now a retired biology professor at Eastern Mennonite University and his son Karl, currently business manager at Hesston College (Kansas), experimented with building a solar collector for their house in the early solar days in Harrisonburg. But it never worked very well.
Meanwhile another Mennonite physics professor, Nelson Kilmer in Hesston, designed a heating solar collector for his home. Kilmer grew up on a farm in Ohio where he helped his father with various homemade projects for equipment, buildings, and renovations. This whetted his interest in how things work.
When Redekop (at that time working at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas) found out about Kilmer’s heating collector, he wondered if a group of interested persons could manufacture solar panels. The Kansas group started Sunflower Energy Works.
Karl Brubaker, as a recent EMU graduate highly interested in the environment through various EMU projects, went on a post-grad road trip to work in Montana. He kept checking in with Sunflower Energy in Kansas. They finally said, “Well, we can’t really pay you anything, but if you want to help get things off the ground, you’re welcome to come here.” So, Karl accepted, feeling it would be a valuable learning experience.
Sunflower Energy Works focused on making thermal solar collectors. These produced heat for homes by absorbing light from the sun. “It flourished until the government cancelled its tax incentives,” recalls Redekop. “We realized we were really too early for the existing social and economic picture of the time.”
Kenton Brubaker reflected, “Karl did such a good job of pulling the business through its closedown phase without losing money that Hesston offered him a job as business manager.” Karl still holds that position at Hesston.
Meanwhile, Redekop moved to Waterloo, Ontario to teach at Conrad Grebel (now University) College. He also helped launch a solar effort there in 1979. It was located in nearby St. Jacobs and called Sunflower Solar, selling panels as heat collectors, not for electricity.
Current Grebel president Marcus Shantz recalls his father Milo’s involvement in the effort as an investor. He remembered Cal and Milo “having fun, but that it never got traction as a business.”
Solar heating never caught on because it was a complicated system and ducts were unwieldy to install in a home or business. Instead, solar panels producing actual electricity began growing in use and popularity.
Today most solar installations operate by collecting sunlight and transforming solar energy into electricity to for homes and businesses. Electricity produced can be sent back to commercial electric grids and not just stored in large batteries.
By the time Redekop moved to Harrisonburg in 1990, he felt the time was right to invest in solar again. He connected with a new company, Secure Futures in nearby Staunton. Secure Futures has 12 epeople employees and will tackle almost any project, including hospitals, and includes educational programs for students when school systems elect to add solar energy.
Secure Futures’ CEO and co-founder is Tony Smith, who taught at EMU in the business department beginning in 2007. He also served as co-director and associate professor of EMU’s MBA program from 2008 to 2015.
Companies that do residential-scale solar (solar panels on homes) tend to have more employees: men and women in hardhats to climb up on roofs and bolt on solar panels, he said. “Companies like ours that do commercial-scale solar tend to be smaller, serving as the developer of a solar project, and then hiring a larger company to install the solar panels.”
Smith was especially impressed with EMU’s stated value of stewardship. He spoke of strengthening that value in the curriculum and approached EMU management about Secure Futures heading a solar project for the campus.
He suggested installing panels on the roof of the large campus library. EMU’s leadership became enthusiastic even though Smith claims EMU physical plant director at the time, Eldon Kurtz, asked Smith “what he was smoking” when Smith first mentioned it.
The 2018 project was the largest commercial scale solar project in Virginia in 2010. It succeeded in lowering campus energy use per square foot by 12 percent within 10 months of installation.
Energy stewards such as Kilmer peg their interest to larger universal issues. “The biggest thing I’ve worried about is climate change and carbon emissions in the atmosphere,” said Kilmer. “I feel strongly about lowering our carbon emissions, which impact the future of the planet.”
The Kilmer home has 31 solar roof panels which provide 100 percent of the energy needed for the home and enough to charge their electric vehicle as well. This has reduced their annual carbon footprint from 20 tons a year to zero.
Redekop also calculates his personal carbon imprint as zero, driving (occasionally) a Nissan Leaf electric car which he charges via solar panels installed on the roof of the building where he lives. In recent years he also pedaled a four-wheel cycle with a solar-powered battery.
Advocacy writer and organizer Smucker notes that in solar energy related fields, women account for only 26 percent of workers. “We are going to see a big solar and clean energy technology boom over the coming decades,” she predicts.
“We’re talking about building the electric grid of tomorrow, creating millions of jobs and local businesses, which is very important to our economy.”
As a policy advocate, she gets up every morning hoping that her efforts to create cleaner electricity will also lead “to a more just and equitable world” in terms of solar being available to those of all income levels. For her, the solar industry is a “fun and exciting industry to work in, given the expansion. We need talented individuals and brilliant minds.”