Small Business of the Month: Sphere Solar Energy

Sphere Solar Energy owner Edwin Ngugi Wanji stands in front of the solar panel system his company installed for Hellbent Brewing Company.

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

Edwin shows OED staff the meter that monitors Hellbent Brewing’s solar energy system. On sunny summer days, the system generates excess power which gets fed into the surrounding power grid (and earns extra money for the business).

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.”

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.

Edwin’s humanitarian efforts go far beyond just his own neighborhood. 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, you know, barely making ends meet,” Edwin says. “It’s like, ‘Hey, this $200 a month can go towards other things.”

You can learn more about Sphere Solar Energy—and how you may be able to put your monthly energy bill towards other things—on their website, or by connecting with them on Facebook.

Participate in Seattle Emergency Hubs Field Exercise on April 28

Imagine if all power and normal communications were down – what would you do?

Come see what your community is doing to be prepared. Join the Seattle Emergency Communications Hubs and the Seattle Auxiliary Communication Service in a simulated full city power outage field exercise on April 28, 2018 from 9:00 am to noon.

The Hubs will be practicing passing information on to the community at hub locations and also matching volunteer skills, information and resources with people looking for the same.

Participating Hub locations

Want to learn more? Visit the Seattle Emergency Hubs website for information and up to date details about the drill.

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Lake City community invited to celebrate new skatespot at Virgil Flaim Park

Join the Lake City community to celebrate the opening of the Lake City Skatespot at Virgil Flaim Park on Saturday, September 9, 2017 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The official ribbon cutting ceremony starts at 11 a.m. followed by beginner skateboard lessons from Skate Like a Girl, a 12 and under skate demo, giveaways, DIY deck project, music and refreshments. Virgil Flaim Park, 2700 NE 123rd St, is the largest, most centrally-located park in the Lake City community, and it is used extensively by families for recreation, outdoor dining, and community gatherings.  

The Lake City Skatespot project was community-initiated and includes a skatespot with colored concrete, a relocated and resurfaced the basketball court and other improvements at the park. A skatespot is smaller than a full skatepark but large enough to incorporate multiple skateboarding features. The community’s desire for a skatepark in Lake City was first documented in the North Neighborhood Plan (1999) and then in the Seattle Parks and Recreation’s 2007 Citywide Skatepark Plan. Cascade Design Collaborative in collaboration with Grindline Skateparks worked with the community on the design and improvements at the park.

The project received $750,000 from the community-initiated 2008 Parks and Green Spaces Levy Opportunity Fund, $75,000 from King County Youth and Amateur Sports Facilities program, and a $30,000 donation from the Wells Fargo “LIFT the Block” neighborhood revitalization program. Local Wells Fargo team members will volunteer at the event assisting with Lake City Branch Library DIY board project and commemorative button-making during the grand opening celebration.

The park project supports current revitalization efforts by Children’s Home Society of Washington who acted as the sponsor for Wells Fargo “LIFT the Block” grant. The Wells Fargo donation funded the colored concrete for the skatespot and supported the opening celebration.

For more information about the event please contact Karen O’Connor, Seattle Parks and Recreation at 206-233-7929 or karen.o’connor@seattle.gov.

About the partners:

Skate Like a Girl Skate Like a Girl is a Seattle-based non-profit organization with a mission to create an inclusive community by promoting confidence, leadership, and social justice through the sport of skateboarding. By hosting various program models – Ladies* Nights, free lessons for youth 12 & under, after-school enrichment, to name a few – this organization actively challenges who and how folks can participate in skateboarding.

Children’s Home Society of Washington – Founded in 1896, Children’s Home Society of Washington is the oldest and largest statewide nonprofit children’s organization—serving nearly 30,000 children and their families. Its mission is to develop healthy children, create strong families, build engaged communities, and speak and advocate for children.

Wells Fargo & Company – The “LIFT the Block” program is part of Wells Fargo’s $5 million NeighborhoodLIFT initiative launched last July to help boost local homeownership through down payment assistance grants and homebuyer education, in partnership with HomeSight. More than $2 million in grants remain available for eligible King, Pierce and Snohomish County homebuyers. To learn more about the matching down payment assistance program eligibility requirements, visit https://www.wellsfargo.com/mortgage/lift/ or contact HomeSight at 206-723-4355. Wells Fargo & Company (NYSE: WFC) is a diversified, community-based financial services company with $2.0 trillion in assets. Founded in 1852 and headquartered in San Francisco, Wells Fargo provides banking, insurance, investments, mortgage, and consumer and commercial finance through more than 8,500 locations, 13,000 ATMs, the internet (wellsfargo.com) and mobile banking, and has offices in 42 countries and territories to support customers who conduct business in the global economy. With approximately 273,000 team members, Wells Fargo serves one in three households in the United States. Wells Fargo & Company was ranked No. 25 on Fortune’s 2017 rankings of America’s largest corporations. Wells Fargo’s vision is to satisfy our customers’ financial needs and help them succeed financially. News, insights and perspectives from Wells Fargo are also available at Wells Fargo Stories.

 

 

 

 

 

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Celebrate summer and art in Lake City!

Lake City Play City
June 20, July 11 and August 1, 2017, from 6-8 p.m.
future park location, 2510 33rd Ave NE, Seattle, WA 98105.

The Office of Arts & Culture in partnership with the East Lake City Collaborative (ELCC) will be hosting local artist, Elizabeth Gahan as she leads a series of hands-on art making activities at this year’s Lake City Play City. Play City will feature food, music and a variety of family friendly events open for all to enjoy.

Attendees will have a chance to make artwork with Gahan at each of the three event dates, which they can either take home or contribute to a group community artwork to be displayed at the 33rd Ave NE location following the August 1st event. Gahan will lead the following art activities:

June 20– Upcycle yard signs that can be connected in creative ways.

July 11– Decorate large plastic shapes with vinyl scraps.

August 1– Artistically hang and arrange all the artwork accumulated on June 20 and July 11.

Gahan will also share details about a permanent public art sculpture that will be installed with the opening of the new 33rd Ave NE park in late 2018.

Come join in the fun and make art in Lake City!

Join Mayor Murray for This Year’s Find It, Fix It Community Walks

Mayor Ed Murray recently announced the six neighborhoods where he will host his annual Find It, Fix It Community Walks. Now in its fourth year, these walks bring City officials, business owners, and community members together to address each neighborhood’s needs.

Mayor Murray will lead the Find It, Fix It Community Walks in the following neighborhoods: Wallingford (Tuesday, March 14), Little Brook, Northgate, Highland Park, North Beacon Hill, and First Hill.

Each walk will follow a route determined by community members on Community Walk Action Teams convened by Seattle Department of Neighborhoods. Specific dates and locations will be announced at least two weeks prior to each walk.

Are you interested in participating on a Community Walk Action Team to help plan the walk in one of the six neighborhoods? Contact Lemmis Stephens, Find It, Fix It Program Coordinator, at Lemmis.Stephens@seattle.gov or call (206) 386-1907.

The City will continue to offer Community Project Grants for every walk. These grants provide support for community-led revitalization and beautification projects. In 2015 and 2016, 209 community volunteers, with assistance from City staff, completed 20 projects across the city.

Mayor Murray spearheaded the Find It, Fix It Community Walks in 2014 in partnership with Cities of Service, a national nonprofit that works with cities to provide support and training to encourage civic volunteerism.

Whether or not your neighborhood is part of this year’s walks, community members can report safety needs or city maintenance issues anytime with the Find It, Fix It mobile app. Android users can download the app from the Google Play Store and iPhone users can download it from the App Store.

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