Sustainability Superhero: Riding the Solar Coaster

This year’s Green Builder Sustainability Superhero, Maria Kingery, has a message to others in the industry: Stay the course.

Maria Kingery, Green Builder’s 2023 Sustainability Superhero, has a two-word phrase that sums up her time as co-founder and CEO of Southern Energy Management, as well as the overall history of the Raleigh, N.C., company: solar coaster.

“We’ve been on it for 21 years now,” she says. “We refer to it as the ‘solar coaster’ because, in the solar industry, there’s been many, many ups and downs in terms of policy, which has depended on who happened to be in favor at the moment or who was not in favor.”

Southern Energy Management - 10 year celebration

Maria Kingery and her husband, Bob Kingery, have turned Southern Energy Management from a company that merely emphasized home energy efficiency, to a Certified B Corp with an eye on environmental health. 

Southern Energy Management, North Carolina’s preeminent solar energy system installer, has weathered those ups and downs. According to Maria, the key is wanting to stay in the business of home performance and solar for the long haul. When the housing bubble burst in 2008, SEM was still a relatively small company with about 30 employees—most of whom were assigned to building performance. 

“Solar hadn’t taken off,” says Maria. “At the time, in terms of energy savings and avoiding greenhouse gasses, the energy efficiency part of our business was much more impactful.” 

Fast-forward to 2011 and 2012, when the company was at the peak of the solar coaster. “We were riding high, doing business in 12 states, and we thought we were really hot stuff,” she recalls. “But we were very young, and we learned some hard lessons.”

For example, SEM tried to add the “third wheel” of retrofit work to its new construction and solar legs, but it quickly fell off because “there was no way to sustainably do the retrofits and create a sustainable business around them.”  

Southern Energy Management - Home Solar 2

In the “old days”—2008—solar was a sideshow to Southern Energy Management’s main focus on energy efficiency. The company’s interest in photovoltaics has grown considerably since then. 

The company also focused much of its time and energy on utility-scale solar. It, too, eventually faded from the company’s main purview. 

“The home performance work has been the slow and steady partner,” says Bob Kingery, Maria’s spouse and co-founder. “It has anchored the ups and downs of the solar business.”

The People Part

Every person in the construction business will say that the No. 1 challenge to sustaining a business these days is the lack of a trained and committed workforce. Company owners and founders must recognize and solve the problem by offering good pay and benefits, a chance to earn more by learning new skills, and, perhaps most of all, respect. 

“We don’t fire somebody or demote somebody because they’re bringing up issues we want to resolve,” says Bob. “We think of the person before they hit Send on that email, who probably didn’t think about it enough.” 

The company offers employees many in-house training opportunities and incentives to learn new skills. For example, a solar technician who learns how to install a battery—and then proves to their lead that they can—would get another 50 cents an hour.

As a B Corp for the past 10 years, SEM counts on neutral third-party evaluations to stay on a sustainable path. The team is motivated by the mission of a B Corp to make a difference in the world and fight global climate change. The company partners with Habitat for Humanity and other nonprofit and professional groups, like the National Green Building Council.

Southern Energy Management - Installing Solar

Southern Energy Management’s business philosophy puts employees first. 

Southern Energy Management in 2050

Maria is blunt when asked where she sees the company in 30 years. “So, 2050 is 27 years away,” she begins. “But the [recently passed] Inflation Reduction Act gives us 10 years of policy certainty. In the solar world, this is like an eternity. But I would like to see Southern Energy Management move up the value chain and, in terms of owning other businesses, develop our neighborhoods and communities.”

But Maria also admits that if she could wave a magic wand and have anything happen, SEM would still be a B Corp, and would still be “living into its values” and “leading the charge in terms of not just what we do for a living, but how we do it.”

Overall, the solar coaster has proven to be quite a ride so far.

“When we first got into this work, many people said we were nuts,” Maria says. “We heard all the reasons why things couldn’t be done and why we were going to fail. If anything, I would want [builders] to do some forward thinking.”

It won’t be easy, Maria reminds us. “The pioneers get shot,” she remarks. “The settlers thrive.”