We had the good fortune of connecting with Byron Kominek and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Byron, what was your thought process behind starting your own business?
My family’s farm has been producing hay on 24 acres for 50 years. These days, haying the land doesn’t make enough money to cover our property tax plus water rights plus utilities, so nothing to go to the grocery store on. It seemed a shame to have so much land in prosperous Boulder County not doing more for our family, and for our community. I tried a few different agricultural avenues to start, but I couldn’t figure out how to scale them to be profitable. The idea came to try solar on our land, either leasing our land to a solar company or building and owning it ourselves. I first tried leasing the land by getting quotes from solar developers. I was initially offered $600/acre/year, which I declined. And within a week I was offered double that. I figured if a developer was willing to double their offer to me so quickly, there must be something to our land and the potential for solar on our land that I should figure out how to do myself. So, off I went on learning about community solar gardens, Boulder County regulations, the National Electric Code, Energy Information Agency reporting, marketing, sales, contracts, etc to figure out how to create more revenue for our family while producing clean energy for our community.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I’m a millennial that came into the workforce after graduate school and my Peace Corps service during the 2009 economic downturn. I struggled at the time to figure out my path as I had been told I’d easily make $50k annually with an engineering background. I never got a job as an engineer as no one would hire me in those years. I ended up getting an internship with Sister Cities International in Washington, DC in 2010 for $1,000 for three months of 24hr/week work. That transitioned into contractor work for the Department of Energy where I was paid to move power point images slightly to the left, no wait, back to the right, maybe down a little, which lasted only a few months due to my sheer boredom. I left that work to join Doctors Without Borders in Ethiopia and later in Haiti working on water and sanitation issues, trying to use my engineering skills, but I wasn’t very good at the hands-on problem-solving of potable water pipelines. In 2011, I got my dream job with the U.S. Agency for International Development as a natural resources officer (i.e., a U.S. diplomat working on environmental issues in southern Africa). It was amazing. The US government spent a year total training me in French and Portuguese. My first posting was in Zambia where I had an amazing boss, Anna Toness, that allowed me to flourish in collaborating with partners across Zambia in various environmental fields. I persuaded colleagues within USAID to provide startup funding to an organization to protect over 2 million hectares of forest in eastern Zambia, which ended up being BioCarbon Partners (BCP). After years of work beyond my time with USAID, BCP secured 100 million euros from a German bank to provide them with carbon offsets for BCP’s measured and verified protection of all that forest. That felt great to know I was one essential part in getting the US government to dare to do more for conservation. I think that experience, above all, is what provided me with the impetus and courage to attempt building and owning Jack’s Solar Garden.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
My favorite restaurant in Longmont is Rosarios, it’s a delicious Peruvian restaurant in an unassuming strip mall at the corner of Main St and Ken Pratt. The flavors astound your tastebuds!
For coffee/breakfast, I enjoy the friendly couple who own the Java Stop in downtown Longmont. They’ve got a great vibe and Kurt makes an incredible breakfast burrito.
To grab a drink, I save West Side Tavern in Longmont for special occasions with its great outdoor ambiance and tasty cocktails.
When I want people to laugh and be silly together, I take them to Quarters on Main St in Longmont to play old arcade games, especially four-person pac-man that’ll make people laugh until they cry at how ridiculously competitive folks get.
My friends who want to go outdoors, I just take them around my family’s farm to enjoy walking through our hay pasture, sitting on our benches under our cottonwood trees, and looking at our panorama of the mountains from anywhere on our farm.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I couldn’t have created Jack’s Solar Garden without my friend Jean Paul LaMarche. JP is a solar developer with over a decade of experience. He was the first person that got me interested in solar and he continuously advised me throughout the multi-year process with no thought to what gain he’d get from it all. He spent time doing energy analyses and solar array design setups for me, offered suggestions when I was at wits end, and continues to provide me with back up support when I go out of town. The best of what JP did for me was constantly being positive. Never once did he say I couldn’t do it. Never did he suggest I shouldn’t do it. He was always positive and willing to entertain my ideas and talk through difficulties. Without JP, Jack’s Solar Garden wouldn’t exist.
I’ll also give a shout out to Susie Strife of Boulder County’s Sustainability Office. I spoke with Susie regularly during the initial phases of figuring out if the County would first allow us to build the solar array on our farmland and second if the County would be willing to financially support our endeavor by becoming a client of ours. Susie was and is a constant proponent of our work. I’m still shocked she took meetings with me in the early phases when I was just a random guy coming into her office with an idea, yet she took the time to listen and consider what Jack’s Solar Garden could do for our community and has worked with me over the years. Without Susie, Jack’s Solar Garden wouldn’t exist.
Finally, I’ll give a shout out to Shawn Queenan of Xcel Energy. Shawn was the Solar*Rewards Community Program Manager in 2017-2020 when I was building the idea of and then the infrastructure for Jack’s Solar Garden. Shawn came to after hours meetings I arranged for community members to learn more about Xcel’s Solar*Rewards program and to hear about Jack’s Solar Garden. He worked with me time and time again on figuring out how my clients would fit into Xcel’s salesforce portal and how they’d get their benefits. Without Shawn, Jack’s Solar Garden wouldn’t exist.
The list of supporters and essential people along our way to success continues from my parents who provided upfront capital and their blessing, to research colleagues willing to promote our work, to our residential and commercial subscribers who believed enough in our work to financially support our business. I want to thank everyone who has supported Jack’s Solar Garden time and time again with their dollars, labor, ideas, and kind words.
The drone images are credited to Namaste Solar. The high quality images of the tractor tilling, tractor with people around, the woman harvesting – are to be credited to Werner Slocum of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The image of the kids with adults is credited to the Longmont Leader. The rest I believe can be credited to Jack’s Solar Garden.