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    September 21, 2020

    Solar company leader sparks connectivity and goodwill

    Grassroots collaboration spearheads movement to provide Wi-Fi to underserved population

    By Judith M. Wilson Special to the Marin IJ

    The primary objective of any business is financial success, but for some, the true measure of impact goes beyond the bottom line to include some type of altruistic endeavor. When Aran Moore founded Sun First Solar in San Rafael in 1984, he went door to door with his sales pitch while he also spread a message about the valuable role solar could play as a source of renewable energy.

    “His goal was to show people that by using solar, we’re saving our planet,” says Sun First CEO Kim Fink. “He is very passionate about the environment.”

    Over the years, the company has grown to 30 employees serving mostly Marin County and as far away as Lake and Santa Clara counties, but its ethics haven’t wavered.

    “We never wanted to be a big corporation. We still like to meet face to face with clients,” says Fink, explaining that Sun First Solar handles every aspect of a project from start to finish. At the outset, to ensure that clients don’t encounter any unwelcome surprises, the company assesses their individual needs, which might be charging an electric vehicle or changing energy needs as grown children leave home. They perform a “mini energy audit” with recommendations, such as installing double-pane windows or adding insulation. With planned power outages a new reality, battery backup systems are becoming more prevalent, so they are frequently an element of the design process as well.

    “We design the system around your needs, not just to sell larger systems … If solar is not a good fit, we will tell you,” she says.

    Today’s photovoltaic panels are more efficient than earlier versions, while the cost is decreasing.

    Fink observes that PG&E bills are getting higher, but once people have paid for their systems, their rates will be fixed and their costs will be less. In addition, she points out, “Solar increases your property value,” making it a good investment.

    Community spirit

    Fink is a Marin native who attended Terra Linda High School. She has worked in construction management for 25 years. She joined Sun First Solar almost 12 years ago.

    “My focus was to help grow the business while maintaining the integrity of the original mission,” she says. “I loved the idea of solar and how great it is for the planet.”

    Community is also important. She spearheaded a years-long initiative to provide San Rafael’s predominantly Latinx Canal district with reliable, high-speed Internet service, hosting meetings at the company’s offices.

    Fink learned about the lack of connectivity in 2018, when she was enrolled in the San Rafael Chamber of Commerce Leadership Institute.

    She attended a presentation at San Pedro Elementary School where she heard children share stories about the challenges they faced with connectivity.

    San Rafael City Schools had distributed Chromebooks so students could complete homework assignments, but many were unable to because they didn’t have Internet access at home. Some were spending evenings at restaurants with Wi-Fi, but the connections were often slow or failed. Learning about the need ignited a spark. A substantial number of Canal residents did not have access to the internet in contrast to most of Marin County.

    “This isn’t fair,” Fink thought. “The inequality of this strikes me as wrong. It’s not right if kids don’t have the same advantages for learning. It breaks my heart to think of a child getting left behind because they cannot log onto the computer and do their homework.” She persuaded other members of the leadership class to join her in creating the Canal Broadband Network Project and encouraged a collaborative effort that involved Canal Alliance, the City of San Rafael, the County of Marin, the school district and several businesses, as well as funding from the Marin Community Foundation. The goal was to have hotspots in place by mid-August 2020, in time for the new academic year. Adults also will be able to log on to engage with the community and get important information.

    Omar Carrera, Canal Alliance’s chief executive officer, had spent more than 15 years trying to solve the problem of inadequate connections, but, he says, “Canal Alliance alone was not enough to make it possible. … Kim decided to go beyond talking about it and take action to do something about it.”

    Hotspots are just the first step

    “Digital equity can’t be solved by one sector and with one solution. It’s a complex challenge and requires everyone at the table,” says Rebecca Woodbury, San Rafael’s director of digital service and open government. “Kim has been instrumental in setting that table and keeping this conversation going.”

    Fink has already made a difference for the Canal’s 12,000 residents, and she simply believes it’s the right thing to do.

    “I think it’s incumbent on all of us to do our part,” she says. “This means helping your neighbor, your coworker, friend, family or any community that needs it.” 
    Kim Fink, CEO
    kim@sunfirstsolar.com, (415) 458-5870
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