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Jeff Wolfe

groSolar CEO | White River Junction, Vt.

When Jeff and Dori Wolfe founded a renewable energy business in 1998, they didn't expect it to expand far beyond their Vermont home. They had majored in mechanical engineering, not business, at Cornell University.

"Frankly, we had no aspirations for it to become a large company," says Jeff Wolfe. "We thought it would just be ourselves and maybe a few employees."

Jeff Wolfe

Americans' growing interest in clean, renewable power has helped Jeff Wolfe build a home business into a company with nearly 200 employees.

Solar house

Wolfe's company installs solar panels on homes, helping people reduce their utility bills and their reliance electricity generated by burning fossil fuels.

Today, their company, groSolar, is the nation's fourth largest installer of residential solar systems, with offices in more than a dozen cities and about 180 employees. Its growth spurt started in 2001 as the United States geared up for war in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 attacks.

"The whole issue of energy security became a lot more serious for a lot of people, including us," Wolfe says. "Somebody needed to start making a difference, and we thought our tiny company would help to lead the way."

Wolfe remembers another time when energy self-sufficiency was front of mind for Americans: 1973, when Arab nations declared an oil embargo. He was a teen-ager then. The snaking lines at gas stations and soaring prices "woke me up to energy issues," he says.

That awareness inspired him to study engineering, but by the time he graduated in 1982, energy conservation was no longer in vogue. "There weren't a lot of jobs in solar at that point."

Now, the United States is counting on jobs in solar and other green sectors to help kick-start the economy, mitigating cutbacks in older industries. President Obama's economic stimulus package includes a host of greening incentives.

"When I got into solar, it was just a good thing," says Wolfe, who was invited to the White House for a briefing on the president's plan. "Then I found out it was going to save our planet, and then I found out it was going to save our security, and now I find out it's going to save our economy, too.

"We're not creating low-end, fast food joint jobs here," Wolfe says. "We're creating good, long-term jobs. And our jobs can't be outsourced to another country. You can't have someone fly in from India or China or anywhere else to install solar panels on your rooftop."

Wolfe is confident that energy issues won't fade from public consciousness the way they did in the 1980s.

"The difference is that we have a perfect storm. We have climate change, which more and more people are beginning to realize is real and incredibly serious. … We're in a situation where we need every form of renewable energy we can get, as fast as we can get it."

last revised 6/11/2009

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