While solar energy is becoming more prevalent in Rice County, a Faribault native and St. Olaf graduate has dedicated himself to promoting the renewable resource in places that need it most.
Brad Burkhartzmeyer grew up in Faribault and graduated from Faribault High School. He graduated from St. Olaf College in 1982, spending half of his four years there studying abroad. After graduation, he moved to Mexico.
During his years of traveling the world, Burkhartzmeyer learned about the difficulties developing nations face and he sought answers to their problems.
“He’s always had a big heart,” said Buck Burkhartzmeyer, Brad’s father and the owner of Burkhartzmeyer Shoes in downtown Faribault. “When he saw all those people in Mexico, he wanted to help.”
Burkhartzmeyer returned to the states and started an electrical company in Tacoma, Washington. After a decade of work there, he refocused his career on solar energy.
“I thought there was more that I could be doing that would be more beneficial,” he said. “I sold the electrical side and I kept the solar side of the business.”
Since 2005, Burkhartzmeyer has worked exclusively on solar energy, focusing his efforts on countries like Costa Rica, Mexico and India.
“I started branching out to other countries by looking for places that didn’t have electricity,” he said. “All you need is a couple of lights to change things for a family.”
His company, Sun’s Eye Solar, still helps the Tacoma area with its solar needs, but Burkhartzmeyer now donates roughly half of his time to working with communities in countries that need the functionality of solar.
His first project was working with Rotary Clubs to install solar panels at a girls college in India so its students would have someplace to study in their small town.
“We wanted a way for them to stay in town and get their college education,” he said.
Recently, Burkhartzmeyer has worked closely with the Solar Electric Light Fund, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit. They hired Burkhartzmeyer to start help them start a solar training center in Haiti.
“We’ve been working the last two years a lot in Haiti,” he said of the nation where 80 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to the World Bank. “Getting teachers there the equipment and solar technology they need.”
There, Burkhartzmeyer works with students attending a technical college to learn to become electricians that can install solar panels in their communities. Helping communities install the panels is one thing, but giving them the tools to do it themselves is quite another.
“In the long run, me flying over there and helping them do something is great and makes me feel good, but if they know how to do it, they can create their own industry and job market,” he said. “That way, they can move forward much faster than me helping out here and there.”
Now, Burkhartzmeyer is working to open a similar school in Costa Rice for Spanish-speaking people who want to learn about solar. In addition, Burkhartzmeyer is one of the founding members of a small nonprofit called Remote Energy, that reaches out to Native American communities in the United States, like the Sioux in South Dakota, where he helped them install solar on their local radio station so they can operate 24 hours a day.
For his efforts, Burkhartzmeyer recently was awarded as the Certified Clean Energy Training Provider of the Year by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council.
It’s an honor given annually to people who make a difference in the solar industry each year. The award is cumulative and based on one’s record and impact on the solar community over a number of years.
Looking back, Burkhartzmeyer credits his love for traveling and learning other cultures as to why he has enjoyed working abroad so much.
“My parents had done some traveling and I’d always wanted to travel,” said Burkhartzmeyer. “When I got into St. Olaf, I did a lot of their international studies programs which started it all.”
Burkhartzmeyer is grateful for the work he has been able to do.
“As an older person, looking back now, those experiences teaching and meeting people in other cultures and seeing how dynamic the rest of the world is and how much energy and new information there is, it’s so exciting to be in this industry at this time.”
Gunnar Olson covers city government, public safety and business for the Faribault Daily News. Reach him at (507) 333-3128, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @fdnGunnar.