David Amster-Olszewski ’09 didn’t grow up thinking about solar energy, but during his four years at Colorado College, it became the thing that excited him the most.
Amster-Olszewski grew up in Florida, and when it was time to choose a college he decided on CC, even though he had been accepted by several in the northeast. He was planning on a career in business and finance, following other family members who worked in investment and real estate.
But while he was studying at CC, Amster-Olszewski says he “began connecting the dots. I grew up loving the environment, but not understanding the connection between the things I was doing — the gas I was filling the car with — and the effect that had on the outdoors I loved.”
When he was a freshman, he wrote a paper on the effects of increasing oil prices on economies and he started researching renewable energy. Pretty soon, he says, “I was obsessed.”
During his junior year, he led a massive solar project at CC, raising $110,000 in just one week from students, campus departments, and donors, raising enough to install the first solar electric system at CC on the Edith Gaylord Apartments.
The more he learned about solar energy, Amster-Olszewski says “the more I just couldn’t get past a fundamental question: ‘What if consumers could choose the kind of energy they want, like they choose an Internet provider?’ ”
“One hundred years ago, Americans consumed energy differently — they chose kerosene, or whale oil, or paraffin wax. But after electricity, whatever was being fed onto the grid was what we got,” he says.
“I wanted to take something that’s complicated like utility bills and make it simple.”
That thought process — taking his own fundamental questions and answering them with a concrete plan — is what Amster-Olszewski says he learned at CC. “Mentors in the CC faculty and administration and staff and Board of Trustees were willing to put up with my crazy ideas. They were receptive to new ideas and encouraged them. They actually encouraged me to walk into their offices and say ‘I have this great idea.’”
Today Amster-Olszewski’s best “crazy idea” is the backbone of his innovative company, SunShare, which has contracted with the Pikes Peak Community Foundation and Colorado Springs Utilities to develop the Colorado Springs Solar Garden. The garden, with an array of 2,500 solar panels at the Venetucci Farm, is the first public-private partnership of its kind in the U.S., and is being studied by other states including California.
Colorado Springs Utilities customers can lease solar panels at the farm; the power their panels produce is sent to the Colorado Springs power grid and customers get credits on their monthly electric bills.
Amster-Olszewski is still hard at work on the project and is already working on a 10-year plan for what he calls “virtual utilities.” Facilities services director Chris Coulter said SunShare also recently signed a deal with Colorado College, where the college will purchase 1,000 solar panels. Over the 20-year project lease agreement, the college can save up to $589,850 in utility costs that can be contributed to other sustainability projects.
“It is an important step in our goal of becoming carbon neutral,” Coulter said.
When he isn’t working, Amster-Olszewski plays with his new puppy, and says he loves running, hiking, and backpacking.