In 2003, Jigar Shah envisioned building a company using photons. Almost every modern energy source had worked the same way: burn fossil fuels, boil water, generate steam, turn a turbine. Photovoltaic panels were different. Sunlight was all that was needed to turn photons into electricity.
“I thought it was cool,” says Shah, who founded SunEdison with $20,000 in savings after leaving BP Solar. “I’m not sure I was motivated by climate change. It felt like something that needed to break through.” And it did. After setting up its first solar array in 2004, the company built more than 4.3 gigawatts of solar arrays by 2012, enough to power nearly 1 million homes.
But Shah’s plan to go public was derailed by the financial crisis. He sold the company to MEMC, a silicon manufacturer that adopted SunEdison’s name in 2009. The company went on an acquisition spree, binging on debt, and eventually plunged into bankruptcy.