Sunelco: The Sun Electric Company

Dan Brandborg founded Sunelco to harvest another of Montana's abundant resources: open sky.

| August/September 1991

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    Sunelco showed such early promise, In Business magazine made Dan and Becky Brandborg's company its cover story.

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Montana's Dan Brandborg was paying attention when experts said that, to improve the health of the economy, one should focus on the production of "value-added" products. This typically involves taking a plentiful inexpensive local resource and converting it into something more useful and, hence, more valuable.

Historically, in Montana "resource" meant timber or minerals, but Brandborg had his eye on something more environmentally benign than the blockish clearcuts near his cabin in southwestern Montana. His research told him that the most valuable and abundant resource in the "Big Sky Country" is—well, sky.

Today, Brandborg's business, Sunelco Inc. (the Sun Electric Company), sells solar electricity systems that enable hundreds of people around the country to take a plentiful resource—sunlight—and transform it into a highly useful product: electricity.

What's more, by selling solar panels, those slabs of silicon that convert sunshine into electricity, Sunelco has quickly become a prosperous example of the new wave of "green," or environmentally conscious, low-impact businesses that communities are seeking.

The principles of solar electricity, or photovoltaics ("PV" in industry shorthand) have been known for decades, but because of high costs and relatively low efficiency they didn't come into their own until the U.S. space program put them to work. The same qualities that made solar electricity attractive to NASA in the '60s—chiefly its flexibility and its reliability in extreme conditions—make it an attractive choice for people seeking self-sufficiency.

Sunelco's founder grew up in an environmentally aware family. Fascinated by the potential of solar energy, Brandborg worked two years in Maryland for Solarex, the nation's largest manufacturer of solar panels. Then he saw an opportunity to bring that experience out west.

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