by Laura Kussman
When Chris and Justin Wolfe purchased Rainshadow Solar — Washington’s oldest solar installation company — in 2017, they saw it as more than just an opportunity to return to the Pacific Northwest and live in the San Juans permanently. The couple had recently lost Justin’s mother to cancer on Christmas day.
“It was a wake-up call to not wait to do things in life,” Chris shared from the Rainshadow supplies barn beneath their home on Orcas. “The following President’s Day weekend, we were up here to sail and take a long weekend away from Austin.”
That’s when Justin’s dad spotted the Craigslist advertisement for Rainshadow Solar. He asked his son and daughter-in-law to look into it on his behalf. At the time, Chris worked with the energy team at an environmental defense fund in Austin, Texas and Justin managed a team of meteorologists and analysts for a sizable wind developer. The duo met with the previous owner and decided to go for it. Carpe diem.
Since purchasing the business’ assets, the Wolfes have tripled the size of the company, both in number of employees and annual projects. Rainshadow Solar projects include grid-connected and off-grid solar design and installations, as well as battery storage systems for primary and back-up applications. The team unveiled a fresh brand for Rainshadow Solar & Energy Solutions, Inc., invested in mint work vans for the crew and expanded employee benefits and training opportunities.
Electrician apprentice Tessa Ormenyi, office manager Tami Kopp and lead electrician Brett Bartmasser held onto their positions throughout the shift in ownership. Today, there are two lead electricians and five apprentices, including Gaelyn Moore who relocated from Montana for the position in 2019. Chris says the final hiring decision for a potential team member is made by the crew.
“Building a solid team is about bringing people together with unique life experiences who may have different ways of approaching challenges,” Chris shared. “The crew is so amazing. Clients have given them gift certificates, taken them out for dinner and happy hour, given them cash tips. It’s rewarding.”
Ormenyi and Moore, sitting comfortably atop wooden wire spools in the barn, agreed. Ormenyi, who is within arms-reach of completing the 4,000-hour requirement needed to become a residential electrician, shared she has not yet heard of another female-identifying electrician in San Juan County.
According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 2.2 percent of electricians are women and 9.5 percent of electrical contracting businesses are owned by women.
“I can come up with a number of reasons for that bottleneck but ultimately I think the male-dominated electrical field deters women from being in charge, taking charge of a team. Women aren’t ‘supposed’ to be in the trades. At Rainshadow, I feel that barrier is lessened since everyone’s work is valued and every project involves team input,” Ormenyi said, adding she believes Rainshadow as an electrical contractor is an anomaly in that way.
Ormenyi previously worked as an activist and legal advocate for survivors of sexual violence in San Francisco.
In addition to working at Rainshadow, the team shares other interests including a love of the outdoors and a passion for renewable, clean energy and the environment. It was partially these passions that attracted Moore to the company and the trade.
She grew up on 40 acres of off-grid land outside of Glacier National Park, Montana, which her mother purchased when she was 23 years old. Both of her parents are self-employed artisans — one is a blacksmith and the other sews musical instrument cases. For three summers and a winter, Moore worked in Antarctica for the United States Antarctic Program delivering fuel around the continent to different airfields and field camps.
“I started building [an off-grid] cabin in the off-season between Antarctica summers. I wanted a place of my own to return to when I came back to Montana. A retreat of my own and a happy place I could share. In 5 months it was dried in with a roof, windows and siding, so I left for Antarctica again for a year. When I finally did come back to Montana, I lived in my cabin for about a year finishing it up,” Moore shared. “I started thinking, ‘oh, electrical is a great way to work toward renewable energy!’ That’s when a friend told me I could work in solar and get my electrician’s certificate. I still can’t get over how lucky I am.”
Rainshadow Solar is located at Westsound Marina, across from the marina office and store. Call 360-376-5336 or visit www.rainshadowsolar.com for more information and particulars on renewable energy tax incentives from state and federal governments.