Small Bitterroot Valley Solar Company Does Business Worldwide
Tom Bishop, co-owner and president of solar energy business Sunelco in Victor, Montana, is an educator at heart. An Alabama native, Tom moved to Montana in 1977 as a schoolteacher, fell in love with the Bitterroot Valley, and never looked back. Motivated by a lifelong interest in renewable energy, he jumped at the chance to join the Sunelco team – which was led at the time by founders Dan and Becky Brandborg – in 1988. After working his way up through the company, he took the opportunity to buy it in 2002.
Though he’s been out of the classroom for more than two decades now, Tom still considers himself a teacher. Sunelco’s business is designing and installing solar energy systems, but Tom and his four employees find that they spend much of their time educating customers about solar energy and the steps involved in designing, building, and operating solar energy systems.
And on a deeper level, Tom doesn’t just want people to know how solar energy works; he wants to change the way Montanans think about where their electricity comes from. His message: it’s possible to create your own power, on your own roof, rather than relying on the electricity produced by far-off power plants.
Sunelco spreads that message far and wide through their Planning Guide and Product Catalog. Nearly 50 percent of Sunelco’s business is out of state, and the company regularly ships solar systems to Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean.
But though Sunelco’s reach is global, Tom is equally passionate about his business’s role in its Bitterroot Valley community. Sunelco is currently designing a solar energy system for the Bitterroot Community College/Ravalli County Economic Development Association, and will be donating $4,400 in labor to get the system installed. Tom and his staff are active community volunteers and the business regularly donates to community causes.
Tom reports that the solar industry has changed dramatically over the 24 years he’s been with Sunelco. Most significantly for consumers, the price of solar panels has dropped rapidly over the past few years, and solar energy is now affordable for middle class Montanans.
“You can get a solar system installed on your roof for less than the cost of some flat-screen TVs; and unlike the TV, the solar system will save you money on your electric bill every month,” says Tom.
The challenge for Sunelco is to educate the public about how affordable solar energy has become. As usual, Tom finds himself in the role of educator. Not that he minds: “I love teaching. That’s why I like this job much,” he confesses.