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Renewable energy leader reflects on time at Illinois

Jigar Shah receives the Distinguished Alumni award from Professor Emeritus Ty NewellJigar Shah (B.S. Mechanical Engineering '96) evidently likes taking on challenges—and succeeding. While at Illinois, he directed Engineering Open House as just a sophomore, among many other accomplishments. As an entrepreneur, he founded what would become the nation's largest solar services provider.

He returned to campus in April to receive the Distinguished Alumni honor from MechSE. While here, he reflected on his time in school and his accrual of real-world achievements in the short time since he graduated.

"I got a tremendous amount of responsibility at a very young age," Shah said of his experiences as a mechanical engineering student, particularly his EOH management.

For EOH, an event that draws 20,000 visitors to campus each year, Shah led a large group of students from throughout the College of Engineering and pioneered such innovations as a food tent and T-shirt sales. He said learning how to overcome logistical and political obstacles in the process was an important part of his education that came from such extracurricular responsibilities.

Shah also said his experience as an undergraduate in mechanical engineering has helped prepare him for his biggest undertakings later in life.

"The thing about mechanical engineering is that it's one of the most flexible curriculums in the engineering college," Shah said. "And that really allowed me to take a variety of courses, so I was able to develop a pretty well-rounded education."

In 2003, Shah founded SunEdison, a solar electricity company that changed the way customers purchase solar energy and became the largest producer of solar services in the United States by 2009.

"I’m probably more business-minded than engineering-minded," he said. "But having that engineering core is just so critical in working in the renewable engineering industry because technology really plays a big role."

In building a solar services provider that Shah said was "trying to replicate the experience" that consumers had with the existing utility structure, he and his partners wanted consumers to be able to purchase electricity from solar plants with "no money down." Standing in their way was a complex patchwork of codes and regulations, as well as the need to get the solar plants physically connected to the existing power grid.

"If you don’t question people’s motives but instead question their conclusions and try to figure out how we actually go through the facts together to get there, you really can make a big difference," he said. "And I have to say that a lot of that I learned at Illinois. I think a part of my success has come from really knowing what I could change and what I couldn't change and learning to know the difference."

By changing the way commercial electricity consumers purchased solar energy, Shah and his colleagues at SunEdison were able to actually improve the experience. He said they not only matched the utility pricing at the time, but their contracts offered pricing below what the conventional electric utility was charging. This saved customers money right away, but SunEdison was also able to lock in the electricity rates for the next 20 years, providing a hedge against future rate increases.

"Electricity prices went up an average of 4.5 percent a year since 2000," he said. "So, because our prices were only going up by, let’s say, one percent a year, it really ended up being a lot of money savings for the customer."

In 2009, Shah sold SunEdison for $200 million. Shortly thereafter, he became the first CEO of The Carbon War Room, a global organization founded by Richard Branson and Virgin Unite that "harnesses the power of entrepreneurs to unlock gigaton-scale, market-driven solutions to climate change," according to the organization's website.

"This was a really amazing opportunity for me because it allowed me to take the systems thinking that I developed at SunEdison and apply it to 17 different sectors, from cement to agriculture, livestock, shipping, aviation, and renewable fuels," Shah said.

Today, Shah continues to serve on the board of the Carbon War Room, but is now CEO of his own firm, Jigar Shah Consulting. He said he sees clean energy as a huge growth area and thinks that MechSE produces graduates who are well-equipped for relevant work in that area. But, he said he would like to see the campus become greener and he encouraged students to take a more active role in working to make changes within the university.

This article was posted on September 17th, 2012.