Solar Tribune

Solar Head of State: An Interview with Director and Co-Founder James Ellsmoor


Seeking to harness the untapped resources in communities that could most benefit from rooftop solar installations, James Ellsmoor co-founded and serves as Director of Solar Head of State (SHOS), a nonprofit working to promote renewable energy worldwide through iconic and high-profile rooftop solar installations and coordinated public education programs. SHOS currently has a focus on the Caribbean and Pacific Island regions and will this year install solar on Jamaica House, the official residence of the Jamaican Prime Minister.

I recently had the opportunity to interview James about the work SHOS does, his thoughts on the long-term future of renewable energy, and what keeps him driven towards his admirable goals.

Solar Head of State

Matt Chester: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer a few of my questions, James. Let’s just jump right into it– when it comes to the mission of Solar Head of State to install solar systems on the Executive Buildings, what has been the overarching response you’ve received from countries? Were they skeptical or resistant, or were they quick to jump on board with your projects?

James Ellsmoor: Solar Head of State started with a campaign in the United States asking President Obama to install solar on the White House. It then became pretty clear that we could get a lot of traction in small island developing states (SIDS), and we have since done projects in the Maldives, Saint Lucia, and Jamaica. Solar Head of State installations are small projects aiming to showcase the benefits of renewable energy, and we work in countries that are already pursuing renewable energy goals. SIDS are ideal in that sense because they have some of the highest electricity costs in the world, and an over-reliance on imported diesel. Additionally, they are very vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and so many SIDS countries feel that they have a moral imperative to lead by example. Despite mostly having minute greenhouse gas emissions, SIDS can be demonstration sites for clean technology. In turn, Solar Head of State projects are a useful media tool for highlighting the wider work happening in these small but ambitious nations.

Chester: There are only so many Executive Buildings in the world on which to install solar, so what’s the long-term game plan for Solar Head of State if you hypothetically reach saturation? Obviously, many more places could benefit from solar, would you then move on to recognizable landmarks or other cultural and tourist destinations?

Ellsmoor: Solar Head of State is of course limited in scope but there is still plenty of work to be done! There are still many other countries that we hope will work with us to install solar on government buildings, in addition to cities, states, provinces, and territories. Each country is different, so the most suitable building could be an executive residence, parliament building, or any other notable public building. In some countries, we have found that the energy ministry could be more appropriate, and we would use the installation as a capacity building exercise for ministry staff. We recently signed agreements with the Pacific Island Development Forum and Organization of Eastern Caribbean States to work with all of their members, and so we have our work cut out to finalize funding and implement these projects. Next year, Solar Head of State will be expanding the scope to include a solar schools and education program– stay tuned for updates!

Chester: Has Solar Head of State put effort into branching out its educational opportunities towards solar power to also include the accessory technologies that can further enhance the viability of solar, things like microgrids, energy storage, etc.?

Ellsmoor: Storage is becoming increasing affordable and so I hope that we can find ways to incorporate it into future Solar Head of State projects. There is also a great argument for storage as part of building climate resiliency: if there is a power outage during a natural disaster then we want public buildings to be able to stay in operation, so they can be used to coordinate response and recovery. The main limitations to incorporating this is the additional funding needed, but governments are waking up to the importance of storage and microgrids, so I expect we will be doing more of this for future projects.

Chester: The part about microgrids and solar power being important during power outages in the all-too-common natural disasters is a great one. I know in the wake of last year’s hurricanes that decimated the grid of Puerto Rico, a number of solar companies stepped up to try and help rebuild and turn the lights back on through new solar installations— but if those are installed before a disaster strikes, then recovery can be much safer and go more quickly!

Moving back in time to the origination of Solar Head of State, can you speak to how you went about getting investment in the early stages– were the potential investors you approached immediately excited with this idea or did you more often finds yourself having to do move convincing than maybe you had expected?

Ellsmoor: Every Solar Head of State project has a substantial contribution made by the recipient government– it is important that this project is done in partnership so that all parties benefit. We also work with some private sector companies that have donated panels (Solaria), microinverters (Enphase Energy), and design expertise (Solar Island Energy). We have also worked with local project developers Envisage Energy (Jamaica) and Noah Energy (Saint Lucia). Funding really varies hugely from project to project, but overall we have found partners very receptive to the initiative. The high-profile nature of Solar Head of State installations means that we can have a lot of impact and really change the public perception on renewable energy.

Renewable Energy Efforts in Small Island, Rural, and Remote Nations

Chester: You’ve previously noted that some unique challenges in installing renewable energy projects in developing and rural communities include the knowledge and education barriers, as well as unique financing issues. What have you found to be the most significant challenge to overcome?

Ellsmoor: It is difficult to make any generalizations here because there is so much variation between countries. In SIDS nations many people are aware of the socioeconomic benefits that renewables can have, but the big barrier is finance. Financing is just not available enough for renewable energy in SIDS and we really need to see a greater involvement of the private sector. Despite potentially high returns (consumers in many SIDS may pay between 20 and 55 U.S. cents per kilowatthour), there are some big policy and transaction barriers that need to be overcome, and economies of scale are always going to be an issue.

Chester: On the other hand, can you give an example or two of what sort of opportunities lay before these nations and communities regarding renewable energy and innovative grid systems and the tangible benefits they may offer compared with traditionally-established grids in Western countries?

Ellsmoor: Most SIDS have a high percentage of households connected to the grid, with the real issue being the cost of supply. Two notable exceptions are Haiti and Papua New Guinea, both of which have much lower electrification rates than their neighbors. There is a growing trend towards privately-run micro-utilities in Haiti, with companies like Sigora operating private grids in rural parts of the country. This ‘leap-frogging’ of technology was something we also saw in the communications industry where many developing countries have a high rate of mobile phone ownership and skipped the now obsolete landline era. I think that the microgrid technology being implemented in many developing countries (particularly parts of East and Southern Africa) is going to be something we can learn a lot from and could be implemented in North America as localized storage changes our relationship with electricity supplies.

Chester: As you well know, one of the tragedies of the current climate crisis is that many of these island and rural nations that contributed by far the least to global CO2 emissions are the very ones that are most immediately vulnerable to the perils of climate change. Regarding installing renewable energy and climate solutions, would you say this harsh reality results in a sense of national pride in being the ones to so willingly embrace renewable energy, or is there a sense of hostility towards the industrialized nations that took advantage of the dirty fuels to get an economic leg up at the expense of the developing nations? I guess put another way, do you see renewable projects being installed with a sense of optimism or more a fear of the future?

Ellsmoor: In islands around the world, there is a sense of pride in being leaders in developing cutting-edge solutions to environmental issues. In Scotland, the Orkney Islands have some of the most advanced marine energy projects in the world and are pioneering underwater data centers. SIDS like Aruba and Palau are on their way to meeting ambitious targets that have been set for renewable energy.  As well as the moral imperative for developing these solutions, it gives a great deal of optimism in regions that have long been considered ‘peripheral’ to the global economy. Islands have to deal with high energy costs and the first impacts of climate change, and so it makes sense that they would be the ones pioneering solutions.

I also think industrialized nations that continue to emit greenhouse gases need to put more money forward to pay for the damage being done through climate change. We have seen efforts to develop this with the Green Climate Fund, but many small nations have found this money difficult to access due to the complex bureaucracy involved.

Questions About Your Experience

Chester: You’ve made such an impact with Solar Head of State at such a young age, even being named to the Forbes ’30 Under 30′ list.  I imagine that being so young while working on these grand projects can come with a unique set of benefits (lack of familial responsibilities tying you to one place and having the energy that youth provides) but also some challenges (perhaps getting people to take you as seriously upon first meeting). Can you tell me a little bit about how you were inspired to make such an impact so quick out of the gate and what challenges and opportunities you have found your age to provide?

Ellsmoor: While at university, I played a game that maximized the advantages of being a student while downplaying my youth at other times. Universities have so many resources that students often take for granted and I was able to access these to a maximum effect. At other times I would not mention that I was an undergraduate, so I would be taken more seriously! Now I am two years out of college and my lifestyle is pretty ‘nomadic.’ I’m able to work from anywhere and so that has given me opportunities to travel to many conferences and meet people face to face while keeping to a budget. I even completed a Masters in Island Studies online while traveling. After a while, moving somewhere new every week became tiring and so now I aim to stay in the same place for at least a few months at a time.

Chester: Where do you see your career in solar and renewables going next? You seem like the type of guy who already has his next five big ideas lined up– care to give a preview of what direction you might head next?

Ellsmoor: Solar Head of State has some exciting developments coming up and so the next year is going to keep me very busy! I am also trying to grow out team within our existing funding constraints which will free me up to work in other areas. The nonprofit model has opened so many doors, but also has its constraints, so I am currently in the process of registering my own media company to allow more time for private sector work. This will include communications and social media and I also will be running some courses and events to work with other entrepreneurs with a global outlook. I have a blog site under development that will merge my interests in travel and energy. So, I am very excited for what 2019 will bring!

Chester: Lastly, does your passion for renewable energy at all influence your choice of drink? I ask because if you find yourself in Washington DC anytime soon, I’d love to buy you a beer– perhaps even one from the list of breweries I compiled that use the most renewable energy!

Ellsmoor: Well now I need to find an excuse to visit DC! Let’s choose one of those solar-powered beers (or ciders?) and go for a drink!


For more information on sustainable development, follow James’ newsletter ‘Island Innovation’ by clicking here, and you can follow James on Twitter (@jellsmoor) for regular updates.

About the author: Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Washington DC, studied engineering and science & technology policy at the University of Virginia, and operates the Chester Energy and Policy blog and website to share news, insights, and advice in the fields of energy policy, energy technology, and more. For more quick hits in addition to posts on this blog, follow him on Twitter @ChesterEnergy.

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