Real Goods Solar Inc. NASDAQ: RGSE is a publicly traded residential solar power integrator doing business as RGS Energy. The company established its roots as a provider of sustainable lifestyle products through its retail division, dating back to 1978, when it sold some of the first retail solar panels in the United States. The company now has customers in all 50 American states and all 10 Canadian provinces.
In 1977, 29-year-old John Schaeffer lived on an off-grid community in Mendocino County, California, and commuted 35 miles (56 km) to work each day as a computer operator. As one of the few people with a vehicle and a job in town, he became the designated person to pick up supplies for the community. This led him to create his own general store that sold all the “real goods” for off-grid living at fair prices. In 1978, Schaeffer took $3,000 in savings and a $5,000 loan from his father and opened the first Real Goods store in Willits, California.
One day, a man from Los Angeles arrived at the store with a Porsche full of solar panels. First developed at Bell Laboratories in the 1950s and used in the 1960s in the NASA space program, solar panels had yet to find commercial applications. On a whim, John bought 100 of these novel 9-Watt panels for $600 apiece. He quickly sold them for $900 each to people interested in simple living in Mendocino County who also wanted to enjoy light fixtures, TV and a few of mainstream civilization’s other creature comforts without doing business with utilities. These sales made Real Goods one of the first companies to sell a solar panel commercially in the United States. The success of the Willits store prompted Schaeffer to open an additional store in Ukiah, California, in 1980 and a third store in Santa Rosa, California in 1982. That same year, Real Goods published the first edition of The Solar Living Source Book, which was written as a comprehensive source for sustainable living principles and practices.
By 1985, Real Goods' annual sales were $3 million, but growth was erratic, and all three retail stores were closed. Schaeffer invested his last $3,000 in a 16-page catalog and rejuvenated the company as a mail order business operating out of his garage, sending catalogs to the 2,000-name mailing list the company had accumulated. Customers returned and the company was revived.
During the 1990s, Real Goods expanded its business by presenting a clear message about the benefits of solar energy. In 1990, the entire solar industry received a boost from the 20th anniversary of Earth Day and the Persian Gulf War, and Real Goods took advantage of it. That year, the company also set its Billion Pound Goal to keep one billion pounds of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere by 2000, which it completed three years early in 1997.
In 1991, Real Goods held its first direct public stock offering, selling stock directly to its customers, and raised $1 million. The following year Real Goods declared a National Off-The-Grid Day, which soon became the National Tour of Solar Homes, during which the public could see solar-powered living firsthand. Real Goods held its second stock offering in 1993, and in 1994, used those funds to break ground on the Solar Living Center (SLC) in Hopland, California. The same year, Real Goods launched its e-commerce business. In 1998, Schaeffer formed the Solar Living Institute (SLI), a nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote sustainable living through inspirational environmental education. The SLI offers classes and workshops and manages the SLC.
Real Goods grew significantly in the first decade of the 21st century. By this time, the company had five brick and mortar stores located in Hopland, Santa Rosa, Los Gatos, Berkeley and West Los Angeles, California. The company’s catalog and e-commerce businesses grew as well, and Real Goods increased its annual revenues to $19 million.
In 2001, Real Goods merged with the sustainable lifestyle company Gaiam Inc. (NASDAQ: GAIA) in a stock swap worth $8.7 million. Per the merger agreement, Real Goods shareholders received one share of Class A GAIA common stock for each 10 shares of Real Goods stock owned. Gaiam consolidated order processing and distribution in Cincinnati and accounting responsibilities in Broomfield, Colorado, and implemented a new supply chain management information system.
With the influx of additional capital and the power of Gaiam behind it, Real Goods looked for a promising growth opportunity and found it in the residential solar installation market. Since Real Goods was now headquartered in Colorado, yet maintained the SLC, SLI and offices in California, and since the federal government and both states offered attractive tax incentives for installing solar systems, Real Goods opened its residential solar system installation division in both states in 2002. The commercial solar business was also growing, and Real Goods launched its commercial solar installation division in 2004.
In 2008, Real Goods positioned itself for aggressive growth by separating its mail order division from Gaiam, re-launching the Real Goods website as a stand-alone e-commerce channel, expanding its solar division, and going public. On May 8, 2008, Real Goods completed an initial public offering as Real Goods Solar and raised $55 million. Real Goods Solar began trading on the NASDAQ under the symbol RSOL. Through holding 100 percent of Real Goods’ Class B shares, Gaiam maintained control of Real Goods.
Between 2007 and 2008 Real Goods acquired four solar installation companies in California and became one of the nation’s largest solar installers. In November 2007, Real Goods Solar acquired San Rafael, California-based Marin Solar for $3.2 million in cash and stock. In a similar deal inked in January 2008, RSOL purchased Carlson Solar, headquartered in Hemet, California for $3.2 million in cash and stock. In August 2008, Real Goods Solar completed its third acquisition — Santa Cruz, California-based Independent Energy Systems for $3.6 million. In October 2008, RSOL completed its fourth acquisition in less than a year by acquiring Regrid Power of Campbell, California in a deal valued at $3.8 million in cash and stock. With the acquisition of Marin Solar, Real Goods added the commercial experience and expertise necessary to position itself as a major competitor in the commercial solar installation market.
On June 22, 2011, Real Goods Solar announced a merger agreement with Connecticut-based renewable energy installer Earth Friendly Energy Group Holdings, LLC, d/b/a Alteris Renewables. The merger was completed on December 20, 2011, and the combined company retained the Real Goods Solar name, NASDAQ ticker (RSOL), and Louisville, Colorado headquarters. Alteris equity holders were issued 8.7 million shares of Real Goods Solar Class A common stock in exchange for 100% of Alteris' outstanding equity.
The merger was seen by both companies as an opportunity to increase its national footprint, as Real Goods Solar operated in the West and Alteris operated in the Northeast. The companies' respective regions were considered the two fastest-growing markets for solar installations, and both companies had more than 30 years of experience operating in them.
Today, Real Goods Solar maintains its headquarters in Louisville, Colorado. By the start of 2013, the company had installed over 235 MW of solar power across more than 22,500 solar energy systems for residential, commercial, and utility properties.
Real Goods' retail division is headquartered at its flagship retail store in Hopland, California, where e-commerce and order fulfillment operations are located. The Real Goods Store and its e-commerce website offer a range of items for sustainable on- and off-grid living, including urban gardening and remote homesteading supplies, pond and composting tools, camping gear, organic bedding and clothing, non-toxic cleaning and laundry solutions, air and water purifiers, appliances, and renewable energy systems for solar, wind, hydro and solar hot water.
The Hopland store was opened in 1996 on the Solar Living Center grounds. Housed in a strawbale building utilizing passive solar design principles, the store is lighted and heated by an onsite solar system and by south-facing windows that capture the sun’s heat.
In the early 2000s, Real Goods refocused on its national mail order and local solar installation businesses and closed all of its physical stores except for the Hopland store. Catalog printing was stopped in the winter of 2010 in favor of a paperless commerce solution.
Real Goods published its first edition of The Solar Living Source Book in 1982. It was written as a one-stop information source for renewable energy and sustainable living. Now in its 30th anniversary (13th) edition, and printed using soy inks on 100 percent post-consumer content recycled paper, the Solar Living Source Book is a comprehensive reference for the layperson on renewable energy technologies and sustainable living. There are more than 600,000 copies in print in 44 English-speaking countries.
In 1998, John Schaeffer founded a 501(c)(3) nonprofit education institute called the Solar Living Institute (SLI) with the mission of promoting sustainable living through inspirational environmental education. The result is an organization that functions both as a renewable energy and green living experiential classroom and as an example of successful sustainable development. Throughout each year the SLI hosts between 50 and 75 hands-on workshops on everything from photovoltaic system design and installation and strawbale home construction to beekeeping, green career seminars and its Earth Day for Kids programs that introduces inner-city kids to renewable energy and environmental responsibility. The SLI also runs a year-round internship program that offers interns in-depth, hands-on training in renewable energy systems, sustainable building, community gardening and more. In 2009, the SLI began teaching classes online and in 2010, the nonprofit launched an online solar energy training program. The SLI had taught more than 1,000 workshops to nearly 10,000 students.
The SLI and the Real Goods Store are both headquartered at the Solar Living Center (SLC), a 5,000-square-foot (460 m) strawbale building surrounded by 12 acres (49,000 m) of permaculture gardens in Hopland, California. The building was designed using passive solar principles and requires little additional heat or light, and the gardens are laid out in a pattern similar to that of U.S. climate zones. In 2000, Real Goods installed a commercial solar system at the SLC that produces 160,000 kW-hours of electricity annually. Opened in 1996, the SLC serves as a “place in the sun” for everyone interested in sustainable living. Approximately 200,000 people visit the SLC each year. The SLC also hosts the annual Solfest celebration, a four-day renewable energy and sustainable living fair and fundraiser for the SLI that includes workshops, demonstrations, educational panels, keynote speakers, music, artists, wine tasting and dancing.
In 1990, based on concerns about global warming, Real Goods set a goal to keep one billion pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere within 10 years through customer purchases of products that reduce CO2 production. Calculations of CO2 reduction on a product-by-product basis were based on a formula developed by the Union of Concerned Scientists. In addition, Real Goods changed its energy usage, shipping and other corporate practices to become more environmentally friendly. The company tracked its progress through regular updates in the Real Goods catalog. In 1997, that goal was achieved three years ahead of schedule. In 2005, Real Goods and Gaiam set another goal to eliminate one billion pounds of CO2 from the atmosphere by 2010. In 2008, that goal was achieved two years early.
In 2007, Real Goods increased the post-consumer recycled paper content for its catalogs from 20 percent to 30 percent. This earned the company Forest Stewardship Council certification. From 2008 to 2010 Real Goods lowered its paper and printing impact another 75 percent by reducing paper weight, catalog trim size and reducing the number of catalogs mailed by driving more business to the Internet. Real Goods customers were asked to reduce the number of catalogs they requested, and catalogs were mailed based on past purchase activity. Customers were also encouraged to shop at Real Goods’ website as exemplified by the “Don’t Buy From This Catalog” campaign the company ran in its Spring/Summer 2010 and Fall/Holiday 2010 catalogs.
In 2006, Real Goods and Gaiam partnered with The Conservation Fund to introduce the world’s first carbon-neutral product shipping program called Go Zero. Gaiam Real Goods made a contribution that allowed Go Zero to plant nearly 1,500 trees, which offset the company’s operations at its headquarters and fulfillment center for that year.
In 2008, Real Goods — with Gaiam as its majority shareholder — moved into new corporate offices in Louisville, Colorado and went solar with a 100 kW solar system installed by Real Goods Solar that provides approximately 20 percent of the company’s energy requirements. In addition, the new headquarters feature low-VOC paints, bamboo flooring and cabinetry, earth-friendly carpet and glue, and recycled office cubicles. In 2008, Real Goods also added composting collection to its comprehensive office recycling program, and some company parties are now zero-waste events.
The company made Inc. magazine’s Top 500 Fastest Growing Companies list and John Schaeffer was the Small Business Administration’s Small Business Person of the Year in 1994. Schaeffer also received the 2007 Green Power Pioneer Award, and was inducted into the International Green Industry Hall of Fame in March 2013. Real Goods has received three Rodale Awards, as well as news coverage in The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Time and numerous other publications.