In many ways, Brent Harris is a Calgary stereotype.
He grew up here, went to Western Canada High School and went away to Ontario for university. He lives on a 40-acre ranch just outside of Calgary where his wife, Andrea, trains show-jumping horses.
Career-wise, he started out in the oil and gas industry as an engineer for SNC-Lavalin, before co-founding his own energy company. This, however, is where Harris breaks the mould. His company, Sustainable Energy Technologies (SET), is about harnessing the power of the sun, not siphoning black gold out of the earth.
While the company has dabbled in a variety of technologies over the years including wind power and fuel cell applications, SET’s key focus right now is grid-tied solar power — systems on houses that feed electricity into the power grid when it’s sunny and draw from it when it’s not.
Harris is not only one of the inventors of the company’s key patents, he is also responsible for product development and expanding the company’s intellectual property. For the time being, that requires racking up a lot of airmiles.
Despite the fact solar energy systems thrive under Alberta’s big, bright sky, the province has yet to develop a burgeoning solar sector, says Harris. Given this, it’s not surprising the best advice he’s received from solar-power pioneers in other communities is to persevere.
“I’m glad to be doing what we’re doing here in Calgary, but it’s not the centre of our industry,” he says. “It’s typically a European/Californian business … Japan, as well. But we’re pretty optimistic.”
And he has reason to be. In addition to SET having been named one of Deloitte & Touche’s Green 15 companies in both 2007 and 2008, Harris’s technical leadership helped the company raise a further $10 million in investment last year.
Harris can also be optimistic about the increasing number of business and engineering grads who come to him for advice on how to get started in solar power when local entry-level positions are hard to come by.
“The advice I give to them is: If you have an idea, get a job [in another industry] first while you work on your idea, and then go off and do your own thing,” he says. The other option involves going where the action is for awhile. “In Ontario right now, you’re going to find a lot more opportunities in the solar power industry, or Europe is really good if you have the opportunity to travel and work there or go to school.”
Of course, he’d never advise anyone to stay away permanently — just as a means-to–an-end of coming back here and starting their own company so the industry of the future can gain a foothold in the foothills.
He is, after all, a Calgary boy through and through.
Why he’s the top: He is forging ahead with a technology of the future in a home market that doesn’t always make in-novation easy.
The key to his success: He perseveres, despite policy setbacks. “It would be really great for Alberta to embrace solar power, but it’s not critical for our business,” Harris says. “We go to where those policies do exist; it just means a little longer trip. It’s hard to base your business around changing the minds of politicians and bureaucrats.”