Ryan Park had an irrepressibly sunny presence on The Bachelorette this season — surely a valuable quality when it comes to both dating and the business of solar energy. Park, director of business development for the California-based REC Solar, competed with 24 other men to win the heart of Ashley Hebert on the ABC reality show. He made it to the final six before being let go during his first one-on-one date with Hebert, when it seemed there was too much talk about the environment (including, yikes, water heaters) and not enough romantic spark.
Park, 32, returned to REC in mid-May, and the final episode of The Bachelorette aired on Monday with Hebert’s engagement to construction manager J.P. Rosenbaum. Park talked with the Great Energy Challenge blog about the experience of being on the show and its intersection with his work in solar energy.
How did you get interested in solar, and how did you get involved with REC?
I’ve always been an outdoorsman, loving the outdoors, born and raised in Fresno, California, and it gets really hot in the summer. [While studying business at Cal Poly,] I was thinking about Fresno and all the tract housing and wasted rooftops for all that sunlight, and serendipity took place when the gentleman that founded Kinko’s gave money to the College of Business, and the college sent me to have dinner with him. He asked me what my business idea was, and I pitched it to him. Two days later, I’m having lunch with two individuals that were involved with this company. That’s basically how it began. They’d already started it, but it was just really three engineers at the time. They didn’t really have the business side and I just came in to run the sales. That was 10 years ago. Now we’ve got about 630 employees.
And how did you get interested in going on The Bachelorette?
It was one night late [in June of last year] and a bunch of the sales managers were just emailing at night and b.s.ing with each other. One of the guys goes, “Ryan, I’m gonna nominate you for The Bachelor. You should be the eco-bachelor.” … Then I’m like, well, you know, why not? I’m single, I was recently out of a relationship. Three weeks later, I ended up wandering into a casting call thing — it was like American Idol basically, with how many people were there — I’m feeling like the biggest goon, like, I can’t believe I’m doing this. Sure enough, you get swept up in a whirlwind [and] next thing I know, I’m stepping out of a limo.
What was the reaction within the company to your going on the show?
Overall, it was incredibly positive. Everyone was so excited they could barely wait to go see me – I don’t want to say make a fool of myself [laughs] – but they could barely wait to see it! But what was really great was the overwhelming support … people just rallied and stepped up [to fill in for me during the nine-week absence], it was really cool.
You work on commercial solar accounts such as Costco, IKEA and DuPont. Some businesses are finding that installing solar can not only cut costs, but provide revenue when they sell surplus energy back to the grid. What are you seeing as the motivator for most businesses getting into solar?
At the core root, I’d say businesses go solar because it makes financial sense … So that’s the primary motivator. When you talk about some of them actually doing this as a revenue generator, you’re right, because most markets, you put in a solar system and it reduces your energy bill and you get your return by saving off of whatever you would otherwise buy electricity for. There are markets though, like New Jersey, Massachusetts and other small markets, where they’ll pay you for the renewable energy credits … Now real estate firms, are getting involved saying, “You know what? If you want to use our rooftop to put solar on top, you can do it and pay us a lease rate.” And that is where I really see a major trend coming.
At the beginning of the show, you got a pretty good plug with the clip showing you onsite at a solar installation. Have you seen any kind of a bump or level of interest in what you do and in REC because of the show? Or is it too early to tell?
The first to see it was, of course, the marketing department. They saw our Web hits go up pretty substantially … I think it’s more there’s a general branding for the industry, if you will — making people more aware that, hey, solar is starting to go mainstream and it can make sense in your area, so look into it. But it’s not like the winemaker [runner-up Ben Flajnik of Evolve Winery]. His wine is probably selling out everywhere!
It seemed like your sales managers got what they wished for in terms of you being the “eco-bachelor.” On the show, you really were. Do you feel like you got a fair shake in terms of the editing? All the talk about water heaters and caring for the environment that you kind of got hammered for, do you feel that that was a fair representation of what actually happened with Ashley?
[Groans, laughing] I think, generally speaking, they depicted me as I am. I’m completely fine with them talking about my eco-self, because I believe in it to my core. I mean resource scarcity is scary, and people have no idea what’s coming. Economists think that growth is going to continue to happen, build on itself, and it’s just not. The planet can’t support it.
So I don’t care. I’m happy if they portrayed that I believe in that, and if some people thought it was hokey and weird, yeah, you know, maybe I’m a bit of an outlier — I know I am. So that’s okay. I could have done without the sheer number [of clips] of the select few guys saying that I was annoying, because I had tons of friends on [the show], but that’s what it is.
Can you say anything about the speculation that you might be the next Bachelor?
Actually there’s really been nothing going on there. I’ve read the articles too [laughs], but at this point it’s just up in the air. From what I’ve read it seems like that’s something that doesn’t get announced or pushed until the middle of September so there’s still a lot of time ahead to simmer on it all, I guess.
Is it something you’d be open to?
You know, I probably would be open to it. I haven’t put much thought to it. I can see both sides of the coin, positive and I guess what could be construed as potentially negative. I don’t know if you saw the finale with JP and Ashley but, there’s no question those two are in love with each other. It can work so, it’s something I’d definitely consider.
I think it’s hard for people to understand, as they’re watching it from the outside, how quickly feelings develop between people on the show. Can you offer some insight into how that happens and what the show does to create that?
I mean yeah, having gone through it, there’s no question about it, there’s just something about being in an environment where you do not have other distractions, let’s call them life distractions. That is what you’re doing, that is what you’re focused on. And when you’re just in the moment and you’re in that world, you become so much more in tune with what you’re feeling and what’s going on, and everything accelerates. I mean, a week there feels like a month … People don’t understand it until they’re in it, and I sure as heck am one of those that didn’t understand it until I was in it, and it’s real. It’s intense.
Now that you’re out of it, how has it been readjusting? Are you still emotional from the experience?
You start going through [the healing] process, but then watching it on the show brings everything back. Even much later, sitting there in the hot seat with Chris Harrison at The Men Tell All and seeing it again, sure enough, those emotions are buried there and they come out. So yeah, I’m OK, but it definitely brings it back every time I see it or talk about it.
So how do you feel about being back at work, is it easy getting back into things?
Yeah, because it’s something I do love, but there’s no doubt about it, there are thoughts going through your mind of what can I do that’s more. It’s amazing the amount of impact my comment had when [I talked about water heaters on the show]. It gets me thinking, how could I potentially make more of an impact? So I find myself daydreaming about a lot of that. Aside from that though, it’s back to work. I’m good at it, and that’s what I’m doing.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for solar? Part of it is getting the interest going, but when you talk about doing something bigger, what would you like to see happen?
Well, solar faces a lot of headwinds right now. On the good side, we’ve been successful at reducing costs dramatically and increasing electrical output. Just to give you a reference point, when we were starting in 2001, we installed projects at $9 a watt. Now we’re installing projects in the low $3 a watt.
[One roadblock is] the massive reduction in the cost of natural gas … also, just flat-out politically, utilities are incredibly strong, and unless we find a way for utilities to get involved and make money out of adopting clean energy, they’re going to fight it. With the economic slowdown, the demand for electrons is decreasing drastically. So why build more capacity? Finally, the biggest challenge for solar is the intermittency issue. A cloud goes overhead, and it can be a challenge for utility operators. So we’ve got to improve large-scale battery storage. Maybe electric vehicles are going to help with that, hopefully, over the next decade. I could ramble off stuff for hours, but the fundamental fact is that we’re reducing costs dramatically, it’s reliable, and the energy payback is fast. It’s energetically positive for our world.