Blog Post

In memory of solar pioneer Brian Robertson

Brian Robertson, a Canadian-born entrepreneur whose life was never taken for granted, “willed” success in everything he touched from the Internet to solar energy, died Friday in the Captain’s chair of his own plane. He was 38.

My own history with Brian started at SunEdison in 2004. Brian’s professional life before SunEdison reads like folklore – and maybe some of it was.  He was a champion water skier; co-founder of PlanetAll, the tool that Amazon bought to tell you what books other people purchased; and one of the guys that brought Toys”R”Us to its knees in the online toy wars for Amazon (s AMZN).

When I first met Brian, he had already helped SunEdison win the Business Plan competition at Harvard University in 2004.  He was interviewing for the job of CFO at SunEdison and when we offered it to him, he took it, turning down one of the top jobs at Yahoo (s YHOO). With him was his lovely wife Eileen, pregnant with Brooke, and accompanied by the amazing Melanie. Their third child, Max, was just a thought at that time.

SunEdison was a simple idea, Solar as a Service. But to Brian, he knew and loved all the complexities of that statement. Whether we were writing a white paper, creating a risk model, or creating financial statements, Brian was on it — and his imprint in it.  Brian accomplished more in one day than most extraordinary people accomplish in a week – seriously.  (The proof is in what he accomplished in just 38 years.)  He was always trying to get more done in a day.  He took taxis so he could work while someone else drove, and was one of the first people I knew to get a USB internet card for his computer. He always impressed upon me that time was precious.

In the fall of 2004, the SunEdison team went out to the first Solar Power International conference in San Francisco. Brian flew out in his own plane and asked me to ride back with him. It took us two days to get back. He had a small four seater back then. We had long conversations and I remember asking him why he had such a small plane – “I can’t get insured on a larger one until I have enough hours.” After that we flew together to Connecticut, NYC, Chicago, St. Louis . . . and the planes kept getting bigger. Brian was meticulous and careful, one of the safest pilots I knew.

Brian and Eileen had honeymooned in Cabo. It was at that time that they decided to build a beautiful place one hour north of Cabo San Lucas. Given its remote location, Brian had to bring in Satellite Internet. Plus, Brian powered the place with solar power with a diesel backup. It was this self-teaching about solar power that inspired him to take the job at SunEdison instead of Yahoo.

And Brian worked hard and played hard – often at the same time. For example, Brian sold power to his Cabo neighbors as well – always the entrepreneur. And, even vacationing, he always found a way to get things done. During many of the most important negotiations with Goldman Sachs, Brian was on a mandatory vacation in Cabo paying $1/min on a satellite phone.

As SunEdison matured so did Brian. He took on even greater challenges in finding creative ways to overcome obstacles to deploy solar. His contribution to today’s solar industry is under appreciated because he was the man behind the curtain – doing the work, not getting credit for it.

Plus, he was proliferate — always ready to take on the next challenge. He did just that when he became CEO of Amonix, a concentrating solar PV company. At Amonix, he was proving to skeptics around the world (including me) that concentrating solar PV had a place in the world. He was officially Superman – invincible and unstoppable.

When building a company, the best laid plans are always just a guide. It takes optimism and a persistence to overcome the hurdles presented everyday. Many people use these words, but for folks who know Brian, he lived them and did so effortlessly. He did it in a way that was serious, but always fun. I can still see his signature smile, always genuine and part wiley – he was always cooking up something.

For those of us trying to change the World for the better, we just lost one of the most important figures of our generation. No one will take his place. The hole that is left will never be filled. It will be a constant reminder to all of us that we have a responsibility to ourselves and to everyone around us to leave this world better than we found it. In that, his family, and in many other things Brian succeeded. I just wish he could have lived a full life. For those of us who knew him – he actually did.  Brian made a dent in the universe. He was an incredible person and will be missed.

Brian is survived by his wife, Eileen, his three kids Melanie, Brooke, and Max.

Jigar Shah is the CEO of the Carbon War Room, a nonprofit that harnesses the power of entrepreneurs to implement market-driven solutions to climate change and create a post-carbon economy. By bringing project finance and growth capital together with infrastructure entrepreneurs, corporations, governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), he identifies and eliminates market barriers, driving environmental improvements alongside economic growth.

Shah founded SunEdison in 2003 with a new business model, the solar power services agreement business (SPSA). The SPSA uses mature technologies and required no new legislative action. The SPSA model launched solar services into a multibillion dollar industry. SunEdison now has more solar energy systems and megawatts under management than any other company.

24 Responses to “In memory of solar pioneer Brian Robertson”

  1. Craig Hunter

    I had the opportunity to get to know Brian pretty well as we worked together on a couple of projects back in 2008-2009. He was one of those rare individuals so infrequently encountered – a leader with character, a person of tremendous intellect and passion, a person of great substance that was a pleasure to be around. He was confident and self-assured, but seemingly possessed of no pretense.

    This is a terrible loss. I have no doubt that Brian would have continued to make enormous contributions for many years to come.

  2. Paul Lightfoot

    A week after his death, it still seems like a bad dream from which I hope we’ll wake up.

    Brian was hugely important to my career. I’m devastated, and heartbroken for Eileen and the kids.

    Jigar, this is a beautiful piece – thanks for creating it.

    – Paul Lightfoot

  3. You must have known Brian well. Your comments about his wiley smile, multitasking abilities and infectious optimism are exactly right. This is a great tribute to an extraordinary man. Thanks.

  4. Dave Chen

    That was a beautifully written piece Jigar. My memory of Brian is a lighter one.. I was at SPI in Dallas this year at the bar and happy that I had managed to restrict myself to one beer as I had an early meeting the next day. Of course who comes toward me, double fisting – Brian. Bartender had mistakenly made two vodka tonics instead of one.. so of course he hands it to me and then it was all downhill from there. My only memory is being annoyed that Brian sounded so smart and professional even after a few drinks! He was one of the smartest, most driven and inspiring CEOs I’ve ever met.. dating back to SunEdison and then Sunworks and then Amonix. The solar industry has lost a true hero and Brian – please rest in peace – the energy and determination you’ve always had was contagious. I hope it has inspired a few entrepreneurs to fight with the same spirit.

  5. Mr. Robertson was flying from Long Beach, Calif., to the York Airport in Thomasville, Pa., when the plane he was piloting solo crashed about two miles from the airport. I’m so sorry the world has lost such a brilliant, hard-working leader in an essential industry. May he RIP. My sympathies to his friends and family.

    The York (Pa.) Daily Record’s news story 12/22 will answer most questions about the accident –

    The AP ran a follow-up the next day –

  6. Brian was an investor and our inspirational adviser in our cleantech start-up for India. We always went to Brian when we had the most complicated decisions to make and he broke the problems down and gave a simple answer always in less than 5 sentences. Always right on the spot. I am still trying to process this horrible loss. I can’t imagine how this loss affects his loved ones who have seen Brian on a daily basis and my prayers go out to you. He has made a difference for many generations to come. I feel so sad, but I know he would want us to celebrate his life with gusto and through hard work.


  7. I am a commercial pilot Flown that same model. 15 thousand hours total time. I would never ever imagine anybody would do What he tried to do.What in the hell was he thinking? Suicide? Glad he did not kill anybody else. What a fool. he ran out of fuel.

  8. So very sad…. Although I had never met Brian his name was always been reverberating in the solar industry …
    My deepest sympathies to his family

    Thank you Jigar for taking time to celebrate his life..

  9. Daniel Kippen

    I, too, was a friend of Brian’s, but I knew him in a different context- we were in the same father-daughter group (think Girl Scouts, but with dads and daughters).  For all of his professional success, when he was at one of our events he was just one of the guys- cracking jokes, eating hotdogs that had fallen in the fire, teaching the girls how to cook marshmallows, getting in water balloon fights.  And boy could he build a fire.

    The thing that struck me most about Brian was his dedication to his family and the resulting refusal to allow his professional obligations swamp his roles as a father and husband.  More than once Brian would squeeze a campout in between two international trips.  He was never too tired or too busy to go camping with his kids.  I wish the same could be said about me.  

    We miss you Brian.

  10. The news of Brian’s passing saddens me. I first interviewed Brian before he joined Amonix, when he was working on another solar startup. He was smart and spoke with ease, an affability that isn’t easy to convey over the phone by many executives, and I remembered ending the interview thinking that I just had a good conversation about the building of a new company. Months after Brian took the reign of Amonix, I paid him a visit and listened to him laying out a cost benefit analysis of concentrating PV vs. regular PV. Since then, it was great to see Amonix winning larger and larger contracts. I’m sorry to see that Amonix — and the solar industry — lost a bright leader.

  11. Igor Gonta

    I am devastated. I just spoke to Brian this past week. I can not believe this is real. He was a classmate, a colleague, a mentor, and most of all a friend. The world just lost an amazing person with a beautifully heart. My thoughts and prayers are with you Brian and your family.

    Igor Gonta

  12. Arno Harris

    I didn’t know Brian well, but he earned my respect as a fellow entrepreneur and competitor. Many people I hold in high regard, regarded him highly. As someone who shares his love of flying, I’m struck by the way he died. How poignant a metaphor for living life boldly despite the risk, despite the fragility of life. My heart goes out to his wife and children. The risks we take are often not ours alone. – Arno Harris

  13. Daniel Kippen

    Brian was a good friend of mine in a different context- we were in the same father-daughter group (think Girl Scouts, except it’s dads and daughters). For all his professional success, he was just one of the guys at our events- cracking jokes, eating hot dogs that had fallen in the fire, showing the girls how to cook a marshmallow, getting in water balloon fights. And boy could he build a fire.

    The one thing that really struck me was his fierce devotion to his family which resulted in a refusal to let his professional obligations swamp his role as father and husband. More than once he would fit one of our campouts between two international trips, just so he could spend the weekend with his daughters. He was never too tired or too busy to spend time with them. I wish I could say the same about me.

    Brian was like a bright star with his own gravitational pull. Those who were in his orbit were better for it- you could feel his warmth. We miss you Brian.

  14. Diane Webb

    brian and his daughters were in my indian princess program at the YMCA and they were nothing but joy , brian’s generosity was unbelieveable and his commitment to his family has left a legacy behind that we all should learn from , his wife and family are in my prayers

  15. Edward Fenster

    Jigar, because I met Brian only once for a dinner in 2008, I can’t say I knew him well. Nevertheless, this tribute to him is a beautifully written, inspiring, passionate homage to a pioneer in our field. Thank you. – Ed Fenster