Midpeninsula Post

Meet Mike Clifton, the man who brought solar to Silicon Valley

Mike Clifton. (Arya Nasikkar)

Mike Clifton quite literally taught Silicon Valley what solar power is. 

When he founded his company — MC Solar — in 1973, the inspectors he had to get permits from didn’t know what solar powered systems were.

“The building inspectors would say, ‘What is this?’” Clifton said. “They couldn’t even understand what I was asking for and they didn’t know how to inspect it.”

During his projects in Santa Clara County, San Mateo County and Santa Cruz County, Clifton had to instruct government inspectors from dozens of cities about the solar panel’s function and showed them how to check all his own solar systems for safety. 

Today, the solar industry in California continues to grow rapidly with over 2,063 solar companies making California the nation’s top producer of solar power, according to Solar Energy Industries Association. Clifton, though, saw solar power as a no-brainer before there was a “solar industry.”

But Clifton is more than just the pioneer of solar power in Silicon Valley — he is a skilled engineer, humble business owner and family man to his core.

Clifton stands on a rooftop in San Francisco during a job installing solar panels. (courtesy Mike Clifton)

HIS CAREER IN SOLAR

In 1973, an OPEC oil embargo led to a 10-gallon oil ration in the States, and long lines at gas stations ensued. It was in line for his 10 gallons, with the California sun beating down on him, that Clifton conceptualized the idea of building a water heater powered by the sun rather than by gas. He recalls thinking to himself, “there’s a lot of energy there that’s not being used.”

So he decided to build and install a solar water heater in his own house.

After exhausting the scarce resources on solar power, scrounging up non-existent parts needed to build the system and manufacturing his own solar panels, he flipped the switch — and hot water flowed in. 

Soon after, he paid for an advertisement in the yellow pages (this was 1973 after all) and received calls from people interested in heating their pools or installing similar systems. He said each project was a “learn as you go” improvisation. 

“The first half dozen I did, I was living up in the Santa Cruz Mountains in a little place in the hills, and I built an assembly table to build these water heaters and the solar panels,” Clifton said. “It wasn’t even a garage startup. It was a beside-the-chicken-coop thing.”

Clifton wasn’t always an engineer, though he had wanted to be one since middle school. He grew up with his parents, two brothers that were 12 and 13 years older than him and a sister who was 6 years younger than him on a ranch in Selma, California.

Each morning, Clifton and his dad would collect and sort roughly 1,800 eggs from the 2,000 chickens they kept before he went to school, and once he was done with homework, it was off to the fields.

“My parents always had me participate,” he said. “I mean I really appreciated it, but it taught me I wanted to go to college and not be a farmer. It was hard, hard work.”

In school, Clifton’s parents encouraged all of their children to do “put academics first” as they didn’t have the opportunity to; Clifton’s father studied to be an engineer in college but when the Great Depression hit, he was forced to drop out.

Eventually, Clifton studied electrical engineering and then switched to mechanical engineering while at Stanford University. Later, Stanford hired Clifton to install solar panels on their biochem building and Clifton said coming back to work for his alma mater was the most meaningful project he worked on in his career.

“I feel very lucky that I’m alive — that I got to experience everything that I have,” Clifton said. 

Stanford University’s biochem building featuring its newly installed solar panels from MC Solar. This was one of the most meaningful projects to Clifton as he studied there. (courtesy Mike Clifton)

His one-man company became official when he gave it the name MC Solar. As a nebulous startup, Clifton said he has at one point done “absolutely everything” in the business and technical aspect of MC Solar. When Clifton moved to San Jose, MC Solar became the first solar company in the city. 

Clifton’s first experience with marketing was pulling out a piece of paper and drawing his logo. He advertised, trained new employees, managed up to 30 people and kept all the books until he could afford an accountant — not to mention staying hands-on in every project, building many of the parts himself. Modest as ever, he simply concluded: “I wore a lot of hats.”

“I like to do these things myself,” Clifton said. “I like to learn how to do things, figure it out. Maybe because I’m shy, I don’t like to go ask people, instead I said ‘I should figure it out myself.’ So I did.”

Clifton (far right) and his team at MC Solar standing in front of their fleet of trucks. (courtesy Mike Clifton)

In 2007, Clifton sold MC Solar to a roofing company and helped them build their name in the national solar industry. He was hired three years later to work for Sprig Electric as the solar engineering manager, his job for 11 years and counting. There, he works with Jarad Strange who he said he emphatically admires and wants to succeed him as head of the department. 

“Every project seems to be unique in its own way,” Strange said. “A lot of people who need solar have different reasons for why they want it or need it, and that drives the solution to a degree to where you can’t really compare one project to the next. It’s a constantly changing industry of constantly changing projects.”

The two are currently working with “a very large high tech Silicon Valley company” (his NDA prevents him from saying which one). In the past, he’s completed projects with LinkedIn, Symantec, Apple, Intuitive Surgical and dozens more.

BEHIND THE MUSTACHE

His pioneering career path sets him apart, but he is no exception to the ever-burning question: who is Mike, really?

“He’s the person that knows everything,” Juliana Clifton, Mike’s daughter, said. “And I sort of thought that all adults are like that, and then I grew up and realized ‘Oh, no not everyone’s like that.’”

Juliana said she was a curious child, and her father always had the answers to her curiosities. When she and Clifton were on a hike and she asked what type of plant that was, her dad knew. When she inquired about how to build a car or a house or a boat, he knew.

Clifton and Juliana at a solar trade show when she was young. She said he had all the answers when she was little and seemed to “know everything.” (courtesy Mike Clifton)

Juliana described her father as kindhearted, considerate, always willing to lend a hand, soft spoken and practical. His colleague Strange said he is focused, intentional, level-headed, soft spoken and… mysterious?

“One of the aspects of his life that he shared with me was that he said he was sailing around the Caribbean on his own sailboat for a while,” Strange said. “There’s a lot of aspects to Mike’s life that I’m less familiar with that makes me intrigued about his life outside of work. It also makes me very curious about what he was like on his pirate ship in the Caribbean.”

Clifton said he would not allow himself to step back from being a father for his business, and always included Juliana as much as possible; she helped build the solar system on their second house. Clifton was known by Juliana’s classmates as the “fun car” every time he volunteered to drive on field trips, a reputation he gained from buying the kids donuts on the way back when he said he was getting gas. And when he was working on solar panels for NASA, he called her in sick and took her to walk around on NASA’s roof and tour its facilities.

When asked what he is most proud of in his life, Clifton did not hesitate.

“Juliana,” he said. “She’s a wonderful person. I’m gonna cry” — he paused, through glossy-eyed sniffles he wiped away a tear — “I am so happy. We only have one child, and I feel absolutely blessed that we have such a wonderful person as Juliana. In all my life, that’s what I would say I’m most proud of: being a father.” 

Clifton and Juliana on the roof at NASA after he took her out of school for a day to tour the facilities and see the solar panels he was installing. (courtesy Mike Clifton)

Clifton’s long career in solar has grown exponentially, transitioning from teaching the Bay Area how to inspect his own product to taking on highly regulated sustainability projects like those. He attributes his ability to have lived this life to his amazing family and feels incredibly lucky to know the people he does.

“I like systems,” Clifton said. “And life is a crazy system.”

One thought on “Meet Mike Clifton, the man who brought solar to Silicon Valley

  1. I was Mike Cliftons 1st employee at MC Solar and he was a very important mentor to me growing up. He was the leader of our Senior High Church Group and we became close friends and backpacking partners for many years. Mike is one of the greatest people I have ever known!

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