In 2004, Lyndon Rive was in an RV on his way to Burning Man when his cousin gave him five words of advice: "You should look into solar." The way Rive tells it, it sounds a little like Mr. McGuire in The Graduate telling Dustin Hoffman to think about plastics.
Just 27 at the time of that RV ride, Rive was already the co-founder and chief executive of a Silicon Valley information-technology business, Everdream, which sold desktop management services to small businesses. It was flourishing, but Rive felt unfulfilled. "I just had this bug I had to address, which is that we have to change the way we burn fossil fuels, " he says over coffee in Manhattan this past summer. "We just have to." The intensity with which he states this is startling.
Rive had always looked up to Musk, his eldest cousin, billionaire co-founder of PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla. Unlike Musk, Rive is not an inventor or a technological genius. He was nearly expelled from high school in South Africa, never went to college, and at one point, secured a US visa not by his technological prowess but by his skill at the little-known sport of underwater hockey. But he's always had a nose for unconventional business opportunities, and he shares Musk's attraction to seemingly impossible challenges. So when Musk mentioned solar, Rive took the suggestion seriously—even though he knew next to nothing about the solar-energy market.
Nine years later, Rive has built a company, SolarCity, that threatens to upset the country's fossil-fuel-based electric-utility industry. By offering solar panels to homeowners for less than the price they're already paying for electricity, SolarCity quickly became the nation's largest residential solar-panel installer. As other solar startups have struggled and gone bust—Solyndra is one of many—SolarCity has roughly doubled in size each year. Its market value has multiplied sixfold since it went public in December 2012, making it the hottest clean-technology stock since Tesla.
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