The director of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority’s NY-Sun Initiative has $1 billion to spend on scaling up solar power in New York State.
David Sandbank ’89, the director of New York’s NY-Sun Initiative, has $1 billion to spend on scaling up solar power in New York State. The money isn’t his—it comes largely from New Yorkers’ utility bills—but he has been selected by Governor Andrew Cuomo to deem how it is used. How Sandbank got to yield such influence in a growing industry is an interesting story.
By his own admission, Sandbank barely made it to college. He struggled in high school and redeemed his record a bit with a post-graduate year at the all-boys Bridgeton Academy in Maine. “My parents thought I was crazy because I volunteered to go,” he said, adding “but I got to Bridgeton and I worked my tail off.”
His strategy worked. Adelphi admitted him in spite of grades and SAT scores that fell below the typical cutoff. “Here’s a guy who really struggled in school but was given a shot to go to Adelphi because they saw strength and someone trying hard,” Sandbank said.
After graduating from Adelphi with a B.A. in Sociology, Sandbank fell into advertising—the career that his father, the director and photographer Henry Sandbank, had made his name in. “I enjoyed it, but something was missing there, and I wasn’t sure what it was,” Sandbank said.
Herb-infused vodka helped him find the answer. Sandbank didn’t drown his sorrows in it. Rather, he teamed up with two colleagues to develop and market it as the brand ambassador and head of sales at Garden Variety Vodka. All of a sudden, he got to be a “big picture person,” developing strategy and honing his sales skills, “which I didn’t even know I had,” Sandbank said.
Next came some soul-searching and some good fortune. I was very interested in technology and being an entrepreneur,” Sandbank said. A chance invitation to sell solar systems to pool owners in Westchester became his entrée. “I knew energy was going to be an economic driver in the country, and I knew solar had to be at the forefront of that,” he recalled.
Sandbank joined OnForce Solar, Inc. as employee number one, and he quickly helped the company scale up from installing pool systems to setting up solar systems for commercial clients. “I did what I do best,” Sandbank said. “I learned about the industry on my own…I basically learned how to do every single job in the entire company,” from sales and marketing to obtaining permits and hiring installers.
Sandbank takes special pride in the team he created at the Bronx-based company, which grew to 100 employees by 2014. Committed to hiring locally, Sandbank admitted, “It was really hard to recruit” as few local residents had the requisite training and experience. “So we would take risks on people and train them.”
“I can see promise in people,” Sandbank said. “Because of what I came up through in my career and educational past, I’m able to cut through the clutter a little bit easier, and I feel I put a really good team together—sales, operations, engineering, you name it.”
During his time at OnForce, Sandbank witnessed up close the emergence of the solar industry. “When I first got into the industry, solar for your home was for the rich, well-to-do hedge fund owner who drove a Prius,” Sandbank said. “When I left the company, it was for every middle-class person you could imagine.” He noted that leasing plans have made solar far more affordable for private homeowners as well as commercial enterprises.
Now, as director of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority’s (NYSERDA) NY-Sun Initiative—a position he started in November 2014—Sandbank is taking solar to the next level. He oversees incentive programs and other initiatives designed to further lower costs and streamline processes for solar installation. “It’s a billion-dollar initiative to create a self-sustaining industry,” Sandbank said.
Sandbank’s entrepreneurial experience is serving him well. “I love bringing my street cred to NYSERDA and using that to create decisions that make it easier for the solar installer to do their job,” he said.
He is gaining increased recognition for his work. In June, breakingenergy.com, a website that covers energy market rends, named Sandbank one of the Top Ten New York Energy Government Leaders. “I feel like I really have a job that is right for me, and I’m right for the job,” Sandbank said. “And it’s in an industry that’s fun, an industry that’s there to help save the environment, to help people save on their electric bills. It’s a lot of work…but it’s gratifying.”
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