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Entrepreneur reins sun for success
Hay River's James Hiebert growing renewable energy business in south Texas

Thandiwe Vela
Northern News Services
Published Thursday, May 11, 2012

Northern entrepreneur James Hiebert's renewable energy business, South Texas Solar Systems, Inc., is based in the American Southwest, but the former professional hockey player's heart, is in Hay River.

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James Hiebert, president of solar energy company South Texas Solar Systems Inc., cleans a panel system in south Texas last summer. - photo courtesy of South Texas Solar Systems Inc.

Hiebert, the president of South Texas Solar, was born in the land of the midnight sun in the summer of 1982, so it's no wonder that his business relies on the power of the sun.

The young businessman was raised in Hay River, "by wolves," he jokes, and growing up, he "always had a job," whether painting fences for neighbours, building with his dad, Jim Hiebert, or later in Saskatchewan, bartending and working in oil fields. His earlier experiences would equip him with the traits he said have shaped his company.

"I learned good work ethic, honesty, integrity," Hiebert told News/North. "I got all that from growing up in the North."

Hiebert's love and talent for hockey took him to Swift Current, Sask., at age 14, where he played forward in the Western Hockey League for several years. He started his professional career at age 20, in the American Hockey League, moving to Laredo, Texas, where in December 2007, he would file the paperwork to form South Texas Solar, while continuing to play professional hockey.

"Really, if you want to educate yourself while you're playing hockey, you've got all the time on the bus in the world, so that's what I did," he said. "I didn't really have any idea what I was doing, I just knew that I was going to go into that and then I had to learn about it."

Hiebert saw an opening in the renewable energy sector in Laredo, he said, a good business opportunity that also captured his regard for the environment.

"I want clean water to drink and I want clean air, that's common sense to me," he said. "But I went into this business because I like the technology, because I understand electricity, and because no one else was doing it so it was a good business opportunity."

He met with manufacturers who produced the products his business would sell, learned how the technology worked, and in 2009, opened for business.

In addition to solar panel systems, South Texas Solar sells a variety of energy services, including natural gas generators, hot water heaters, wind turbines, and retail electricity through a brokerage.

"I definitely don't think that solar panels are going to solve all the world's environmental problems, but I think it's the only way the public will be free of the burden of the power cost," he said, explaining why so many people are turning to alternative energy. "The public will never get rid of the cost of electricity until we take it to a fully renewable level."

South Texas is not a million-dollar-a-year company, Hiebert readily admits, although he is reluctant to talk about money -- a trait he attributes to being from the North, which made him "almost passive about money.

"The way I was raised, you share with everyone, money doesn't matter that much, it's not all just business, business, business ... money, money, money," he said.

The third-year company has done well in sales however, and has garnered several major contracts including a quarter-million-dollar energy conservation system for the government of Texas, and a $160,000 retrofit contract for a Texas eye clinic, eliminating almost 85 per cent from the clinic's electrical bill, Hiebert said.

The company has four employees, in addition to three separate groups of subcontractors which the company employs for electrical, steel work, welders, and turbine raising.

With offices in San Antonio and Laredo, Texas, one of Hiebert's goals is to have four offices in south Texas, with aims to establish offices in El Paso and McAllen, Rio Grande Valley, by 2014.

Despite basking in 42-degree-Celsius Texan temperatures in May, Hiebert, 29, still prefers life in the North.

"I love the North," he said. "I almost fail my company every summer when I come home for three or four months."

In an effort to spend more time with his seven little brothers and sisters, and five nieces and nephews, Hiebert also bids on contracts in the NWT, through South Texas Solar's parent company, Endless Green Energy Inc., incorporated in Canada.

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