People to Watch: Environmentalist: Thomas Van Cleef

By Andy Downing
From the August 1, 2013 edition

Trying to get Thomas Van Cleef to pause long enough to grab a cup of coffee is a nearly impossible task.

In addition to his role as the founder and president of Shine on Solar and its not-for-profit spin-off Solar Cascade, Van Cleef, 53, also spends countless hours each week training his five dogs to assist in search-and-rescue operations.

“I started with one [dog],” he said. “But I guess I've always done things to extremes.”

This statement has been true as far back as Van Cleef can remember. In high school, he finished as runner-up in the senior superlatives for “Most Likely to Succeed,” and he was so immersed in his career post-college that he jokes his relationship status would have been “inaccessible” rather than single or married.

For the past year, the businessman has dedicated much of his time to Solar Cascade and its sister program Solar by Soldiers, which aims to train returning servicemen and women to find employment in the solar energy industry. At the moment, he has four projects lined up and ready to go as soon as fundraising goals are met, including solar instillations at a pair of schools (Colonial Hills Elementary and Linworth Alternative High School), and he hopes to have them all completed by the end of the year.

“If you put solar out in front of the schools and the kids see it, it's no longer strange,” said Van Cleef, explaining his foundation's educational aim. “My generation [messed] this up. Yours is going to help a good deal. But these kids are the ones who are going to live it.”

Prior to launching Shine on Solar in 2010, Van Cleef followed a winding career path, holding down jobs in industries ranging from publishing to sales, and he credits his ability to change and adapt to his mother.

“[She] went back to grad school when I was in 2nd grade to get her master's degree,” he said. “And that taught me it's never to late to reinvent yourself.”