by Ariel Sabar at theatlantic.com
How a small-town auto mechanic peddling a green-energy breakthrough pulled off a massive scam
Jeff carpoff was a good mechanic. But as a businessman, he struggled. In the two decades since high school, he’d lost one repair shop after another, filed for personal bankruptcy, and watched a lender foreclose on the small house in a California refinery town where he’d lived with his wife and two young kids. By 2007, he was 36, jobless, and adrift.
Yet there, at his life’s lowest, the remarkable happened. A contraption he’d rigged up in his driveway—a car trailer decked with solar panels and a heavy battery—got the attention of people with real money. Carpoff could scarcely have imagined it. He’d never gone to college and had no experience in green technology. His invention, he thought, was “crazy, harebrained.” But investors saw the makings of a clean-energy revolution.
For decades, there was basically one way to rush power to places without electricity: the portable diesel generator. It kept equipment running and lights on at construction sites, outdoor events, movie sets, disaster zones. But diesel generators ate the ozone layer; warmed the planet; and caused smog, acid rain, and possibly cancer, on top of their noise, smell, and fuel cost.
Carpoff’s machine—a solar generator on wheels—was a sun-fueled alternative. He called it the Solar Eclipse. The design was so simple that it was a wonder no one seemed to have thought of it before.
Carpoff was a paunchy man with blue eyes and apple cheeks—a “big chipmunk,” as a colleague called him—who gulped rather than spit his chewing tobacco and spent Sundays watching NASCAR. In March 2011, he was singing the national anthem at a local baseball game when he got a text that he’d made his first major sale: The paint company Sherwin-Williams had bought 192 of his generators, for nearly $29 million. Twenty-nine frickin’ million. It reduced him to tears.
That’s how Carpoff told the story of the day his life changed.
The millions of dollars in that first deal were like the drips before a downpour. Over the next eight years, blue-chip corporations such as U.S. Bank, Progressive Insurance, and Geico would buy thousands of Carpoff’s generators. Inc. magazine would call his company, DC Solar, a “renewable energy powerhouse” with a product “people clearly needed.” The Obama administration would make DC Solar a partner—alongside Amazon, Alphabet, and AT&T—in a national program to enlist tech in the fight against climate change.
Sales would eventually top $2.5 billion, enough for Carpoff to fly by private jet and purchase a baseball team, more than a dozen houses, and a collection of muscle cars looked after by a guy named Bubba.read more