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UNF Spinnaker

Renewed life from a renewable resource

Holding down a job while in college can be stressful and frustrating. The time you spend waiting tables or working the register at Old Navy often feels like a waste of time and energy, and asking for time off never seems to go over well. Plus, it’s not exactly the experience for which future employers are looking.

John Gonzalez, a UNF electrical engineering junior, has it nailed though — literally. His college funds come from his job installing solar panels, a field in which he hopes to stay involved after he graduates.

Think he got “the hook up”? Think again. Gonzalez took the low road to success and has overcome a lifestyle many never escape.

Many of us went through a rebellious phase in high school, but Gonzalez took teenage angst to an extreme, like he does with most things. Although you’d never guess

it if you met him now, the clean-cut dude once sported a colorful mohawk, leather steel-toe boots and tattered button-up shirts. He dropped out of school in ninth grade but went back after a truant officer threatened to put his parents in jail. When he turned 16, he legally dropped out.

A natural entrepreneur, Gonzalez found ways to make money on the free enterprise. He said he drank alcohol and smoked marijuana daily, ultimately pushing his family away.

“I was poisoning myself,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez got a felony and went to arbitration camp for a year, where he earned his GED. After flunking out of his first year at Saint Petersburg College in St. Petersburg, Fla., Gonzalez decided to pursue his interest in electricity. In 2004, he was self-motivated to learn the electrical trade, learning first-hand from others.

With his life in forward motion, Gonzalez became aware of the lack of mobility in the lives of his friends, many of which were in jail or dead. He was 20 years old when one of his closest friends committed suicide.

Unwilling to go down that path, he moved to Jacksonville in June 2007, when he quit drugs and alcohol cold turkey.

While working for an electric company in Jacksonville, many of his customers began to inquire about solar energy as their electric bills began to rise. So, he dove into solar energy research and developed a burning passion for it.

Although Gonzalez fried his short-term memory in his party days, he more than makes up for it in long-term memory. He could talk for days about sustainable energy if you let him, and you probably would, his enthusiasm is infectious. It had better be, solar power is pricey.

The cost of installing a 5-kilowatt system ranges from $20,000 to $25,000. Gonzalez said that it saves money over time.

“Eventually, the price of manufacturing a solar panel will equal the cost of electricity because the price of electricity is rising, while the price of producing panels is decreasing,” Gonzalez said.

Despite the substantial pay cut, Gonzalez began working for SunWorks, a Jacksonville-based energy company that provides solar systems and solar power solutions in 2007. There he installed solar systems and learned more about solar energy.

Gonzalez had to leave SunWorks when his heavy workload caused a scheduling conflict but found a more flexible position at Eco Solar Technology, a local eco-friendly energy solutions business, where he has installed about 10 solar systems. The owner, David Jolicoeur and co-owner, Jolicoeurs’s fiancée Stephanie Priede, are UNF alumni.

“John is one of the more knowledgeable about how to make the diagrams and the panels work together,” Jolicoeur said. “He is a hard worker, and he loves to learn. He is definitely a key in where the company is going.”

In early 2008, Gonzalez made Eco Solar’s first installation, a 5-kilowatt solar system on the roof of Jeff Smith’s Mandarin home.

On average, a system this size will provide about half of the energy consumed in a single-family home.

“I decided to install my solar system to be responsible to the environment,” Smith said. “The system reduced my energy dependence significantly and with every in-creasing cost of kilowatt per hour of energy, my investment becomes wiser and wiser.”

Gonzalez, now 24, fills his free time helping others. He volunteers at Habitat for Humanity some weekends and is developing a solar system that will be sent to an underprivileged school in the Dominican Republic. He has also become involved with a Christian church in Jacksonville Beach, Beaches Vineyard, where he attends services approximately twice a week. He said he felt like he was drawn to the Christian religion.

“At first, I went because every time I did, I left with a really posi-tive, uplifted spirit and attitude,” Gonzalez said. “The reason I kept going back is I liked feeling uplift-ed after being so depressed all the time, I realized there was a reason [for feeling uplifted], and I became eternally grateful.”

Gonzalez has a new project absorbing the spotlight, Foundation for Renewable Energy Enterprise. FREE is a student organization that will kick-off in the Fall. Gonzalez visualizes FREE as a network for students and businesses interested in learning about green energy, environmental sustainability and healthy lifestyles for individuals and the planet.

He believes everyone on campus can benefit from the club and hopes a diverse group of students from every major will join. The organization will start having meetings this fall.

Robert Farley, a UNF mathematics senior and the vice president of FREE met Gonzalez in a linear algebra class spring 2010. When Farley showed interest in FREE, Gonzalez jumped at the support.

Farley said he is enthusiastic to begin FREE as a student interdisciplinary organization. Farley said FREE’s short-term goal is to raise awareness of unused energy in Florida. Eventually, with Gonzalez and other FREE members’ support, FREE could expand to other universities.

“[Farley] gave me somebody to throw ideas at and get feedback from, which is where it starts,” Gonzalez said.

Farley is excited to work with Gonzalez and FREE.

“I see a Steve Jobs’ drive in John,” Farley said.

If you want to find Gonzalez this summer, he will probably be crawling around in over 100 degree attics or hoisting large solar panels onto high, sunny roofs. He will probably be sweaty from head to toe, have dirt caked under his fingernails and have a smile on his face, because Gonzalez isn’t waiting until he graduates to start his career. He knows all too well how short life can be, so he’s doing it now.

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    J. AnthonyJun 15, 2010 at 6:26 pm

    I know John pretty well, and as I am incredibly proud of the changes he has made in his life, I have a hard time believing it is because of solar power in particular. I think that he has certainly embraced, not only the technology, but the whole “save the planet” lifestyle that comes with it; this is true. However, no matter how great and up-coming the renewables industry is, or how much monetary or personal wealth it will bestow on his future; saying that ‘it’ alone woke John up from of that level of LSD and Crown Royal induced comma he was in, would be a stretch. John has a burning passion alright, but it is a passion for life itself. You would too if you spent that much time so close to death. Though I am sure that trying to paraphrase such a complex person’s life into a single page article is tough, personally I think that the journalism should have dug a bit deeper. You may find that the recent life decisions John has made for himself was more-so a function of the events listed in this article, and not simply choosing a potentially lucrative career.