University of Southern Indiana

Pioneering a New Frontier

By Wendy Bredhold ’98

Brad Morton ’92 knows exactly where he was when he decided to take a leap of faith and become an entrepreneur. He was driving through Nebraska on business when a miles-long convoy of military vehicles passed him. It was 2004, Morton assumed the soldiers were headed for Iraq, and the consequences of U.S. dependence on fossil fuels hit home. 

“We were fighting these wars and the oil prices were going crazy. That was part of the big picture—where we were at not only nationally but regionally—Indiana was 93 percent powered by coal. To me, that was a red flag. We definitely needed to diversify. It didn’t make sense to be 90 percent of anything in energy.”

Morton worked for several companies in the machine manufacturing industry after graduating from USI with a degree in electrical engineering technology and an associate’s degree in mechanical engineering technology. A former customer encouraged him to go to work for himself as an independent consultant. “They couldn’t find anyone willing to put a new computer on this machine I programmed, because it was kind of a dangerous machine and people thought it would be risky. I was already familiar with it, so it was no problem, but I had to quit my job to do it.”

Morton saw the move as an opportunity for better job security, and it allowed him to build a renewable energy business. It made sense, considering U.S. dependence on fossil fuels; he felt confident the federal government would pass legislation to deal with the threat posed by climate change. “That’s when I took the leap of faith. It was a big step.”

Today, he’s president of Morton Solar LLC, one of the first solar design and installation companies in Indiana. His company is on the frontline of a battle between old and new energy paradigms, with very high stakes, in a state where fossil fuels rule. “I have encountered more barriers than I ever could have imagined,” he says. “I am just surviving.” 

Having grown up in Gibson and Perry counties, he knows Indiana is coal country. His grandfather and uncles were coal miners. His grandparents’ home in Spurgeon, Indiana, was surrounded by strip mines. For most of his formative years, his attitude toward coal was one of disinterest—simply a fact of life he took for granted, like the air you breathe. But as he grew older, he realized breathing air would be easier if Indiana didn’t rely on coal for its electricity needs. 

As a businessman, Morton is persistent, passionate, and visionary. Over the past decade, his entrepreneurial endeavors have expanded from a consulting business, Industrial Control Engineering, to Morton Energy, to Morton Solar and Wind, to its present focus, Morton Solar. “Solar is just a much better option in this part of the state,” he said.

The problem with being a visionary, however, is it takes the rest of the world a long time to catch up. Morton had to educate the public about the benefits of solar. “We’ve created the market here—for ourselves and others. For a long time we were the only company doing this work, and that made it much more difficult to sell, because we had to do all the education.”

Once education creates a desire, the question becomes can people afford it. “The biggest challenge in selling a solar energy system is the upfront cost for most people,” he said. “We figured out there was no way we could do it without grants, and we got lucky by being able to find some early on.” 

There’s not as much need for grants today. The federal government offers a 30 percent tax credit (set to expire in 2016) to Americans who install a solar power system. The price of solar panels has dramatically decreased, reducing the need for Morton to find customers grants. 

“On a national level, the solar industry is really taking off, and that’s helping us in Indiana,” he said. “Now it’s economical to do these projects without a grant—and it’s even economical, probably, without the federal tax credit. With utility prices going up, solar is well-positioned at this time to take off here in the state.”

When Morton’s company was just two years old, he received U.S. Senator Richard Lugar’s Energy Patriot Award “for outstanding contributions to energy security.” He’s installed solar panels on the first net-zero library and first net-zero school in the United States (buildings that produce as much energy as they consume), and put a record number of solar panels on homes and businesses in the Evansville area last year, including the home of Stephen Zehr, USI professor of sociology.

But all is not sunny. “There’s a fight building nationwide with utility companies over solar,” he said. “The fossil fuel industry doesn’t want any competition, and they don’t want their customers to generate their own energy. They say you will never get a payback, that it’s too expensive. That’s not true any longer.”

In 2013, Indiana saw 178 percent growth in solar jobs, according to a report released in February by The Solar Foundation. From 2012 to 2013, Indiana created nearly 1,000 new jobs in the solar industry and ranked 25th in the nation in total solar jobs, up from 27th in 2012.

“The fact that this region includes the first net-zero school and library in the country says we have plenty of solar energy in this area and we are not taking advantage of it,” Morton said. “It’s another resource we should be utilizing.”

As concern grows over the threat posed by climate change, Morton may get the legislation he’s awaited for years. “I thought we would have a climate bill by now, all the way back in 2005,” he said. “We fully expected a carbon tax at the federal level. It needs to happen. Climate change is happening, and I wouldn’t have started the business if I didn’t think that.”

While he waits for the world to come around, Morton, a father of three girls ages six to 17, takes comfort in the personal rewards of his business. “It never gets old to see a customer’s meter spin backwards. It’s a liberating feeling. It’s a feeling of empowerment.”

“If our way of using energy doesn’t change, then I don’t think my children or their children are going to have a planet to live on.”

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