Solar power

Engineering alumnus finds a bright future on New England’s rooftops

The sun always shines on Will Thompson, E99. From the scorching deserts of Iraq to the solar-paneled rooftops of New England, Thompson is no stranger to sun. With business partner and childhood friend Dan Leary, Thompson heads up NexGen Energy Solutions, a veteran-owned and operated green company focused on solar power.

Will Thompson, E99, on a hot solar roof © NEXGEN ENERGY SOLUTIONS

Thompson said he’s always done best when seeing the whole picture in a hands-on way. “Including combat [in Iraq], I’ve never done anything harder” than earning his environmental engineering degree from Tufts. He struggled with math and theoretical engineering classes, but flourished in applied engineering courses like those taught by Anne Marie Desmarais, a lecturer in civil and environmental engineering. “She made us understand the whole system: How is a landfill constructed? How does the scrubber on a smokestack work? They were contained, very interesting and simple engineering processes,” he said.

Thompson’s struggles also stemmed from balancing life as a student and a soldier. As a member of the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program based out of MIT, his classes at Tufts often came after military training, which began before sunrise. After graduating from Tufts, he shipped out for service overseas as part of his three-year commitment to the Army.

After first being deployed on a seven-month, peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, Thompson arrived in Tikrit, Iraq, with the 9th Engineer Battalion in February 2004. As a combat engineer, he kept almost 300 pieces of equipment—tanks, Humvees, artillery vehicles and unmanned aerial vehicles—in battle-ready condition. “Vehicles would routinely sustain battle damage, mostly from IEDs and rocket-propelled grenades, and it was our job to piece together the parts and put vehicles back on the road,” he said.

Though he said the violence in the region has escalated exponentially since his tour, it was still dangerous in 2004. “We did lose some friends while we were there,” he said, including mentor SFC Joselito Villanueva and another friend, Richard Trevithick. When Thompson left a year later, after receiving the Bronze Star and Combat Action Badge for his service in Iraq, Leary was just heading out for a tour in Kuwait.

Solar start-up
When Leary finished his 10-month tour, he and Thompson met up in the States. They decided solar power and sustainable energy seemed like a good, hands-on application of their engineering knowledge, and the timing was right. “With the current buzz, global warming and the war, the fresh wave of sustainable energy provided a clear business opportunity,” said Thompson. Though solar power may not sound radically new, the “whole-picture” practice behind sustainable energy—from idea to installation—is, Thompson said. “Corporations say, yes, we’re going to put millions of dollars into sustainable energy and reducing our carbon footprint, and we’re going to use local installers,” said Thompson. “But none of these big entities has opened the phone book to see how they’re actually going do it.”

NexGen provides both residential and commercial customers with information on obtaining state and federal aid for installing green-engineered solutions, including solar panels and solar hot water, and then installs the solar systems. Their first major commercial installation covers the roof of a former Lucent Technologies plant in North Andover, Mass., now owned by Ozzy Properties Inc., which is planning a major commercial and residential development for the site. “On a typical sunny day, the system produces enough power for the needs of 95 average homes,” said Thompson. With an additional grant that will increase the roof’s energy-producing power, NexGen expects to have the second largest solar-energy system in the state to add to its portfolio. The energy will power the Ozzy Properties development and—if the sun is particularly strong on a given day—can be sold back to the local power grid. This summer, NexGen will tackle a solar-energy project for EBSCO Publishing in Ipswich, Mass. Thompson said they are also in negotiations to help institute green technology in the public buildings of Somerville and Quincy, Mass.

When he’s not tending to NexGen or fulfilling his weekend-a-month commitment to the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve, Thompson puts his energy into restoring his 280-year-old house in Ipswich, Mass. “My other passion is restoration work,” he said. Restoration for Thompson means greening up the antiquity. However, because his house faces west and is shaded by large trees, Thompson didn’t install NexGen’s signature solar panels. But he did install a 94 percent efficient water system and boiler for hot water and radiant heat, as well as a rain collection system to water the yard.

Julia Keller is a communications specialist for the School of Engineering. She can be reached at This story appeared in the July 2007 issue of the Tufts Journal.