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Taking uncommon initiative: An inside look at the U.S. solar industry 2001-2017

I used to tell a joke when I would speak at a conference.

“What do you call someone who has worked in the solar industry for one year?…An expert.”

Cymbal crash.

After 11 years with SEPA and 16 years in the solar industry, I will be leaving my current job on July 15. Inspired by a book 20 years ago (and later a blog), I am rebalancing my life to prioritize my personal, family and volunteer interests, filling in with part-time work, rather than the other way around. Even still, it was a hard decision and I have many great memories of working with SEPA staff, members and other colleagues.

Over the years, I’ve gotten calls or emails from college or graduate students seeking career advice. I always try to give them a few minutes. We were all once in their shoes.  My advice has always been the same: take uncommon initiative. Uncommon initiative is setting yourself apart by putting extra effort where and when others aren’t, whether that is related to job seeking, career development or day-to-day work.

I always like to tell people I’ve made my career out of not being an expert on anything. Instead, I roll up my sleeves, learn a bit, and — like the children of Lake Wobegon — aim to be just above average on most things. Garrison Keillor would be proud.

My master’s degree in science, technology and environmental policy gave me enough economics to make engineers think I’m an economist and enough technical understanding to make economists think I’m an engineer. In reality, I’m neither.  George Costanza might say I, like Seinfeld, had a career about nothing.

 

Doing solar in a wind state

I started graduate school at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs in 1998, knowing I wanted to get involved in renewable energy — though truthfully, I wasn’t much more specific than that. I did have a hunch that if you wanted to work in renewable energy, you should study at least close to where the action is happening. In the Midwest at the time, that meant wind energy, and wind energy meant Minnesota.

Mike Taylor at a wind turbine construction in Northfield, Minnesota in 2004. (Photo courtesy of Mike Taylor)

To get my first job as a summer intern at the Minnesota State Energy Office in 1999, I attended a public regulatory meeting on wind energy and then cross-referenced the speakers against my graduate program alumni database. I did three or four “informational interviews” with different alumni, one of whom kept uncovering my resume on the boss’s desk. That turned into a job that lasted seven years and included starting Minnesota’s first solar rebate program with a $1 million grant.

When I started the program, a 2-kilowatt (kW) rooftop system cost $20,000 before incentives, and we would offer $5,000 back. Today, the total cost would be $7,000 without any incentives.

Researching and working on solar energy in a wind energy state turned out to be a backdoor to autonomy: “Solar is too expensive and doesn’t matter; so sure, Mike can work on that.” When I started focusing on solar around 2001, the entire country had 10-20 megawatts (MW) of solar interconnected.  Minnesota had less than 50 kW, compared to the state’s 1,200 MW of wind at the time.

Going where most other people weren’t put me on the ground floor, like a startup without the stock options. Today, there are over 38,000 MW of solar nationally, and solar is the least-cost form of power generation in many locations.

The early days of the “Solar Minnesota” program (the state’s version of the federal Million Solar Roofs Initiative) had about five people from different organizations meeting to work on moving solar forward.  The original rebate program ended up funding about 500 kW (notable in the Midwest at the time), and I like to think that it set the foundation for bigger solar policy moves after I left.

 

SEPA’s third employee

In 2006, I joined SEPA — then, the Solar Electric Power Association — after deciding to move to Washington, D.C. (following my now wife’s career) and seeing a “Technical Services Manager” job opening on SEPA’s website.

As luck would have it, four years earlier, I wrote my master’s thesis using data from a small Xcel Energy solar program that SEPA had funded. The project was actually one of dozens of pilot solar programs that SEPA — then known as the Utility PhotoVoltaic Group, or UPVG — funded in the 1990s through the U.S. Department of Energy-funded TEAM-UP program.  The first 1,000 or so PV systems in the U.S. in the 1990s were funded through the TEAM-UP program. President and CEO Julia Hamm hired me as SEPA’s third employee.

At Solar Power International in 2006, the then-entire staffs of SEIA and SEPA with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Mike Taylor is third from right; Julia Hamm is left of Schwarzenegger. (Photo courtesy of SEPA)

We “upgraded” to a two-room office that first year, moving across D.C. using Julia’s car.  In the early years, people often thought we had 50 or 100 employees, when in reality, there were five to ten of us.  Now, as the Smart Electric Power Alliance — the result of two mergers and a mission expansion — we might top 50 staffers by the end of this year. Our offices cover a whole building floor, and we have eight remote staff.  If there is a constant in the solar industry, it’s that there is no constant, and SEPA’s growth and changes reflect that.

Two years later, my wife and I moved to northern Utah, where I’ve had a remote office for the past nine years, unbeknownst to many people I’ve worked with outside of SEPA. My original job as Technical Services Manager turned into the position of Research Director, with “Education” and “Communication” Director added on at various times as SEPA has grown and changed.

Mike Taylor in New York City in 2008. SEPA CEO Julia Hamm pushed the closing button at the Nasdaq stock market on Sept. 29, 2008, the day the market crashed.

After a year’s sabbatical in 2015, I came back to SEPA as the “Principal of Knowledge,” which is guaranteed to get every professional conversation started with — “That is the best title.”  No one forgets they met the Principal of Knowledge.

Besides market growth and price declines, what other things have changed in the last 11 years?

  • In 2006, “program design” meant a solar rebate program, Today, the term is most commonly used to refer to community solar program design, a concept which has some origins in SEPA’s Utility Solar Business Models project that began in 2008.
  • Solar Power International, which SEPA co-founded with the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) in 2004, drew 4,000 people in 2006 and, this year, will likely draw 20,000. You can’t count on just running into a colleague anymore. My first year, the attendee bags didn’t arrive in time, so two of us stuffed more than 1,000 bags the night before the show.
  • Net metering discussions in 2006 were about expanding it to more states, whereas today the focus has shifted to adjusting customer compensation to solar’s success.  Electric rates and reform are entirely unsexy but critically important to a future powered by distributed energy resources.
  • In 2006 a 100-kW system would make national industry news.  Today, 100 MW is news.
See SEPA’s first Top 10 Utility Solar Rankings from 2007, written by Mike Taylor here.
  • Since 2006, the leading market segment has flipped, first, from residential to commercial around 2009 after third-party contract solar blew open the non-residential market and later the residential segment starting around 2012.  It flipped again to utility-scale solar in 2012 when all of the solar power plants driven by state renewable portfolio standards (RPS) started to come online. Even more exciting, large projects are now being developed outside of mandates because they represent the least-cost option across large parts of the United States for many utilities.
  • In 2010, my wife and I expanded our family, with a daughter and a 2-kW solar installationThe family grew again in 2015 with a smart thermostat and plug-in hybrid vehicle. Everything is tracked in spreadsheets — electricity, natural gas, solar, gasoline, electric miles. Our house has become a living laboratory for my energy interests, much to my wife’s “enthusiastic” response. Cymbal crash.

 

It just so happened…

What would I tell early career seekers “uncommon initiative” looks like today?  A degree, a resume, a LinkedIn page, business cards, and a 100-percent nonpublic Facebook page are basic expectations. Strictly playing the application game against hundreds of other smart and wonderful people is difficult. SEPA gets dozens of applications from individuals with master’s degrees for entry level research positions.

My suggestion is to create opportunities as much as you look for them.  A few ideas:

  • Mine your alumni database, and reach out to ask individuals about how they got started, their career and interests. Don’t lead with, “I’m looking for a job,” anymore than you would go on a first date and say, “I’m looking for a spouse.”  You both know why you’re there.
  • Attend workshops, conferences and expos, even on your own dime.  Bring at least 100 business cards and run out of them.  Contact the speakers or booth staff afterward with questions.
  • Get internships, but don’t just work. Have lunch or coffee with every person in the department, division or organization. Attend as many meetings as you can.
  • Attend public meetings — utility hearings, public workshops, legislative committees — take notes, and contact the speakers with questions afterward.

As I’ve been writing this, I have found myself typing and deleting “it just so happened” over and over. Uncommon initiative isn’t a total solution, but it helps things fall into place. Call it creating your own luck.

One of Mike Taylor’s many trips for SEPA — to Nevada, to visit the Ivanpah concentrated solar power project, with tall “power towers” surrounded by thousands of reflecting mirrors. (Photo courtesy of Mike Taylor).

Over the last 11 years with SEPA, I’ve been able to travel to 23 states and 4 countries. I have been actively involved — as a researcher, writer or speaker — in hundreds of webinars, reports, and conference panels.  It has been a privilege to help SEPA grow in parallel with the solar industry and to think I played a tiny part in that success.  I represent and salute the hundreds of midcareer solar enthusiasts whose hard work and dedication have helped turn solar into a major industry.

We are not the CEOs or presidents or executive directors or venture capitalists, but we get essential things done.

Mike’s classic hits list

Of the many reports Mike Taylor has written during his 11 years at SEPA, here are some of his favorites:

  1. PV Capacity Valuation Report
  2. Ratemaking, Solar Value and Net Energy Metering Primer
  3. Treatment of Solar Generation in Electric Utility Resource Planning
  4. Utility Community Solar Handbook

My coworkers know me as the floating head on the conference room video screen who always tries to make sense of chaos by finding patterns with tables.  In that spirit, I leave them, and now you, with my final table.

 

Mike’s “Back In My Day” Solar Industry Comparison Table

Back in the Day*
Today
Solar Megawatts 4 MW 35,000+ MW
Solar Installations Thousands Millions
Cost of a 2-kW Solar System $20,000 $7,000
Solar Home Financing Cash only Loans and contracts
Largest Market Segment Rooftop Power Plants
“Program design” meant… Rebate programs Community solar programs
Made Industry News 100-kW system 100-MW system
Net Metering Whether to expand it If to temper it
Batteries A hippie cabin An emerging industry**
Solar Power International 4,000 attendees 20,000 attendees
SEPA Staff 3 45
SEPA Office 2 rooms and a closet A building floor

* Roughly 2000-2006, depending on the topic.

** If I were starting my career today, I would look to the battery storage industry as what solar felt like 10 years ago.  Nothing is set in stone, which spells business and professional opportunities.

Mike Taylor can be reached via Twitter or LinkedIn.

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