“In Episode 61, Richard Matsui, CEO and co-founder of kWh Analytics, and Dana Olson, solar segment leader at DNV GL, join us to discuss the recently published “Solar Risk Assessment” report in which they, along with industry experts from eight other companies, share their quantitative insights on solar production risk.”
Full article available on Greentech Media.
Investors in U.S. solar projects should be ready to question the assumptions developers have made. They may be too good to be true.
In recent years the U.S. solar market has gone from a fledgling industry to a booming one. The Energy Information Administration expects solar to rank behind only natural gas in terms of new plant capacity added through 2050. Naturally, investors are flocking to the space.
But getting involved with an emerging technical asset class has its risks, particularly as the growing economic competitiveness of solar has pushed developers to get even more aggressive on pricing assumptions.
A new report, with contributions from firms including DNV GL, kWh Analytics, SunPower and PV Labs, aims to shed light on the financial uncertainties associated with solar production. Taken together, their data-driven conclusions show solar investments aren’t infallible.
Instead, analysts say potential investors should be ready to question the assumptions solar developers make about project dynamics like expected production and residual value when financing and building a project.
Originally posted on Solar Power World.
Industry experts in solar production risk kWh Analytics, DNV GL, PV Evolution Labs, Borrego Solar, Clean Power Research, Heliolytics, Clean Energy Associates, Strata Solar, Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables, and SunPower have partnered to publish the new ‘Solar Risk Assessment: 2019’ report to advance the solar industry.
Below is their letter introducing the report:
“In God we trust, all others must bring data.” – American Statistician W. Edwards Deming
Rarely does a single investment yield both significant social and financial benefit. In this way, solar is unique: this rapidly growing asset class offers the promise of substantial returns on investment in both.
While the financial community is—rightfully—focused on newly emergent risks of this asset class, such as managing the merchant tail and basis risk, it’s important that the financial community remain vigilant on the question of solar production risk.
Over the past few years, it’s become in vogue for financial investors and pundits alike to publicly dismiss the possibility of a solar power plant underperforming, with remarks like, “The sun will always shine,” and “Panels always work because they have no moving parts.” Success breeds complacency, and complacency breeds failure.
We are among the industry’s leading experts on the measurement and management of solar production risk, cumulatively representing hundreds of years of experience in our respective fields. Each of us are risk specialists with in-depth data on a specific element of solar production risk.
Rather than publishing “yet another” opinion, we are committed to letting the data speak for itself. Designed intentionally for a non-technical financial community, this report will be refreshed every year to provide investors with the latest insights on the evolution of solar generation risk.
Fundamentally, it is our hope that this report will serve as a guide for investors who recognize the importance of allowing data-based insights to inform the deployment of capital. We look forward to the shared work of advancing our solar industry.
Richard Matsui, Chief Executive Officer
Jackson Moore, Head of Solar North America
PV Evolution Labs
Jenya Meydbray, Chief Executive Officer
Distributed Solar O&M
Phillip Stephenson, Vice President of O&M
Clean Power Research
Skip Dise, Vice President of PM
Rob Andrews, Chief Executive Officer
Clean Energy Associates
Andy Klump, Chief Executive Officer
DG Utility O&M
Mike Loeser, Senior Director O&M
Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables
Michelle Davis, Senior Analyst
Erik Knutson, Director of Utility Operations
Learn More: www.kwhanalytics.com/SolarRiskAssessment
Industry experts in solar production risk kWh Analytics, DNV GL, PV Evolution Labs, Borrego Solar, Clean Power Research, Heliolytics, Clean Energy Associates, Strata Solar, Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables, and SunPower have partnered to publish the new ‘Solar Risk Assessment 2019’ report to advance the solar industry.
Originally posted on Renewable Energy World.
Bank asset management is known to be an opaque subject. Thankfully, Diana Weis and Sarah Disch, each co-heads of the Solar Asset Management groups at their organizations, U.S. Bank and Wells Fargo Bank respectively, shared their expertise at SAMNA 2019. They each have over a decade of experience in solar finance, and spoke with Jason Kaminsky, Chief Operating Officer at kWh Analytics and a former solar project finance banker himself. Here are three key takeaways bank asset management experts Weis, Disch, and Kaminsky shared:
1) Bank Asset Management is “Heavily Compliance-Focused”
Though both developers and financial institutions have employees in “Asset Management,” the respective functions are distinct.
For a developer, an asset manager’s main job function is to ensure the assets are operating optimally. The asset managers are often externally facing, working with the PPA offtakers, financiers and external O&M counterparties; handling insurance claims; and managing any other external stakeholders.
At a bank, however, a lot of the asset manager’s job responsibilities are focused on managing internal stakeholders. Not only is senior management of the solar team interested in asset health, but also groups ancillary to the renewables group who need information for their job function. “A majority of my role is not facing externally to the sponsor,” Sarah Disch explained. “It’s actually facing internally within the bank—for example, working with our accounting and finance teams, managing bank regulatory and finance requirements, or seeking approvals on communications. It’s heavily compliance-focused.”
For banks, asset management groups often help ensure the accounting books are in order, make sure the bank is complying with regulatory items like Anti-Money Laundering and Bank Secrecy Act laws, work with internal credit teams to enact asset downgrades when appropriate, and manage the process with internal auditors that come through every 12 to 18 months to ensure that the group is abiding by their own internal processes and protocols.
Diana Weis described her job as “being the spoke of a wheel” and project managing the solar project through the life of the investment, making sure everyone is informed about its health and fielding any internal questions that arise.
2) It’s All About the Data
Given this emphasis on compliance, even when assets are performing as expected, there is an entire ecosystem of stakeholders looking for data on how the fleet is performing. It is common practice for quarterly and annual reports to be generated and communicated internally, covering everything from the operating health of the assets to credit evaluations of the various vendors and counterparties in the deal. “It’s critical for us to get reports in a timely manner, because it’s a blocker for us to do our month-end reporting and close our books,” Disch noted.
Both panelists agreed that they evaluate actual production as compared to projected production, and that underperforming assets can be a cause for concern. They track performance closely, in part because of reporting requirements, but also due to the fact that they may have syndicated the deal to another tax equity investor or have part of their return reliant on the value of the asset at some future date.
They also agreed that asset management is a critical function within their organizations and they are often looked to as the experts on the portfolio.
Since the sponsors are actively managing the assets, at the end of the day, they will be the best informed to know what’s happening at the site. Weis probably summarized it best when she said that “a communicative sponsor is the best possible sponsor.”
3) The Future of Bank Asset Management
Due to the lack of consistency in solar data formats around the industry, tracking this data can be a challenge. As a result, leading investors have secured external tools to complement their strengths. “Many of our challenges are in getting our data to be consistent for our internal tracking, which is exacerbated by the fact that we work with so many different developer partners,” Weis commented. “In addition to independent engineers and lawyers, we rely on specialty tools such as the kWh Analytics HelioStats risk management platform to organize our data and measure our risk, which adds significant operating leverage to our team.” These systems consolidate data into dashboards for ease of managing the various internal requirements and requests that these asset management teams face.
There are other key efforts to help with data consistency, including the Department of Energy’s Orange Button Initiative, which offers open source data standards for the industry. Across geographies and foci of institutional investment, standardizing data allows for a reduction in soft costs—making it easier to share solar data and speed up processes, like financing.
Originally posted on pv magazine USA. In this #Solar100 Interview, Jason Kaminsky, COO of kWh Analytics, speaks with Dan Siegel, vice president of Renewable Energy Business Development at U.S. Bank.
What Marie Kondo does for tidying up, Dan Siegel does for solar tax structuring: everything in its place and a place for everything.
As vice president of Renewable Energy Business Development at U.S. Bank, Dan Siegel is an expert of tax law and highlights the order, logic, and understated (if not life-changing) magic of solar tax equity done well.
In this interview, Siegel discusses 2019 solar financing trends, the importance of solar data, and “Zen and the Art of Tax Equity Structuring.”
ZEN AND THE ART OF TAX STRUCTURING
Jason Kaminsky: Thanks for making time to chat, Dan.
Dan Siegel: Sure. I’ll try to bring out the most interesting version of myself for this. I’m a tax equity provider, so keep that in mind.
Jason Kaminsky: [laughs] Well, I’m a former tax equity banker. We’ll both try not to go down the technical rabbit hole.
To start, you have an LL.M. in tax, then did project management at U.S. Bank for five years before moving into Business Development. How did you begin working at U.S. Bank and later move into the role that you are in today?
Dan Siegel: I graduated from Washington University in St. Louis for undergrad, and like many who finish college without a lot of forethought into what they want to do with their life, I ended up enrolling in law school. Frankly, I didn’t love it. I initially envisioned myself as a litigator, but then quickly realized that I’m not really the kind of person who would be very good at arguing both sides of an issue. I’m more black and white than that.
I ended up taking a year off from law school to work for the Kerry campaign and bartend, both of which were humbling experiences in their own way. After that year, I came back and took a taxation course, which unexpectedly resonated with me. I’ve always been a numbers person and I think that’s one area of the law where having that type of mind is helpful. Something that is sort of geeky about tax law that I have always appreciated: it comes with a set of instructions. You have tax law, and then you have the regulations that accompany it. That’s how I ended up pursuing my LL.M. in taxation.
While I enjoyed the subject of tax law, I realized that I didn’t really want to be moving people’s money from one place to another. Thankfully, I learned that there was a field called ‘tax equity financing’ and that one of the largest financers in the country is based here, in St. Louis. There was something very appealing about using tax law and getting a brick-and-mortar result out of it. To this day, I may be the only person ever to come out of school knowing I wanted to be a tax equity provider.
Jason Kaminsky: It’s funny—I studied pure math as an undergrad. And similarly, there’s a strict set of rules that helps you come to a conclusion. And, in some ways, tax law—even though the rules seem even more arcane—has a similar set of principles.
Dan Siegel: Absolutely. I think the real interest in tax equity is knowing that you have a rule set. Trying to pair what can be a regimented rule set to the commercial goals, knowing there’s a line, not wanting to get too close, and yet still wanting to achieve a desired result, is where I think the creativity comes in. That’s what has always been really appealing to me about this industry—using those arcane principles to try to achieve positive commercial results for the industry.
Jason Kaminsky: It’s more creative than outsiders might realize. It’s kind of like “Zen and the Art of Tax Equity Structuring.”
2019 TRENDS IN SOLAR FINANCE
Jason Kaminsky: We just got back from Infocast last month. What themes are you seeing for 2019?
Dan Siegel: Every year since we started in 2008, people seem to say, “This is the year when nothing’s going to happen.” But every year we’re wrong as something always seems to come up. It’s interesting to see what’s already been happening this year.
A few big things that we’re watching this year so far:
First, the continued development of community solar gardens. As a tax equity provider with a mission-oriented bent, these types of programs appeal to us and we are always interested in exploring new ways to participate in markets as they develop. We’re seeing a good deal of investment opportunity and feel that will continue to accelerate.
Second, I think that this is the year storage finally starts gaining traction in large-scale commercial application. There’s going to be a series of unknowns that we’re going to work through, with everything from the specific technological complexities of the storage components, to making sure that we are being thoughtful about which storage providers and accompanying software applications that are used. The underwriting of those uses will be supremely important, as will the resulting revenue streams that I think people are only just now starting to imagine.
Third, we are also already starting to see a bit of pull-in resulting from the ITC step down. It will be interesting to see how far out financiers will be willing to commit to give solar developers comfort around their safe-harboring plans.
Jason Kaminsky: Six years ago I was at a conference where people said, “It feels like we’ve been pushing a boulder up a big hill, and it’s about to start rolling down,” and I feel like I could say the same thing this year. Eventually we’ll be right.
A theme that I’d say probably emerged more last year but continued for this year: secondary market transaction of operating assets. I’m sure your team is seeing these as a tax equity investor in many of those deals.
Dan Siegel: We’re seeing a lot of more passive financial cash equity players coming in to buy these assets. There’s been a lot of low-cost foreign money moving in and acquiring these transactions. That’s something that we’ve needed to get accustomed to as we more and more find ourselves facing financial counterparts as equity and indemnity provider in these transactions rather than the original developer.
Jason Kaminsky: As you think back over the last 10 years as a baseline, how do you characterize the tax equity market?
Dan Siegel: It’s funny, I don’t think that there’s only one tax equity market. I think that there are multiple tax equity markets, and people work in different layers of those markets. U.S. Bank is the fifth largest commercial bank, with around $460 billion in assets. As a result, while we do a lot, our tax capacity is eclipsed by the fourth largest bank and up. There are the very, very large players out there who will always be able to provide a deep well of tax equity financing to their large corporate clients, but that is probably never going to be an area that we regularly play in. Given that our capital is more limited we try to be incredibly thoughtful about which developers and which markets we serve.
One thing to note, is that the DNA of our group is not project finance; it’s not even energy, really. It’s more broadly tax equity financing. Our renewable energy group sits within a subsidiary of the bank that has a broad background in financing all types of projects with tax credits from low income housing, to historic buildings, to incentivizing job creation in economically disadvantaged markets. But this background speaks to why we work with a broad array of developers today—we want to maximize impact even if it means more work.
We’re never really out there hunting elephant-sized transactions. It’s always more about: Does the underlying business model make sense? Can we mitigate the risks? Do we like the people? Do we believe in their business model? If the answer is yes across those questions, we tend to pursue it. That’s allowed us to be early in residential and to be the first movers in community solar. We certainly participate in the utility sale side too, but we’re not trying to do four transactions and be done with our year.
Jason Kaminsky: I’m always fascinated by how different banks get into the market, and U.S. Bank came from a tax perspective, versus other banks like Wells Fargo which really came at it from, “Hey, we have an environmental commitment but how can we meet it?” They’ve migrated to the utility-scale side of the market, but your team is placing a lot more bets and works with a much broader, more diverse set of customers.
Dan Siegel: I think not having a traditional energy background can be freeing in a lot of ways, because we don’t come in with preconceived notions about what can and can’t work. Through the lens of the tax equity risks on which we need to focus, that has allowed us to be supportive of a couple of different industries that, for maybe issues of internal resource constraint or just internal bias, have been passed over by other banks.
Jason Kaminsky: We work closely with your team, and I would say U.S. Bank probably has the largest tax equity group of any bank I know—and the largest number of customers of any bank I know. Can you talk about some of the benefits and challenges that come with that?
Dan Siegel: Sure. We started in 2008, and today we have financed about 11 GW of solar.
When we first started, it was basically me and my boss, Darren Van’t Hof, who had just started looking at solar.
The group has grown a lot since then. We have four people on the origination side, which is where I sit. We have about 10 people on the project management side, about 10 people on the asset management side. And then we have a lot of cross-functional people supporting us. We are set up to do a lot of volume; I think our goal in a typical year is to do somewhere between 30 to 50 different transactions. That includes everything from relatively large transactions like 150 MW facilities in the U.S. southwest, to projects as small as 5 or 10 MW. Like any bank, we have origination goals so small transactions are often not the most efficient use of our time. That said, if there’s a good story there and a potential for positive impact on jobs, the environment, etc., we will oftentimes spend time on it, particularly if we think that that small model is scalable.
Jason Kaminsky: A lot of banks have tried to create a syndications strategy, where they bring in other co-investors, but U.S. Bank has been uniquely successful. How did you unlock this opportunity?
Dan Siegel: We have a lot of smart folks working on this, so I’ll speak for them when I say that I think there are three things that helped to differentiate us:
One, it was a source of need. Even without tax reform, we saw a day in the future where our partners needs were going to outstrip our own capacity.
Two, we’re a relatively flat organization—the CEO of our subsidiary reports directly to the CFO of the bank. As a result, when we’re talking to new co-investors, we appreciate the barriers to entry and are often able to bring the right people into those conversations who have understood and managed those issues previously.
Three, we can provide a differentiating syndication product by giving certainty to our customers; we fully commit to a transaction, even if we’re trying to syndicate it. For example, if we’re working with a developer who has a project, we will 100% underwrite the project during construction and we’ll make a finance commitment for the full project. During construction, we may try to remarket part of that interest to one of our syndication partners, but if that fails we’ll still fund it. We’re taking that risk away from the developer, which makes them a lot more willing to go with us.
As of today, we’ve brought in 19 different investors and raised over a billion dollars of tax equity. Most of our partners on the syndication side are non-traditional tax equity investors. There are some regional banks, but they’re typically not financial institutions. Most of our partners are retail, tech companies, insurance companies — people who don’t themselves have a tax equity practice and don’t plan to develop that capacity internally.
Jason Kaminsky: What’s your view when the ITC steps down on the role of tax equity in the market? Are there other products that you might develop?
Dan Siegel: That’s certainly the long-term goal, and it’s been something that we’ve been chipping away at for years. We’re not an infrastructure bank or a project finance bank, so the idea of doing project finance debt is a bit foreign in our institution. U.S. Bank is a conservative institution and sometimes, that also means that we move slowly and methodically towards new products. That said, we’d like to start doing lending soon and see it as fundamental to our growth and position in the marketplace. And then as we transition to a 10% ITC market, we would operate as a “lender-plus” and would be able to couple the loan with a tax equity investment.
Jason Kaminsky: When we track the debt markets in our Solar Lendscape, I think now we’re up to 50 banks in the market, and a lot of them are falling over themselves on margin. So, if you can provide a product that is coupled with a 10 percent ITC, I would imagine that that would be a pretty strong competitive advantage in that segment of the market.
Dan Siegel: We’re never going to be the cheapest, but I think what we try to do is be creative and we can hopefully create a niche for ourselves there.
THE LARGEST U.S. SOLAR INVESTOR ON THE IMPORTANCE OF DATA
Jason Kaminsky: You are now one of the largest—if not the largest—investors in solar in the country. What have you learned along the way?
Dan Siegel: We have an enormous amount of data about how assets are operating, and through our use of HelioStats, we’re working to get more thoughtful about how to synthesize and analyze information about our own portfolio. We are getting better at using our data to manage our portfolio: there’s lots of compliance and reporting we face as a regulated bank.
Our sponsors play an important role here— by helping us collect the data on our portfolio, sponsors contribute pieces to a broader story. Even if that information is not a direct issue or risk for us, we recognize that we have information that is crucial for the industry, so the question becomes: How do we take what we know and help the industry more broadly?
We also use the data to tell a story, and I’m part of a working group right now helping to summarize our data for U.S. Bank’s broader environmental communications efforts.
It’s funny—we started our tax equity investing as really just a pure tax equity investment play, with the projects’ environmental impacts being secondary. That’s changing. We’ve made a great deal of impact in the past 10 years and though it may run counter to the group’s midwestern sensibilities, we ought to tell the story and perhaps even be a little boastful about it.
See original post on SparkSpread.
See Bloomberg for original post by Brian Eckhouse.
kWh Analytics, the market leader in solar risk management, today announced the first refinancing supported by the Solar Revenue Put. The portfolio of 41 projects totaling approximately 28 MW DC of capacity is located in Arizona and Massachusetts. The facilities are managed by AES Distributed Energy (DE), a subsidiary of The AES Corporation (AES). The AES Distributed Energy portfolio is being funded by Silicon Valley Bank and a Japanese financial services company. Swiss Re Corporate Solutions, a leading global corporate insurer, is providing capacity for the Solar Revenue Put.
The Solar Revenue Put is structured as an insurance policy on solar production and revenues, which serves as a credit enhancement for financial investors. Using its proprietary actuarial model and risk management software (“HelioStats”), kWh Analytics developed the Solar Revenue Put to drive down investment risk and encourage development of clean, low-cost solar energy.
“AES Distributed Energy is focused on helping our customers affordably and reliably meet their sustainable energy needs, and strategically-timed refinancings enable us to re-deploy capital to build more clean energy projects,” says Brian Cassutt, Chief Financial Officer at AES Distributed Energy. “The Solar Revenue Put will help sharpen our competitive edge by enhancing our returns and reducing our downside risk.”
“We’re pleased to continue our support of AES Distributed Energy as they deploy innovative distributed solar and energy storage projects,” says Bret Turner, Managing Director and Market Manager of Project Finance at Silicon Valley Bank. “The strong collaboration between SVB, the Japanese financial services company, and kWh Analytics enabled us to deliver a transformational financing for AES DE and the market.”
A recent survey of the solar industry’s most active lenders indicates that more than 40% of active lenders value the Solar Revenue Put as a credit enhancement. Solar portfolios ranging from thousands of residential rooftops to more than ten utility-scale plants have utilized financing structures supported by the Solar Revenue Put. Portfolios supported by the Solar Revenue Put are securing debt sizing increases of 10% on average.
About the Solar Revenue Put
The Solar Revenue Put is a credit enhancement that guarantees up to 95% of a solar project’s expected energy output. kWh Analytics’ wholly-owned brokerage subsidiary places the policy with risk capacity rated investment-grade by Standard and Poor’s. As an ‘all-risk’ policy, the Solar Revenue Put protects against shortfalls in irradiance, panel failure, inverter failure, snow, and other system design flaws. The Solar Revenue Put provides comprehensive coverage that banks rely upon, enabling financial institutions to more easily finance solar projects on terms more favorable to the sponsor.
About kWh Analytics
kWh Analytics is the market leader in solar risk management. By leveraging the most comprehensive performance database of solar projects in the United States (20% of the U.S. market) and the strength of the global insurance markets, kWh Analytics’ customers are able to minimize risk and increase equity returns of their projects or portfolios. kWh Analytics also provides HelioStats risk management software to leading project finance investors in the solar market. kWh Analytics is backed by private venture capital and the US Department of Energy.
About Silicon Valley Bank
For 35 years, Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) has helped innovative companies and their investors move bold ideas forward, fast. SVB provides targeted financial services and expertise through its offices in innovation centers around the world. With commercial, international and private banking services, SVB helps address the unique needs of innovators. Learn more at svb.com.
About AES Distributed Energy
AES Distributed Energy (AES DE) is a wholly owned subsidiary of The AES Corporation, a Fortune 500 and publicly traded international energy company. Our daily mission at AES DE is to bring reliable and cost-effective distributed energy systems to utilities, municipalities, corporations, schools, and commercial and industrial customers. AES DE’s proven project development, financing, and operating experience empowers energy consumers to benefit from the distributed energy solutions we deliver. Learn more at aesdistributedenergy.com
About Swiss Re Corporate Solutions
Swiss Re Corporate Solutions is a global provider of risk transfer solutions including insurance and non-insurance products. The Solar Revenue Put is an insurance policy issued by a Swiss Re Corporate Solutions insurance carrier that is appropriately licensed and in some jurisdictions the Solar Revenue Put may only be available through a licensed surplus lines insurance broker.
Originally posted on pv magazine USA.
In this special edition #Solar100, kWh Analytics’ Sarah Matsui speaks with three solar communications experts, Vote Solar’s Zadie Oleksiw, Norton Rose Fulbright’s Emily Rogers, and Nolan Strategic Communications’ Jamie Nolan.
Expert communications people are like the Hermione Grangers of companies: They may be less visible than their more famous counterparts, but they are indispensable to the epic.
Maybe you haven’t heard of Zadie Oleksiw yet. But you’re probably familiar with some of the campaigns she’s been involved with at Vote Solar, including California’s historic 100% clean energy bill last year, which was one of the first in a slew of 100% clean energy initiatives now emerging across the country.
Similarly, perhaps you don’t yet know the name Emily Rogers. But you know her work. Rogers is the producer behind Norton Rose Fulbright’s Currents, the go-to podcast for solar financiers.
Since 2012, Jamie Nolan has been working behind the scenes to raise the profile of the U.S. solar industry, previously as the Communications Director for the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative and now as the Principal of Nolan Strategic Communications.
In this special edition #Solar100, communications experts Zadie Oleksiw, Emily Rogers, and Jamie Nolan talk about how to execute effective campaigns, produce chart-topping podcasts, and leverage communications best practices to advance the solar industry.
ZADIE OLEKSIW, VOTE SOLAR COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
Sarah Matsui: Your career has been dedicated to work in solar. How did you first get into renewable energy and communications work?
Zadie Oleksiw: I think like a lot of other people who work in this space, I’m very motivated by the idea of solving big problems. For me, that’s always been climate change. Obviously clean energy has so many other benefits—for public health and for the economy, for example—but personally, climate change is paramount.
I grew up outside of DC, where I got exposed to civic activism going to all sorts of environmental and foreign policy protests and rallies with my mom. I think those experiences taught me two things early on. One: we have to get engaged if we want to make change. And two: stopping the bad things from happening was one way to do it. I majored in environmental science, but it wasn’t until I interned at the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) that I got excited about the opportunity to focus on promoting positive, proactive solutions instead of working to fight problems—although I really appreciate the essential role of campaigns and people doing that important work.
I returned to SEIA after I graduated and met Jamie Nolan, who was managing their communications at the time. She demonstrated an understanding and ability to effectively communicate a range of subject matter—like federal and state policy issues—and that really appealed to me. It was the first time I appreciated that good communications professionals play a substantial role in any organization. Clean Energy Leadership Institute (CELI) was and continues to be another invaluable part of my professional development. CELI is a training program for clean energy professionals in the early stages of their careers and
designed to teach fellows the fundamentals of this sector—markets, finance, policy, and technology—while breaking down siloes across the industry. After I finished the fellowship I came on as a volunteer to develop the brand, lead the writing program, and launch its first fundraiser. If you’ve seen me or others gush about CELI before, it’s because it’s incredibly inspiring to be a part of a community of so many smart, driven people all committed to solving big problems.
Sarah Matsui: Last year when Adam Browning nominated you at SPI, he said, “Zadie is the ‘Solar Splainer of the Solar Movement.’ I think her ability to translate complex solar policy concepts from grid mod to rate design for non-wonks is worth celebrating.” In your experience, what is the solar movement and can you describe the role of communications in the movement?
Zadie Oleksiw: Well first, that’s a very kind compliment. I’ve been lucky enough to learn from the best, including from my amazing colleague Rosalind Jackson (who has also been described as the ‘heart and soul’ of the organization). One of things I love about Vote Solar—and that I think is apparent to anyone we work with—is that beyond this culture of respect, collegiality, and passion, everyone’s just really good at what they do. That makes my job a lot easier.
I’m not sure the best way to describe the solar movement beyond pointing to its sheer momentum. Solar is growing fast—in terms of megawatts built and customers served—and it’s also one of those rare topics that has so much broad support, that is creating jobs and boosting the economy, and that is absolutely essential for our future. It’s nice to come up for air every once in a while and get excited about being in this space.
I think the role of communications folks is to tell that story. Our job isn’t just to convince people—lawmakers, business leaders, investors, voters—that solar matters. We also have to persuade them to care enough to do something about it. Communications in any organization is a powerful tool to frame solar as an essential part of the American story. Every company in this space, regardless of whether it employs 5 or 500 people, can help tell that story.
From a policy perspective, renewable energy is also an area where something like 90% of voters across the aisle agree on it, yet in a lot of places that support hasn’t translated into meaningful policies. Part of the role of communications is bridging that gap between public opinion and positive policy outcomes.
Sarah Matsui: Your current position involves communicating wonky concepts to a broader audience. What does that kind of translation work require?
Zadie Oleksiw: I think two things. One is understanding the material. Second, is connecting it to their values—what people care about and what they want to hear. In any field, compelling people to care—and to take action—begins with appealing to their values. For example, I tried to make that connection in an article I wrote for The Hill a while back. The purpose of that piece was really to rebut an all-too-common anti-solar allegation in the same outlet, and my goal was to make a strong case that solar is good for the American people by appealing to widely-held values that would resonate with readers: saving money, controlling their own energy, and creating a clean and healthy environment.
Knowing who exactly your target audience is also really matters. Vote Solar has about 80,000 “activist” grassroots members all over the country and is working in regulatory and legislative campaigns in 24 states. Our membership is a tremendous resource to activate real people in all those states to make calls, write letters to their lawmakers, or show up to events. Generally, lawmakers care (or should care!) a lot about what their constituents have to say. Our role is to tell our grassroots members when an important solar issue is being decided and help them make their voices heard.
There’s so much political and geographic diversity across the country and we are always tailoring messages and messengers to the right audience. In California, for example, climate change is very much a part of our messaging because it’s an issue that’s important to lawmakers and the Governor and even regulators. But in South Carolina, where we’re working with a coalition to support a bill that, among other things, protects net metering, we would never utter those words. There, we talk about the energy choices that people want, that solar helps people save money, and that it’s an important job-creating part of the economy.
Vote Solar also does a ton of important regulatory work, like getting involved in rate design or integrated resources planning proceedings, that unfortunately doesn’t get as much love from the communications team. Most of it is a capacity issue—we’re a small team firing on all cylinders—but it’s something we hope to continue shining a light on as we grow!
EMILY ROGERS, NORTON ROSE FULBRIGHT U.S. DIRECTOR OF MARKETING, BRAND & DIGITAL
Sarah Matsui: Norton Rose Fulbright partner Keith Martin said, “Emily is the brains behind the catchy ads we run at industry conferences, the Project Finance NewsWire layout, our project finance microsite, the look of our annual project finance conference, and much more.” A lot of this communications work is wide-ranging and behind the scenes. First, can you explain your job to someone who isn’t as familiar with communications work?
Emily Rogers: I first started here as a graphic designer, and my role expanded over time. The 1,000+ lawyers I work with practice different types of law and regularly produce thought leadership. My job is to help get those ideas in front of the right audiences. What I find interesting about communications work is the process of taking a very complicated subject and distilling it into a digestible format. I’m pretty entrepreneurial, and I’ve been lucky to work at a firm that allows me the opportunity to learn new things.
Sarah Matsui: How do you define and measure success for communications?
Emily Rogers: Different projects will have different measurements of success, but everything in the end for me is measured by meaningful engagement: Are people asking you about it? How many people are downloading it? How many people are looking at our website? What are they doing when they are on our website—what are they clicking, what are they looking at, are they finding what they came to find? Those are all questions that we can track on the back end.
For example, with our Currents podcast, we can track the number of downloads and subscribers we have, our ranking on different charts, etc. It was very exciting for us the first time we got to one of the Apple Podcast charts in our second year. Now, we pretty much reside on the Business News chart, so we’re always trying to beat our highest position.
Sarah Matsui: I first met you after Todd Alexander interviewed our CEO Richard for Ep.23, Ep.46, and Ep.55 of Currents, which is widely recognized as the go-to podcast for solar financiers. People might not know this, but you’re the producer behind Currents. What does producing a podcast entail?
Emily Rogers: It involves every piece that you do see as well as what you don’t. A lot of the unseen work I do is with Todd to figure out what topics we want to cover and which guest experts to invite. We used to have a lot of internal guests because it was a new podcast—the firm has a great group of projects lawyers, so it was really easy for us to draw on our internal team. After we established the show and an audience, it’s been easy to approach other experts in the industry to have them speak on different subjects. We spend a lot of time reading articles, seeing who is speaking where, and meeting with our own lawyers to see what topics they have been studying up on recently. We’ve also reached a point now where we are fortunate to have some of our guests reach out to us first.
The beauty of the podcast is that it’s very comfortable for our guests to do the interview because it’s not live. So we can do all of the audio editing, removing any lulls or stutters, to make the interview sound as smooth as possible. We also make sure the guest gets to listen to the podcast before it goes out to ensure that they communicated their point clearly and accurately.
From there, we syndicate the podcast to all of the different forums, share on social media and start work on the next one.
Sarah Matsui: There are a lot of podcasts out there. What’s enabled Currents to pull away from the pack and gain the following that it has?
Emily Rogers: I think the number one factor would be Keith and his NewsWire, which I believe kWh Analytics has also been featured in previously. People know the quality of content they’re going to get from Norton Rose Fulbright because Keith is such a great content producer.
Another factor would be timing. We’ve been doing this for about two and a half years now. But two and a half years ago, podcasts weren’t nearly as popular as they are now. We were probably one of the earlier people to market with a podcast in this space, and I think that’s helped.
Subject matter is another influencing factor—specifically, the variety of subject matter and speaking to what people care about in that moment. We think about the different thought leadership pieces that have been produced over the past 20 years and try to identify what’s really popular right now. What are people searching for? What do people want to know more about? And then, from there, we work backwards to decide who our guests should be.
Sarah Matsui: So you really take a ‘first principles’ approach and start by breaking down the problem—what’s the need and what’s the demand? And then you work to meet that.
Emily Rogers: Right. Because Todd and I can think that something would be popular, but it’s so much easier and effective to use the analytics tools we have available, to look at our website and see what people are actually looking for.
I’m always asking myself, “What is the purpose of this? Why am I creating this?” I approach every project or problem with that framework, and if I can work backwards from there, I find that I have a much more creative and open result than if I just have my own fixed agenda.
Sarah Matsui: What’s an unexpected lesson you’ve learned as Currents’ producer?
Emily Rogers: It’s great to work with Todd who has the same devotion for this that I do, because I think it’s fairly shocking for people to realize how much work goes into good podcasting. I have a huge whiteboard in my office that has our plan for the next few months about what we’re going to produce, the status of each interview, our guests and their scheduling, etc. We originally started out doing Currents every other week, and now we’re doing it weekly. It’s a lot to produce, but it’s also really gratifying.
Sarah Matsui: Wow, I hadn’t appreciated that Currents has hit a weekly stride now.
Emily Rogers: Yes. You can thank my host for that. I said, ‘That’s ambitious, but okay.’ It’s a good thing that we have a good working relationship.
Sarah Matsui: Now that Currents has passed the 50 episodes milestone, have you noticed themes in what makes for a successful interview overall?
Emily Rogers: As a guest, if you’re approaching this as a conversation and ignore the microphone in front of you, the interview flows and comes across as friendlier and is just easier to listen to. Body language translates,
even when people can’t see you. If someone’s a real hand talker and they’re not moving their hands, then they’re going to sound stilted in the podcast.
Sarah Matsui: Are there communications best practices that you live by, that you think would be useful for either founders or fellow comms professionals within solar?
Emily Rogers: Maybe not best practices, but I have a few rules to live by. First, find the team that you love working with. I adore the lawyers that I work with, and I’ve worked with many of them for over eight years now.
Second, find different projects that you’re passionate about. There are always the jobs that we have to do every day that are not fun but still need to be done, and that’s fine. But find something that excites you so that you’re always going to want to go to work the next day.
Third, find ways to measure meaningful engagement and then share it with everybody. I like to share the number of downloads we have, any feedback we get, and how many likes and clicks we have on LinkedIn. Because it is nice for our lawyers and team members to see that people are listening and their work is having an impact.
JAMIE NOLAN, NOLAN STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS PRINCIPAL
Sarah Matsui: Your educational background is in communications and public relations, both of which are industry-agnostic skill sets. What made you decide to work in clean energy?
Jamie Nolan: I grew up on the eastern shore of Maryland, on the Chesapeake Bay, and it’s one of the areas in the United States that has the most to lose from climate change. It was ingrained in me early on that we need to care for the environment. My dad is a boat mechanic and electrician, and I was raised in a family that spent a lot of time out on the water, where I would see litter and pollution. We took trash bags with us and cleaned up trash every weekend we went out on the boat. I grew up with an understanding of the importance of action.
And as I got older and as I learned more about climate change and the specific threat to the Chesapeake Bay region, there was nothing that motivated me more. Without action, the places that I grew up could be under water in 100 years. That’s what led me to decide that climate change was my issue.
I first got into clean energy by working as the communications director for a climate change advocacy organization here in D.C. called the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. I got arrested in front of the White House for protesting against the Keystone XL Pipeline. I consider myself an activist, and that’s what brought me to solar. I have found that when I really care about something, that’s when I produce my best work.
Sarah Matsui: Fellow #Solar100 leader Jen Bristol has called you “The Olivia Pope of Solar.” Pope is Scandal’s strategic counselor renowned for her ability to get things done. In your experience, what does effective communications get done?
Jamie Nolan: Effective communication is essential to solving any problem in business—whether it’s internal or external communication, you need to communicate and work with others.
It’s critical to have someone in your senior leadership team that has particular expertise in effective communications. When the stakes are high, you want someone on your senior leadership team who is really well-trained in communication to ensure that your message is being received in the way that you intend, whether it be an internal audience in the event of layoffs at your company or an external audience such as community opposition to a solar project.
Sarah Matsui: Are there communications best practices that you live by, that you think would be useful for either founders or fellow solar comms professionals?
Jamie Nolan: First is the importance of establishing a storytelling culture within solar companies. I encourage my clients to mine and share their stories—talk about what got you into this industry, what drives you, how you’ve been able to grow your career in this field. Whether it’s your personal story as a professional, your company’s story, or your customer’s story, storytelling is critical to helping your company achieve its goals.
Second, listening is critical. You need to ask good questions of the audiences that affect your business objectives so that you can communicate in a way that is going to meet them where they are, give them the information that they need, and ultimately lead to the behavior change that you’re looking for. For example, if you want to convince someone to go solar, you need to first understand what the person’s knowledge base is about solar. It’s a two-step process: First, you have to convince someone that they should go solar. Then, you have to convince them that they should go solar with you.
My third tip is simple: Strong writing. It is so foundational to what I do for a living and what all marketers and communicators do. It is also an important skill for anyone’s career. If you don’t consider yourself to be a strong writer, there are so many great free or low-cost writing classes. You won’t regret it.
Sarah Matsui: In your experience, who takes the lead on helping to build and establish a storytelling culture?
Jamie Nolan: I love when a CEO gets on LinkedIn and talks about something their company has done or lifts up their partners. Often solar company employees and executives are also important ambassadors for their companies. It’s not just about sharing stories from the corporate brand perspective, from the corporate brand website, or social media profiles. Absolutely anyone in a company can and should contribute to this.
A key listening opportunity for professional communicators is the weekly staff meeting. When I was at SunShot and managed a team, I would assign my team members to attend meetings to mine for stories. People who were working as developers or project managers might not necessarily think that something that they’re doing is significant that should be shared outside of the organization, but that’s our job as communicators to mine for those stories. Listening in on those meetings, even if half of what’s being discussed goes over your head or isn’t important to share with your audiences, can provide the ideas for your next tweet, blog post, or even a pitch for an exclusive to pv magazine USA. Listening is foundational, and sometimes you have to dig for what’s compelling, but it’s worth it.
Sarah Matsui: What made you choose to start your own cleantech communications company?
Jamie Nolan: I want to encourage other people, especially parents and women, to consider going out on their own and creating their career in solar with their own company. I’m an entrepreneur now and the reason that I decided to do that was because I was having a child. My husband works a really tough schedule, and I wanted more flexibility in my schedule and more control over my hours. I was also ready to work on different projects after working in government for four years. So I took a big leap by going out on my own about a year and a half ago, and it’s honestly been the best thing I’ve ever done for myself. My confidence, my courage, and my skills as a communicator have grown at such a rapid pace since I became self-employed, because you have to do challenging things every day.
There is a small but mighty network of us out here who are either ‘solopreneurs’ or own very small PR firms specializing in clean energy. We’re very supportive of one another. If you’ve been thinking about starting a company, reach out for support and you can do it. I’m only in my early 30s, and I did this. So it can be done.
Sarah Matsui: From your work at SEIA, the Department of Energy SunShot Initiative, and now Nolan Strategic, you’ve spent a lot of time working in solar communications. Can you name three behind-the-scenes communications leaders who you think are helping advance the U.S. solar energy industry?
Jamie Nolan: Certainly!
First, I want to highlight Rosalind Jackson. She has been on the forefront of solar and central to some of the most impactful issues in the industry over the last decade. I have tremendous respect for her, and we all owe her for her tireless advocacy on behalf of our industry for many years. Plus, she’s brilliant and kind, which I love—it’s my favorite combination.
Alex Hobson is wrapping up four years at the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), where she actually held the role that I had at SEIA a few years ago. She just accepted a new gig as the Vice President of Communications for the American Council on Renewable Energy, and I can’t wait to see what she does there. Alex has been behind most of the big stories about U.S. solar that you’ve seen in mainstream media outlets over the past four years. Her work has broadly raised the profile of solar energy.
Third, I have to highlight one of my former employees and mentees, Jennifer Bristol, who is still at the U.S. Department of Energy’s solar office and is a total rising star in this space. When I first interviewed Jen, we didn’t have a position to put her in, so we made one. She is endlessly enthusiastic about solar, she’s a creative powerhouse, and she’s empathetic and warm. When we brought her on, she worked with the office’s awardee companies, so she has a lot of great industry relationships. I wish I had the budget to hire her right now. She’s going to do big things in her career.