This Solar Women Summer Series interview features two HeatSpring Solar course alumnae, Karma Edwards and Shelley Cohen.

Karma Edwards (left), MBAKarma Edwards, LEED AP is an independent consultant for Energy Engineering and Business Development. Karma completed our Solar PV Installer Boot Camp Training.

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Shelley Cohen (right) is the CEO and Co-Founder of Alpha Solar Group. Shelley completed our Solar Executive MBA Course.

 

Tell us your story – how’d you get into the solar industry? What first peaked your interest?

KE: I took the Solar Boot Camp because I was working on a Solar Train-the-Trainer DOE grant for Pennsylvania State University. I wanted to truly understand what went into a solar installation and signed up for the course to learn as much as possible. I took the NABCEP Entry Level Exam and passed, becoming a Certified NABCEP Installer.

SC: Like most job opportunities in my life, I sort of “fell into” solar. For the past 13 years, I worked at a company developing energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. The projects I initially focused on developing were landfill gas utilization projects. Not too glamourous, but very beneficial to the environment because the project combusted methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and used it as a fuel source. When natural gas prices fell, renewables like landfill gas were having a hard time competing. That is when I started to focus on new markets such as energy procurement, CHP, and solar project development. I feel in love with solar the first time I was up on a sunny roof checking my first installation — a 77kw PV system on a government building in DE. What an incredible site to see the panels lined up and soaking up the sun’s rays. I was hooked. As my passion for solar grew, so did my desire to dedicate all of my time to developing solar projects. I left my job in 2015 and incorporated Alpha Solar Group on 4/1/15 and never looked back. I combined my long history in the renewable energy industry with another female partner who financed and currently owns and operates 3MWs of solar PV and thermal, and a 22 year Navy Veteran with an expertise in mechanical engineering and operations. Although we are just starting out, our pipeline has filled up fast with projects in the commercial space. We are encouraged by early interest in Alpha Solar Group and anticipate having some projects on-line in 2015.

Is what you’re doing today related to anything you wanted to do when you were 5 years old?

KE: Yes. When I was a young child, I set up a table in front of my house to sell smiley faces I had drawn. As an energy professional, I am still trying to sell smiles, with the win-win-win situations possible through application of the triple bottom line.

SC: Even as a little kid, I wanted to save the world. I wanted to be a doctor, or help animals, or be a political leader. Back in the 70s, it was the time when they were fighting to amend the constitution to add the ERA amendment guaranteeing equal rights for women. My mother made sure I had a necklace that had the letters ERA and explained that I could be anything I wanted to be in life. And, all around me, women were rising to power, including Golda Meir, Indira Ghandi, and Ella Grasso, the first woman Governor of Connecticut, where I grew up. As the CEO of Alpha Solar Group, I feel that I am finally realizing those childhood dreams of saving the world and becoming a woman pioneer in the solar industry.

Are there specific people/mentors who are helping you succeed? What was the best advice they gave you and what would you tell a young professional looking to find a mentor?

KE: My husband, Ralph Thompson, is an energy engineer with Siemens. He is my most stalwart supporter and mentor. Ralph is a master of diligence and persistence. He is continually encouraging me to chip away at really big projects and aspirations in order to achieve both short-term goals and long-term success. For young professionals, it is important to know that you may need different mentors for different things at different times. Since finding the right mentor at the right time can be very difficult, we have to always be willing and able to rely on our own best judgments to move forward on specific tasks at hand and not wait for anyone else to help. In general, thinking strategically is the critical skill to develop, as this sets the direction for all time management and efforts.

SC: Yes, always. One thing I learned early in my career was that successful leaders surround themselves with competent, inspirational people who have talents that compliment their own. I have always enjoyed the relationships, counsel, and collaboration that comes from working as part of a team. Currently, there are a number of larger solar companies in the DC area that have been providing assistance to Alpha Solar Group as project and finance partners as we begin to negotiate our first projects. The best advice I received to date came from Jigar Shah, the founder of Sun Edison. When I asked him if I could do this, he said I was asking the wrong question. The question I needed to ask was HOW can I do this. Shifting the words really and rephrasing the question really put things in perspective for me. The other great piece of advice was to get “shovels in the ground” and get something built as soon as possible. Finally, for anyone looking for mentors, I always say to find someone you admire, define what you hope to gain from the mentor relationship, network, and follow up!

Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?

KE: Even though I have been involved in the field of energy engineering for over 20 years, the past 1.5 years I have been challenging myself to achieve three major credentials as an MBA, a LEED AP, and, a CEM. I am planning to either continue serving as independent consultant or join an energy engineering organization.

SC: In 5 years, I see myself as the CEO of a successful solar development company with at least 5MWs of solar projects on-line! That is my professional perspective, but it is also important for women to keep a personal perspective as well. Personally, I see me balancing my career, which I love, with family time, which includes enjoying my two daughters, who will then be 12 and 10, my husband, and father, as well as other family members.

How can the women who have taken or are planning to take HeatSpring solar courses become more involved with your organization?

KE: Memberships in professional organizations such as ASHRAE, AEE, IEEE, and, USGBC are invaluable. They provide opportunities in networking, business and career development, education, and credentialling.

SC: I welcome women, solar enthusiasts, partners, collaborators, financiers, and anyone in the solar community get in contact with me and Alpha Solar Group! There are a number of ways to get in touch:
Email me at [email protected], check out Alpha Solar Group online, on Facebook, Twitter (@alphasolargroup and #alphasolargroup) and find me on LinkedIn!

What are 3 big takeaways from the HeatSpring course you completed?

KE:

1) Do not limit your vision of yourself. Reach for goals that are difficult to attain.
2) Utilize what you learn, as much and as quickly as possible, in multiple situations and applications. This helps solidify new skills and conceptualization of novel subject matter while it’s still fresh.
3) Continue to add to your knowledge of all applicable scientific and mathematical aspects of each specific energy technology in your frame of reference. Technology evolves quickly and falling behind should not be seen as a viable option.

SC:

1) You are provided with a tremendous amount of valuable information
2) You will reference the information, the lessons, and your coursework over and over again –so keep it handy!
3) Once you are in the HeatSpring network, you will continue to find interesting and compelling courses that will keep you active and engaged in the network.

Please describe your capstone project.

KE: Attending the Solar Boot Camp was the beginning of involvement in a series of successful grants that brought in a total of ~$30M. It set the bar for me to become grounded in the specific subject matter of each grant, which in turn helped with strategy on how each project should be organized and executed.

SC: At the end of the Solar Executive MBA course, we had learned how to create a solar work plan and proforma, respond to an RFP, and gained a full understanding of all of the incentives, financial structures, and legal documents needed to fully design and implement a solar project.

Anything that you wish you’d known before you took the course?

KE: Before attending the Solar Boot Camp, my husband spent a week giving me a crash course in the science of electricity. Without this solid education, I am absolutely certain grasping the material fully or passing the NABCEP test would have been difficult to impossible.

SC: I wish I had know that it was going to take way more time than I thought it would take. There is so much information being presented, so I found myself constantly rewinding and reviewing the segments to make sure I fully understood the concepts. With that being said, the information was so helpful and timely that I really did not mind spending more time on the course. But, be prepared!

What do you think prevents women from entering the field of Solar? How can we get more women involved?

KE: Most Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields are exclusionary (specifically designed to discourage, confound, and ultimately weed out non-traditional individuals) instead of inclusionary (designed to encourage and accommodate varying levels of knowledge and capabilities). I am a very good example of a person, with very little confidence in science and math, who has doggedly pursued my own path in business and engineering, against all institutional, professional, and educational odds.

SC: Perception, Training, and Leadership are three of the barriers keeping women from entering the solar field. We need to mentor and encourage women to go into the renewable energy field because it is a growth area and presents great opportunities for a future career. We also need to change perception that solar is a male dominated field. Every day, I see more and more women choosing a solar path for their career and I am very encouraged that the tide is shifting.

What are you working on now?

KE: Currently, I am studying for the Certified Energy Manager test given by the Association of Energy Engineers.

SC: Alpha Solar Group was incorporated on 04/01/15, and we are working on developing a few projects in the Washington DC area. Please check our website and follow our project development activities.

What is one thing happening in solar that you’re really excited about?

KE: Recently, I attended a Solarize Pittsburgh meeting where Pittsburgh neighborhoods are banding together to have solar panels installed. This is a great way to bring the power of solar energy to families across the United States.

SC: Storage. The exciting part of the solar market is that it is continually evolving and there is always something new. It is my theory that the grid as we know it will eventually transform into a different system where people generate their own power and store or sell any excess power. The generator/individual will then have the option to sell excess power on a newly formed commodity market that is purchasing power from the small, independent producers, like a home owner, and distributing it where there is demand. Storage seems to make all of this possible. Hey, a girl can dream!

Thank you, Karma and Shelley!

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