The solar industry is booming, and there’s a lot to keep track of. From system configuration to energy storage, O&M (Operations and Maintenance) and beyond, the job of Franklin Beach Energy’s Managing Director Carter Wall is never really done. Sustainable woman Carter discusses her career, trends in solar, tips for contractors, faulty O&M contracts, preventative maintenance and workforce diversity.
How did you get into the energy asset management business?
I got my start doing project finance for conventional power plants– some merchant plants, but mostly distributed generation or district energy systems. These systems are owned by places like universities, airports, corporate campuses, and hospitals whose main focus is NOT running power plants, but they are nevertheless critical to their operations. They have engineers on staff to run them, but often need someone to help them with their ongoing business decisions regarding economic performance. How are they buying their commodities, what should their long-term capital plan be, how can they take advantage of the latest technologies and incentives? It’s hard to keep up! As more and more technologies are developed, these investment decisions become more complex, but also offer more opportunity for a company’s bottom line, and they recognize that.
You’ve done everything from solar system configuration, negotiating contracts to reporting and beyond. Is there such thing as a typical day for you? If so, what does it entail?
The solar industry is ‘professionalizing’ very quickly – for instance, a couple of years ago there was not a well-defined O&M sector, and recently I’ve been helping installers develop very efficient, profitable, maintenance operations. Likewise, we are doing better at developing standards and technologies for measuring performance, although that’s still a work in progress.
Asset advisory — what I do for my customers — means helping large commercial energy consumers make strategic decisions about all of their energy assets, and how those assets fit into their overall operations. My customers are mostly not investor owners of solar – they are manufacturers and real estate owners who also have to buy power from the grid, and make other capital and operating decisions in addition to solar. For instance, right now I am helping a client craft a storage strategy to go along with his solar, and also helping him contract for his grid power (because his demand will be affected by his on-site assets), and developing a capital plan and efficiency investment strategy to go along with it. It’s the whole energy picture.
That’s a long way of saying that there is no typical day for me. That’s the fun thing about this business – we’re always adding something new to the mix. Right now our ISO in New England is looking at options for changing the existing market structure to deal with increasing integration of new generation and storage technologies. Whatever we come up with is sure to have huge ripple effects – figuring out long-term capital investment strategies in this atmosphere is a challenge!
What’s your favorite part of the job?
I have to say it’s my customers. I know that sounds glib, but it’s really true. My customers come to me with problems, and working with them to figure out solutions is really fun, and challenging. It’s always new and different, and I always feel that I am adding value for them. Sure, they don’t always take my advice, (which drives me crazy!) but they’re the ones really pushing this industry forward, demanding that we keep coming up with answers. This is a great time to be in this business, because of all the options you can bring to your customers.
Do you have any tips for contractors who are thinking about getting into the O&M business?
- Don’t steal business from yourself: One of the bad habits that contractors get into is “giving away” O&M business to get Engineering, Procurement and and Construction (EPC) business. Customers tend not to focus on O&M costs, so why give away something they aren’t asking for? I have done a number of EPC contract Requests for Proposals (RFPs) on behalf of customers where the contractor “threw in” a couple of extra years of O&M. If you are running a business, you need to sit down with the team and agree on what O&M is going to cost them in their bids. Don’t give away business for free. If your customer asks you to do something, and it’s an area of solar you don’t go into, you should think hard about saying “no”… you might even negotiate a finder’s fee with an organization who does what the customer needs done.
- Check in with your customers regularly: Contractors have a hard time pivoting from construction, which is not an ongoing relationship, to service, which is. In the service business, the customer relationship is the most important asset you have. Make sure they know what you’re doing for them. I had a customer tell me that the only time he heard from his O&M contractor is when they sent him a contract renewal. “How do I know if it’s worth it if I don’t know what they did?” he asked. Keep a blog or monthly newsletter. Give your stakeholders quarterly or monthly performance reports and recommendations that include the financial performance of their system, so that they remember you, get the feeling that you’re paying attention to their system, and connect your name with the successful operation of their system. I had to argue with a contractor once because they didn’t want to have to give reports as part of their O&M service. I said “This is for YOUR benefit – yes, odds are the customer won’t ever read them, but they’ll remember that you did them.” Every time you talk to your customer is an opportunity to solve a problem for them.
- Design for operation: Contractors are getting better about this, but it’s still helpful to have your maintenance staff weigh in on things that are going to have an impact on the cost to service a system. This includes placement of equipment, choice of technology, Data Acquisition Systems (DAS), etc. Don’t get stuck in a silo.
- Keep track of your documents! I can’t tell you how many times contractors have lost proposals or contracts – a couple of years down the road, and you’ve got a headache.
What is coming down the pike for solar?
Of course, storage integration is the big thing we’re dealing with right now. And while I think that storage is definitely the wave of the future, I am cautioning my customers right now about investments that have lengthy paybacks. Not because I think that the incentives are going to go up, or the price down, too quickly, but because I think we’re going to see a large-scale change in market structure and pricing for grid power within the next 5-10 years, and it’s hard to predict what impact this will have on storage investments.
We have been focusing so hard on building solar that we haven’t given much thought to what happens next. Decommissioning or re-powering systems is just the tip of the iceberg. The solar company of today is going to look very different 10 years from now. The current distinction between renewable energy and conventional energy industries is going to break down, and the utility business model is going to change rapidly. This is good news for consumers, overall, because it will mean that they have more options and a more efficient industry, but some investments may get stranded along the way, and your business decision-making needs to take this into account.
Climate change resilience is going to become a much more central part of construction in the next ten years. Building codes, insurance requirements, and project economics are going to change, and the role of distributed generation and design of systems will change along with them.
How does one spot a bad or faulty O&M contract?
Oh, let me count the ways!
- List the equipment you are going to maintain and what it is that you are going to do. I know this seems like a silly thing to say, but I’ve had a LOT of contracts where that didn’t exist. Terms weren’t defined, there was no list of what equipment they were going to maintain. Seriously.
- Make sure you note exclusions from service as well as what is covered – both services and parts. Customers are (usually) not experts like you are, and have been known to ‘assume’ that you are handling things that you are in fact not handling. This has happened to several of my clients, and it’s a great way to lose customers. Monitoring, communications, and anything having to do with incentives are top on this list.
- Spell out what happens when the owner needs to remove panels or do something to the system for some reason. This is obviously covered in most PPAs, but is often left out of O&M contracts. This is going to happen at some point in the contract, and there are costs associated with this work that go beyond the typical hourly maintenance rate: engineering changes, permits, storage, equipment rentals, etc. My recommendation is that major system work be excluded in the O&M contract, with the understanding that it will be quoted as a separate item.
What is “preventive maintenance”?
Preventive maintenance is regular, scheduled maintenance of the solar array done to make sure it’s going to operate properly going forward. A lot of people like to pretend that it isn’t necessary, and the costs of preventive maintenance for solar are not high, but that doesn’t mean it’s not necessary. We all know that any equipment needs to be checked out from time to time. Your installer and the equipment manufacturer will have a canned set of procedures to go through, so this isn’t anything mysterious, and you can ask for a fixed price for it.
Preventive maintenance is like going to the dentist — a great way of identifying problems before they happen. Plus, it’s cheaper. Oh, and you might find, if you look at the fine print, that the utility company and your insurance company require it.
In addition to being the Managing Director of Franklin Beach Energy, you’re heavily involved in the nonprofit world and, particularly, in diversifying the energy fields. Why is this so important to you?
I love my career in the energy industry! And I want everyone to know that this is a great industry to work in, and that they can thrive in careers in the field. The energy sector is growing and changing fast, and we are struggling to find people to fill all these new jobs. An obvious place to look for talent is non-traditional demographics. Energy employers know that they have a problem with attracting and retaining young women and people of color to careers in the field, for a lot of reasons. What a great challenge to tackle!
Tell us about NEWIEE. What is your role? Why did it start? What are the goals of the organization?
I serve on the board of New England Women in Energy and the Environment, which was born out of a simple desire to join with other women in the field — to network, to learn, to share our experience, and (to be honest) to feel a little less isolated. We’ve come a long way since I started in the industry, but we are all still the minority in our workplaces. NEWIEE is a way to support and inspire each other. We have an annual Gala where we celebrate the achievements of women in our field, and it’s grown to be over 300 people every year, with dozens of corporate sponsors. It’s such an inspiring event! The NEWIEE mailing list currently has over 1500 people, and we are adding to it all the time. We do about a dozen events a year, and have recently been adding more events outside the Boston area, in New Hampshire and Western New England. We welcome male members, too, as men are an important part of helping women grow and thrive in their careers. We host a lot of great events. We bring women leaders in our field to speak, hold networking sessions, and maintain a job board. We partner with other organizations to help them diversify their speaker rosters at conferences. Our events feature women who are taking prominent roles in the cutting- edge issues affecting the industry. But, I have to say that my favorite program is “NEWIEE On Campus”, which we’ve been doing a little over a year now.
What is the Future of American Energy organization? What’s your role there?
The Future of American Energy helps employers invest in workforce diversity through summer internships. There are all sorts of wonderful STEM education programs out there now for young women and people of color — but they still need to find their way to paying jobs. FAE helps close that last gap between education and jobs, by helping connect employers with qualified summer interns. Internships are a great way of letting young women and people of color ‘try out’ a role that they might not otherwise explore. When I was at the state’s clean energy agency (now MassCEC), we started an internship program for the industry, and I saw that it can be a great way to help employers identify and hire a new workforce.
In your opinion, why is the energy sector so homogenous?We all suffer from unconscious bias toward people and things that we are familiar with. I was at a conference recently where someone said “If everyone you take a chance on looks like you, you’re doing something wrong.” A great thing to keep in mind when you’re hiring!
How can employers better diversify their workforce?
We need to challenge ourselves to reach out to young people and encourage them to consider a career in our field. Do you remember a time when someone told you “You should think about doing this role, you’d be good at it”? That doesn’t happen enough. I have actually had employers say to me “I’d love to hire women and racially diverse people, but they never apply for jobs here.” Seriously? What are you doing to let them know that you want them? The best part is that it’s really rewarding to do this — you get more out of it than you give as a hiring manager or executive.
What are 3 pieces of advice that you would give to a young woman or person of color trying to break into the extremely exclusive energy sector?
1. Find something you’re interested in. There’s no substitute for passion. When I hire people, the first thing I ask them is — what do they care about? What do they think is interesting about what we do? Life is too long to do something you’re not interested in.
2. Find mentors and colleagues and talk to them, get their advice. No one does anything alone, and people want to help. I would have never been in this field if a professor of mine hadn’t said “You should take a look at this.”
3. Barriers limit them, not you. You don’t have to “fix” yourself, or change yourself.
Carter Wall is Managing Director for Franklin Beach Energy, which offers asset management and strategic advisory services for distributed generation projects. Prior to founding Franklin Beach Energy, Carter was Director of the Performance Solar Division of Broadway Electrical, a union electrical contractor that was one of the largest solar developers in the state, and led the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust (now the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center), under the administration of Governor Deval Patrick. She also serves on the board of New England Women in Energy and the Environment and is an Ambassador of the U.S. DOE’s C3E “Women in Clean Energy” program.
While Carter was Executive Director of the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust, the state developed an internship program for the clean energy industry. It was the experience working with employers on this program that prompted Carter and Nelson to found FAE, to help energy employers diversify their workforce.
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