Our fifth Solar Women Summer Series interview (powered by RenewableEnergyWorld.com) features Sara Rafalson, Senior Associate at Sol Systems, a solar energy finance and investment firm with offices in D.C., San Francisco, and Philadelphia. Ms. Rafalson is also the President of Women in Solar Energy (WISE), the solar industry’s only national non-profit membership association dedicated to advancing women in the solar energy industry. She talked with us about gaining entry into and working within the solar industry, advice for solar developers seeking financing, her roles at Sol Systems and WISE, and exciting opportunities for the HeatSpring audience.

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  • While only 21.6% of the solar industry is comprised of women, there are numerous efforts out there to change this dynamic from Women in Solar Energy (WISE), GRID Alternatives, Solar Energy International, and beyond.
  • Build your network; the solar industry offers many opportunities to get involved.
  • Mentorship is important, but you must also be your own champion.
  • Sol Systems offers many opportunities for professional advancement… and they’re hiring!

Q: Tell us your story – how’d you get into this industry? 

A: I got into solar in a roundabout way, and a way that I wouldn’t recommend for others trying to break into the sector now. I wanted to make a contribution to mitigate climate change, googled “green jobs,” and a Sol Systems job listing came up. Everything happened so quickly; I had my first interview when I was pulled over on the side of the road, they asked me to come in and meet the team, and then asked that I start the next week.

It’s only been four years, but the solar industry has changed so much since then that things don’t quite happen like that anymore. Now, I recommend building a network and getting your foot in the door by getting to know the right people. At Sol, 64% of our hires from 2014 and 2015 have come from referrals.

Q: Tell us about Sol Systems & the work you do specifically.

A: Sol Systems is a solar energy finance and investment firm that focuses largely on financing projects in the 200kW – 5MW space, which are traditionally some of the most challenging solar projects to finance due to the high transaction costs associated with relatively smaller project opportunities. We have a wide network of commercial developer partners who rely on Sol Systems for their solar financing needs, including project acquisitions, tax equity, debt, and solar renewable energy credits (SRECs). To date, we’ve financed over 200MW of projects throughout the U.S.

I was employee number 8 at Sol Systems, and my role has pivoted many times as the business has expanded. When I started, I managed accounts mostly for our residential and commercial SREC customers. I then transitioned to a business development and account management role with our installer partners in the Mid-Atlantic, Northeast, and Midwest who utilize Sol Systems for their SREC monetization. I was also tasked with making operations changes as business and regulatory conditions evolved.

Today, I oversee that team and wear a few more hats. I work with our COO on hiring strategy and overseeing internal operations changes that have been necessary as the team continues to grow. I also work with our marketing team and author SOURCE, Sol Systems’ monthly Solar Project Finance Journal, which shares thought leadership pieces on solar project finance, development, and policy. That has a distribution list of over 3200 industry professionals. Here’s an excerpt from June.

It’s been fun to watch the company grow from 8 people to 50, and it’s been a great experience to be part of that growth. Today, we have offices in D.C., San Francisco, and Philadelphia.

Q: What would you consider vital information for any solar developer looking to receive financing/funding?

A: I’d recommend subscribing to SOURCE, our monthly Solar Project Finance Journal, as well as taking a look at our blog. Our team is regularly publishing articles that include tips on attracting investment, as well as the best markets for commercial solar.

Right now we’re looking closely at Rhode Island’s RE Growth program, Connecticut ZREC deals, among others. The SREC markets in Maryland, New Jersey, and D.C. are also strong, which is a big boost to deals. We call markets like Maryland the “wallflower” markets because very few developers are doing business there, but they should be. Massachusetts has always been a strong market for us, but development has stalled recently over the net metering caps. We’ve done a lot of work in California – hence why we opened an office out there earlier this year – and we’re optimistic about the Option R rate in both SCE and PG&E territory and the potential it has to awaken California’s commercial market. My home state of North Carolina also has been a huge focus for tax equity investors.

Q: How did you become involved in Women in Solar Energy (WISE)?

A: Sol Systems hosts monthly women’s lunches (which we recently opened to the men of the office). Through one of those discussions, we decided to plan a women in solar cocktail reception at SPI Chicago in 2013. Meghan Nutting, co-founder of WISE, was in attendance, and plugged me into the work that WISE was doing. I become Vice President and then assumed the role of President earlier this year.

It’s a volunteer role and a lot of time spent, but all of it has been extremely fulfilling. I’m working mostly on strategy, fundraising, and running some of our programs surrounding workforce development and SheSpeaks Solar, our initiative to increase the number of women speaking on technical panels. We worked with both Greentech Media and the Midwest Solar Expo so far this year, with plans to work with other industry conferences in the fall. We’re also hosting a breakfast at Intersolar on July 14, and we’re looking for sponsors for our cocktail reception at Solar Power International, which will take place on September 15.

Q: In your opinion, what have been the largest barriers preventing women from joining the world of solar professionally?

A: Solar is in many ways a construction business; you need installers, engineers, and financiers. When many women get into the business, they can feel isolated, and that old boys club feel can discourage many women from sticking in the sector. It’s been fun to tackle those challenges through WISE, and GRID Alternatives, Solar Energy International (SEI), and others are also doing great work to increase the diversity of the solar workforce.

It’s also up to employers to make the work environment more inclusive. Sol Systems is incredibly progressive in this regard, and 36% of our team is comprised of women, which is higher than the industry average of 21.6%. That’s something that we’re proud of, especially for a solar finance shop.

Q: How can the women who have taken or are planning to take HeatSpring solar courses become more involved with Sol Systems or Women in Solar Energy? 

A: First, Sol Systems is hiring. I’m always happy to take a look at women’s resumes (or men – I don’t discriminate) and recommend a company for them in the case that they may not be a good fit for our team. I’d also recommend joining WISE; we have a jobs board, and we host several events throughout the year that allow women the opportunity to connect to others in the field.

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

A: As a kid, I was always worried about endangered species, the ozone layer, and other frightening dystopian scenarios that kids shouldn’t worry about. Those things still scare me, and for that reason, I’m grateful to be a part of the solution.

Q: Any favorite books, movies or resources to help someone interested in learning more about/joining the solar industry?

A: From Edison to Enron is an excellent history of electricity in the United States. Soul of the Grid is heavier; I’m reading that right now. I also recommend Danny Kennedy’s book, Rooftop Revolution, for people looking for a high level introduction to the solar industry.

Q: Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?

A: Does anyone really know the answer to that question? My goal is to establish a subject matter expertise – perhaps in community solar, or Latin American solar as that market grows. I lived in South America for 5 months, and my degree was in International Studies and Sustainability; it would be interesting to return to that focus.

Q: Is your background in renewable energy?
A: Not directly. Before Sol Systems, I worked in sustainability programming at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with the Office of Waste Reduction and Recycling. I conducted greenhouse gas inventories and worked on creating and managing programs to make the university’s operations more “green.”

I also tried out a role in the federal government through a fellowship at the Department of the Interior during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and I did some advocacy work in Alaska surrounding the national climate legislation in 2009. All of these experiences were extremely fulfilling, but now, there is nowhere that I’d rather be besides the solar industry. It’s a great place to be.

Q: Are there specific people/mentors who are helping you succeed?

A: I am so grateful for the relationships that I have built with my mentors, who have also become close friends of mine. Natacha Kiler, my former supervisor at Sol Systems, now at Sunshare, was my first solar mentor. Lean In tells us “Don’t Ask Anyone to be Your Mentor.” I did just that with Natacha, but it ended up working out just fine. Meghan Nutting, VP of Government Affairs at Sunnova Solar Energy and on the Board of Directors of WISE, has also become a close friend and supporter. BJ Tipton, my recycling boss, was also critical to my professional development; I owe a lot to her.

I am thankful for all of these women and so many more, all of whom have been so important to me and my professional growth.

Q: Any tips for women looking to follow in your footsteps?

A: Build your network; the people that you meet along the way will help you succeed. Join WISE, volunteer at a GRID build, take a class with Solar Energy International, HeatSpring, or the NC Clean Technology Center, attend your local solar drinks chapter happy hour – or plan one. My network of strong, solar women – and men – has been so important to me and my personal and professional growth. The solar community is so close-knit, and there are always opportunities for building relationships. Don’t limit your network to solar, though. I scored my Alaska climate and energy policy internship through my involvement in Masters water polo.

While I can’t understate the value of mentorship and building your network, at the end of the day, you should always be your own biggest advocate. Push yourself, take on projects outside of your comfort zone, make plans, speak up. It’s up to you to decide where you want to be in your career, and to get yourself there.

Thank you, Sara!