August 23rd, 2010

“Solar, Inc.” and the Balance of Values

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For the past few weeks, I’ve felt somewhat disenchanted by the solar industry because I finally realized that it’s not a magical kingdom of free lunches and happy feelings — it’s a real industry with ups, downs, big companies, small companies, and a wide range of workers with different motivations.

Simple Solar-Powered Livin'

I recently finished listening to the audiobook of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and realized that the industrialization of the solar industry is very similar to that organic agriculture. Both stem from the Back-to-the-Land Movement in the 60’s and 70’s (please skim this Wiki article!), and were as much philosophical concepts as they were practical solutions to the energy and health needs of humans. As both ideas eventually hatched, they began to grow out of their idealism bubble and into the real world where they connect with other industries and organizations and mature. This article analyzes the social implications of this growth, as I’ve witnessed in my career.

Through the industrialization of solar panels as a commodity, small companies must grow by partnering with political and financial professionals not necessarily as passionately connected to solar ideals. The question is, do the ideals get diluted in this process, or do they in fact permeate the new realms of business and grow more? Most would side with the latter, but let’s not discount the former.

Regardless, I think it boils down to motivation – there are distinct categories of people working under the solar industry “umbrella.” These groups would be:

Me on my first solar thermal install in Bolton, MA

Group 1: People who are directly involved in the industry whose motivations at work mostly originate from a long-held belief in back-to-the-land values.

David Buzby, Chairman and founding investor of SunEdison.

Group 2: People who have been peripherally involved in the industry whose motivations at work mostly originate from an interest in their previous field – e.g. finance or politics or manufacturing.

Generally speaking, the bigger Group 1 gets, the more it needs Group 2 to remain stable and effective. As far as I can tell, Group 2 folks are very excited to be working in the solar field, and seem to be more and more influenced by the motivations of Group 1. However, I hope that Group 1 doesn’t become too absorbed into Group 2 through the industrialization of the industry.

10MW SunEdison Plant in AZ

I hope we as young clean tech professionals can keep the solar industry (and any clean tech industry) from falling off course in terms of values. We can do this through relentless discourse at any and all levels. Keep the values and philosophy discussion relevant and central.

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Miles Ryan

About Miles Ryan

Miles Ryan is currently becoming an expert on SRECs (Solar Renewable Energy Credits) in Washington DC. For 1.5 years Miles was the regional Operations Manager for Alteris Renewables where he managed 85+ active commercial and residential solar projects in Eastern MA, Southern NH, Rhode Island, and Maine. Miles coordinated directly with electric utilities, state rebate agencies, local building departments, solar financing firms, install crews, and customers.

  • http://twitter.com/jrmoreau James Ryan Moreau

    Amazing insights! Personally I’ve found that just a small percentage of the people I meet with, myself being of Group 1, are not sold on my passion for installing as much solar as possible or even my transferable (at least what I consider to be) skills from my marketing career. I offer to do grunt work, warehouse work, office management, WHATEVER, in exchange for exposure to the industry from a ground-floor perspective and then work my way up. Usually I’m just told, “go back to school” “get certified” “have you ever considered going back to get a bachelors degree in engineering?”

    I keep throwing myself at the wall with passion fueling me after rejection, but I for sure see what you’re saying about Group 2 taking some of the magic and steam out of Group 1′s sails.

    What else would you suggest for someone of my position?

  • Lena Seikaly

    Great article! I recently read “Omnivore’s Dilemma” as well — enlightened the idea that industrialization and big business are truly infiltrating many of the so-called “green” movements beyond organic agriculture. Your article now brings to light that the solar industry has followed suit, reducing the initial earthen-energy visionaries of the 60s and 70s to a series of assembly-line type jobs designed to widen net profit margins. It seems this is the fate of anything that can be “industried.” But I have faith that you — and others like you — can direct more of your energy to the efforts and values of Group 1, while working toward interdependency (rather than, simply, dependency) between the two groups.

  • Chris

    Public Utilities. Everyone I know who works for a public utility has customer service and uninterrupted service at the forefront in the everyday actions. This seems to be from the top as well as the “bottom.” It will be interesting to see how utilities change as smart metering becomes the standard and they have to deal with a more distributed power infrastructure. I believe that many of the utilities workforce and management have this mindset irrespective of their belief/policy(s) regarding climate change.
    Great article, how to move the consumer’s focus to that of group 1 verses the wallet-thinking supportive of group 2 will be a significant challenge. I think most people would gladly give up oil IF it did not cost anything and they did not have to change their lifestyles. I believe that this change will not happen until forced by shortages, increased cost or calamity. We have many options: wait for shortages to happen and hope the planet holds out longer than the oil supply; stop subsidies and tax fossil fuels; etc.
    Maybe we need to develop a fossil fuel vaccine, or something we can add to the water supply that causes people to have a emotional repulsion to oil (You’d think the Exxon Valdes, BP’s Gulf troubles and Iraq War might have had this effect.) We need a 60′s-like movement to end our addiction to fossil fuels.
    Group 1′s have it right, how do you package and mainstrem that?

  • http://twitter.com/wfrick Walt Frick

    Nice post Miles. “Keep the values and philosophy discussion relevant and central” is exactly right in my opinion. Haven’t forgotten that we need to chat re: DC. I’ll send you an email.

  • MikeMagic

    Good article. I agree with the conclusion that it is good to see the industry move in this direction. The political left has always pioneered social trends, and this is yet another example of capitalism pragmatically putting ideals into reality.
    I am a Bostonite working for a small solar company in Canada (we manufacture, install, export, etc). I have been here only 2 years, but this company has thrived for over 25 years on the sweat of idealists. Bigger fish are now starting to compete, as well as rising competition from Chinese manufacturing.
    21 Century Hippies are going to have to be market savvy and aggressive. They (we) need to realize that in order for ideals to be actualized, they have to be married to realist pragmatism.
    Isn’t this what Obama was supposed to pioneer?

  • http://www.thegreenlightdistrikt.com Chris Williams

    Miles,

    Great post, I love the insights you provide. My one thought is this, do you really think that group 1 (hippies) and group 2 (business) are battling each other and are mutually exclusive, or rather are rather continuation and part of the system where one prepares society for the second? In this case, the hippies create the environment for the business people.

    If the former is the case, we should not be worried because the hippies thus far have won. And instead of being sad about big business moving in, they should set their sites even higher, as their job getting the industry off the floor has been accomplished. In the 1970s the hippies just wanted RE to be a priority, well now it is. They’e becoming said because they’re no longer pushing the envelope, it’s become main stream. SO, I feel like hippies right now should be about 100% RE, that would make them crazy once again, put them at odds with the business and political people, and exactly where hippies operate best and if they succeed again, we’ll have 100% RE in 30 years!

  • Maconlon

    Very interesting. As someone trying to break into the clean energy industry, I’ve always been curious about how the “business” and “hippie” parties co-exist. The hard reality is that far-reaching RE goals require serious investment from big players (banks, industrialists, etc) who have the necessary capital and political influence to dramatically scale up the industry. As already mentioned, the challenge seems to be maintaining a healthy balance b/w the profit motive (fiduciary responsibility to shareholders) and the environmental mission.

    My concern is that despite all the talk about RE creating hundreds of thousands of domestic jobs, big multi-nationals will start gobbling up smaller companies over the next couple decades, sending jobs offshore and leaving qualified domestic workers in the dust. Do we accept the fact that meeting ambitious state and national-level goals may come at the expense of the very values and entrepreneurial vision that launched this broad industry? Perhaps I’m being too cynical.

    I work for a prominent public radio station where internal tension exists b/w revenue-generating (business) vs. journalistic (purist) interests. The reality is that without continued revenue growth and public/corporate investment, public radio would cease to exist…i.e. the journalists and general public would lose out. To paraphrase Bill Parcells, “in the end its about the baby, not the delivery.” In other words, its all about the quality and public good of the product than the process itself…as cold as it sounds. Will this apply to the RE industry.

  • Miles Ryan

    Hey Guys, thanks for all the comments and reactions! First of all, I don’t want to over-simplify these two groups to “business” and “hippies” (as Maconlon and Chris W write, for example) because it can be too easily misinterpreted and misconstrued as overly judgmental and even insulting to some. “Hippies” is a very broad term, and I regret writing “(read: prophetic hippies)” because it wasn’t quite what I meant. Anyway, I just think in order to have a healthy debate, we have to be conscious of articulating labels for people. That’s why I made sure to define both groups in a neutral-positive light, because ultimately both objectives are equally important (making money and saving the earth).

    I think as Group 1 folks and Group 2 folks co-mingle, work together on projects, and get excited about RE, they will evolve toward one another, altering their labels from “investment consultant” to “cleantech investor” or from “canvassing coordinator” to “grass-roots marketing director.” Each Group’s discourse with the more radical ends of their own side of the spectrum will also force them to casually defend their newfound cleantech job somehow, to legitimize the hybrid function of their job to both themselves and their own exclusive group. They’ll find their own ways of wording it – likely as a cliche phrase, unfortunately – but ultimately they are aware that, generally speaking, you have to involve the other group in order to make something happen.

    I really liked MikeMagic’s comment “21st Century Hippies are going to have to be market savvy and aggressive.” – Totally true. I REALLY like the phrase “21st Century Hippies.” This is sort of like a “Group 3″ hybrid breed. MikeMagic – we should connect, I’d love to write a post about 21st Century Hippies.

  • http://www.thegreenlightdistrikt.com Chris Williams

    Miles,

    I’ll ask bluntly, do you think its Group 1 vs. Group 2 or not?

    Chris

  • MikeMagic

    @ Miles
    Yeah we should connect, I am very interested in hearing about your solar experience in my home state (I went abroad for some reason).
    My email: mscry@mta.ca

  • MikeMagic

    Miles,
    Yeah we should connect. I’d like to hear about your experience in the solar industry in my home state (I went abroad for some reason).
    My email: mscry@mta.ca

  • MikeMagic

    Miles,
    Yeah give a shout sometime, my email is mscry@mta.ca

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