Spotlight on: Sara Rafalson

Sara+Rafalson+lectures+to+TWIST+%28Today%27s+Women+in+Science+and+Technology%29+members+about+her+experience+as+a+woman+working+in+the+solar+industry+on+Jan.+20.+In+addition%2C+Rafalson+provided+high+school%2C+college%2C+and+future+job+advice+to+the+Jefferson+students.

Katherine Du

Sara Rafalson lectures to TWIST (Today's Women in Science and Technology) members about her experience as a woman working in the solar industry on Jan. 20. In addition, Rafalson provided high school, college, and future job advice to the Jefferson students.

Katherine Du, Team Leader

On Feb. 19, tjTODAY interviewed Sara Rafalson, a senior associate at Sol Systems and president of Women in Solar Energy (WISE).

 

ABOUT SARA:

Q: What was your favorite subject in high school or college?

A: In high school I really loved Spanish, which ultimately led me to major in Latin American Politics in college. In high school, I also loved theater. I wrote and directed plays.

Q: Did you have a favorite teacher? Why was he/she your favorite?

A: My favorite teacher was Catherine McDougall, my theatre teacher. I kept in touch with her as a friend and mentor even after graduation. She encouraged me to be creative and looped me into the theatre scene as her assistant director for our fall plays.

My Spanish teach, Ms. Calvar, was excellent. From day one, she made us speak Spanish only in her classes; we couldn’t speak any English. It was challenging, but when I got to college, I realize my Spanish was so much better than my peers after having learned under her for three years.

Q: If you could change your high school experience, would you want to? [if yes] How would you change it?

A: High school isn’t perfect for anyone, but I think everything that happens is part of shaping who we are today. So, I wouldn’t really go back and change anything. Perhaps I would spend less time stressing over my grades, but it’s important to realize that everything that happens along the way is part of developing you into the person you’ll be one day.

Q: Do you think that those experiences helped you in choosing an environmental career, or were they more separate?

A: Though those classes did not directly influence my career in solar energy, they did help me become a more well-rounded person. And, I’d still love to work on solar in Latin America one day.

In terms of helping me in my career, my internships and club experiences were more relevant than my classes, especially in college. Leading a club or taking on an internship taught me how to interact professionally, work in groups, and manage teams and keep people motivated. My internship experiences helped me to build some basic professional skills, like writing an email. These experiences were invaluable.

Q: Did your high school or college experience help shape what you were interested in pursuing in the future?

A: Since I was a kid, I had an interest in environmental issues and feared the social and political conflicts that would arise with climate change and resource scarcity.  Academic work helped me to be more aware of the issues and the science behind the challenges that we face. As such, I began taking on internship experiences and later looking for full-time employment that could help me be part of the solution.

Q: When did you realize you would like to work in the solar industry?

A: I didn’t get into the solar industry purposefully. I knew I wanted to have some sort of career related to climate change, and energy was a tangible way to do that. I ended up finding Sol Systems on the Internet and applied, and I’ve loved every second of being in the solar industry. You really feel like you’re part of something big, and there is a strong sense of community among industry professionals.

Q: What types of environmental projects have you worked on?

A: Sol Systems finances solar projects. We partner with solar developers and installers across the country, and we provide financing for their projects. We also work with investors who are looking to place capital into solar transactions.

Q: What is your favorite memory from your environmental work?

A: One of the most rewarding things I have done is become involved in Women in Solar Energy; I serve as President of our national non-profit. It’s been a good way for me to build my network of solar women friends across the country. WISE has been valuable from my career; I’ve connect with industry colleagues who have become great friends and mentors.  I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to get to know so many like-minded, smart women and count them as friends.

Another memory – a really fun one – was the Solar Battle of the Bands in San Francisco last July. Five or so solar companies perform and compete, and the audience votes for the winner. I think back on experiences like that and think about how this is such a cool industry, and this is a really great time to be in solar.

 

SOL SYSTEMS:

Q: How long have you worked at Sol Systems?

A: I have been there since 2011. Almost 5 years.

Q: What is the mission of Sol Systems? Who does Sol Systems collaborate with (e.g., partnerships) and serve?

A: Sol Systems works with developers and solar installers, and also investors who are interested in placing capital in solar. The mission is to expand financing options for solar.

Q: How has Sol Systems changed since you began working there? Were you behind any of the change, or did you inspire any of the change, at Sol Systems (for example, by providing advice to improve the work environment or starting a new tradition)?

A: I was employer number eight. At that time, we were a start-up company and worked from a conference room. Since then, we’ve expanded and now have over 50 people, are hiring for more, and have opened offices in Philadelphia and California. Sure, I’d like to think I’ve been part of building the company and have had a major impact in setting the tone of the corporate culture.

Q: What skills or abilities are important to have for working in the solar industry?

A: I would say that having a passion for environmental causes is important. Even if we are hiring someone right out of college or an intern, we want to see that they are part of a club and they’re actively involved in a leadership role. That’s one reason I really enjoyed speaking TWIST [Today’s Women in Science and Technology].

Q: What types of jobs do solar energy companies offer?

A: Anything and everything. You can be a solar installer or work in marketing and computer programming. You don’t have to worry about having all the skills when just starting out. A company will train you and help you to grow professionally.

In my company in particular, we have a customer service team that works with all of our accounts and handles inquiries. We have an engineering team that looks over our projects and makes sure that they’re sound investments from an engineering perspective. We have a business development team, and their job is to interface with solar developers who need our help for financing, and we have an investment management team that helps the investors who are looking to place capital or financing in those projects.

 

SOLAR ENERGY:

Q: Why choose solar energy over other renewable energy sources?

A: I really like solar [energy] because of its potential; you can really do it anywhere. You can do solar on a rooftop, and if you think about how many rooftops there are in the United States, or globally, there is a lot of potential. While large solar farms in a field, for example, are very common, with solar is that you’re not taking away land to build the system. Instead, you’re using existing roof space. Solar consumers can then produce their own electricity, and consume it close to its source. With clean energy, your house can be its own power plant.

Wind power has also grown dramatically over the last several years. Nobody really puts up one wind turbine. For the most part, they are giant utility-scale projects that can take years to develop and ultimately build. I think all renewable sources are part of the solution, but I am interested in solar for my own career because of the potential of distributed generation. Solar’s costs are continuing to come down at dramatic rates, and as a result, you’ll see dramatic growth.

Q: What are disadvantages of using solar energy, if any?

A: The disadvantages [of solar energy]? One thing is that it depends on the state you’re in, as state policy is a large driver of renewables. That’s why you have more solar in New Jersey and Massachusetts than you do in Florida, which is the Sunshine State.

Take Virginia, for example. Because of an unfavorable regulatory climate, it’s more cost-prohibitive to install solar in Virginia than it is in D.C. or Maryland. You’ll also see fewer companies in Virginia, and almost no national company operates there. There are fewer than 2,000 solar jobs in Virginia, but there’s about 4,300 solar jobs in Maryland. To put that in perspective, there’s over double that in Maryland, and Maryland is a much smaller state. That’s all because of the policy framework. The options are more limited to people in Virginia, because there’s not as many financing options available because some of them are legally prohibited, thus limiting the size of the local clean energy economy.

Q: What do you envision as the future of solar energy in the next few years?

A: The cost of solar will continue to come down, which will allow for more solar deployment. You’re also going to be seeing, as a result of those cost declines, that solar is going to work in more and more markets. We’re already seeing solar work in states where we couldn’t have worked even a year ago as a result.

Q: What do you envision as the future of solar energy in the next 10 or more years?

A: There’s going to be a whole lot more of it; this is not a small-time industry. It’s getting cheaper and cheaper to install, we’re having all of these different policy victories around the country, and even corporations like Target, Wal-Mart, and Amazon are investing in solar because of the electricity savings and what that will do to their bottom line.

Q: Do you think any new laws proposed would make it easier for solar installation in Virginia?

A: Virginia has faced a lot of opposition from incumbent sources of energy in the state. A string of bills was put forth in early February, all of which were tabled before they even got a hearing. A special subcommittee will supposedly meet this summer and give the solar energy bills a chance to be heard.

Q: What can people do to support solar energy campaigns?

A: I would encourage everybody at your high school and your parents to keep an eye out and see what happens to the special subcommittee. The solar energy bills should be heard in the summer, but we’ve also heard it could be earlier. Hopefully something will come out of it, and all the different parties will work together and openly to find a solution that will work for everybody. It’s going to be interesting. The improvement of state policy conditions is critical for growing the local solar economy.

If you want to support solar, you could put it on your roof in Virginia. There are a lot of really great solar installers in Virginia that we work with, and I would be happy to recommend a few to anyone who is interested.

You can also volunteer. There’s a nonprofit called GRID Alternatives that allows volunteers to install solar for the day, similar to how Habitat for Humanity organizes people to build houses.

Q: What are your views on climate change — your views?

A: I work in solar because I feel passionate about climate change. Although I’m an environmentalist, solar has so many other benefits. Solar creates jobs – over 200,000 of them nationwide. There are benefits to the electric grid, an opportunity to save people money on their electricity bills, and it allows for us to be energy independent.