FREEING ENERGY

Podcast 059: Steph Speirs – Not everyone can afford solar. Here’s what one visionary company is doing to change that.

Host Bill Nussey catches up with Steph Speirs, CEO and Co-Founder of community solar leader, Solstice, to learn how her team  is using a game changing, door-opening mechanism to bring clean energy to people who otherwise can’t afford it. Steph explains why re-defining the energy customer experience is critical to a more inclusive energy future. 

Here are a few of the insights from Steph…

“…This is the decade of clean energy and energy is going to change more in the next decade than previous decades combined. So it’s not a question of whether the green transition will happen. The world is marching towards that outcome, but it is a question of whether that energy system will be just and equitable; meaning, will the benefits of this green economy actually be enjoyed by everyone, or will it continue to be enjoyed by a special privileged few specifically?”


“…People don’t even know how they get their power. They just know that when they flip a switch, they get to have hot showers and cold beer. And it’s only when they have cold showers and hot beer that they really care about their energy bill.”


“… our work to create a just energy system is the work of making sure everyone in this country has the privilege of a hot shower and a cold beer and that they’re not paying disproportionately for energy. That energy is a human right. And they get to benefit from the lucrative aspects of the green economy as well… The hardest reality of the capitalist world we live in is that unless we are successful as a company no one cares if we do the social impact…frankly..like if we’re not gonna create revenue, people just think we are just a failed business and you cant be a failed business that works on social justice and equity issues if you dont exist.”


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Transcript

Bill Nussey:

Steph, welcome to our podcast today.

Steph Speirs:

Thank you so much for having me. Excited to be here.

Bill Nussey:

So you have a really amazing background. You grew up in Hawaii. You have several advanced degrees, which is daunting and very impressive, and you had a prominent role in the Obama administration’s White House. So let’s take a stroll through this story of yours and start with your growing up.

Steph Speirs:

Yeah, of course. So I am the child of immigrants who came to America, hoping to find a better path for themselves. My mom came from Korea. My dad was born in Laos and came from China. He was adopted when he was quite young, and went on to serve in the Armed Forces, and started a business in Hawaii. After a while, with a lot of financial strife between my parents, and my mom ended up taking her three kids and raising them on her own because my dad wasn’t as supportive. So my mom became a single mom, and she raised three kids on minimum wage. In this country, when you earn minimum wage, you can not earn enough to raise three kids. So I spent my whole life watching her struggle to pay the cellphone bills or the rental bills, and we experienced what it was like to be evicted and not have a place to go if not for a family member who gave you a spare room.

Steph Speirs:

So for a while, a lot of my childhood, there were four of us, my two siblings, my mom, and I living in this one bedroom apartment. Watching my mom sacrifice everything to give us a better life, it made me realize that there are a lot of people in this country who fall on hard times through no fault of their own, and because structurally, sometimes systems prevent them for mobility, they’re not able to make their lives better. So a driving force in my life has been to figure out how do we make systems more equitable? How do we give people that chance to get opportunities that I’ve gotten because I’ve been a scholarship kid at really good schools my whole life? How do we get a chance for my brilliant mom to get a fair shot at life the way that so many millions of Americans really struggle right now?

Bill Nussey:

That’s a powerful story. I can only imagine. I can’t imagine the perspectives that you have gained that are hard-wired into your worldview.

Steph Speirs:

Yeah. I credit my mom with allowing me to actually achieve all those things because my mom taught us that wealth was not about having money or stuff. We couldn’t define wealth that way because we didn’t have money or stuff, and so she taught us that wealth was defined as the things that no one can take away from you once you have them. In particular, she defined wealth as knowledge and education, and, “Go out and do something with that in the world, and no one could ever take that away from you.” So I took that to heart, and I’m definitely overeducated. That is definitely the outcome of having immigrant parents who highly prioritized education.

Steph Speirs:

But when I think about my degrees, I feel very lucky to have them and to have gone to the institutions that I have gone to. But I also feel as if we have actually gotten interest in our company, we’ve gotten investment interest from investors in Solstice sometimes because of my degrees. I think people who invest in our company are looking for a way to mitigate the risk of investing in an entrepreneur, and they see these schools as ways they’re mitigating the risks because they assume, “She must not be dumb,” or, “She must be enough of a hard worker that she could get these degrees.” I think that makes sense cognitively to look for ways to mitigate your own risk, but it’s really structurally an indication that we’re still going down the wrong path, that we need our entrepreneurs to have fancy degrees in order to feel like they’re good investments. When you look at entrepreneurs who do get funding, there are a lot of them that go to Stanfords, and MITs, and Yales, and Harvards.

Steph Speirs:

So I never want to perpetuate that, that mentality. I want to show people that there are a lot more people where I come from who don’t have the opportunities to go to this school, who didn’t get the scholarship because scholarships are by nature, only available to a few. There are so many people who have the talent, but don’t have the opportunity. So the biggest lesson I had is to try to figure out what to do with this privilege and use the privilege to open up opportunities for other people who lack that privilege. By doing that, I want to show them that I am representative of structural exclusion, that yes, the American dream is real, and I have experienced it, and my lived experience supports idea that the American dream is real, but it’s not available to everyone. What can we do to make sure it’s available to everyone?

Bill Nussey:

So you have built up this tremendous education, elite education. You’re ready. I’m sure you feel ready to take on the world, and as you said earlier, the world is also now looking at you because you’ve really stood out. You worked in the National Security Council under Obama. At 25, you were the director of Yemen. I mean, what was it like to work in the White House, in the White-Hot Center of DC, to be in the crucible of politics not just for the United States, but the entire world? I’m actually curious. As a person who’s always been fascinated by that walk of life, what do you think people like me who look at it from afar might be surprised to learn?

Steph Speirs:

I think one of the things that people outside of DC would be surprised to learn is just how motivated individuals are towards public service. It’s a hard job to work in government. You earn much less money than anywhere else in the world, and the job of the White House, any job at the White House is a 70 to 100-hour a week job. So it requires a lot of personal time and sacrifice, and people are there doing the work gladly because they’re hoping to have a positive impact on people’s life. So the true value of public service comes to the fore when you’re working in the public sector, and to be surrounded by people who are motivated not by their personal motivations, but by trying to make the agency better or the government better is really inspiring.

Steph Speirs:

There’s a James Baldwin quote out there that says that American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it, and it’s true. American history is dynamic. It’s beautiful. It’s ugly. In the midst of dealing with that tension, it’s so important not to become so disillusioned and demoralized by the ugly parts, and continue to paint a future that is beautiful and that is inspiring, that we take a view of continuous improvement to our government and our democracy is important because we’ve realized in the past several years that if we don’t actively cultivate democracy, then it dissipates because there are other forces in the world that impinge on our ability to have a healthy democracy.

Steph Speirs:

So just as I learned when I was 25 that I could play an important role in the White House at such a young age, being so spectacularly unqualified for the job, I hope outsiders take away from this anecdote that we all have a role in making democracy stronger and better. Rather than get down on ourselves for how the history has been ugly, let’s all figure out how to make sure that our voices are heard and that we are perpetuating a better form of democracy than we can even imagine at this point in time.

Bill Nussey:

Earlier in this conversation, you told us a little bit about growing up, and some of the challenges, and the wonderful parts of the life and the lessons you learned there. We had talked prior to today’s call about where you can take that, what does it mean, what can be done about it, and the concepts of social and environmental justice and equity came up. These terms are used so often today. Let’s start with what these terms mean to you.

Steph Speirs:

Sure. So the way our energy system operates right now hasn’t really changed in over a century, and it’s relied on monopolistic utilities. It’s relied on 20th century, sometimes older technology in our grid and getting power out from centralized generation to households. People don’t even know how they get their power. They just know that hopefully people know that when they flip a switch, they get to have hot showers and cold beer. It’s only when they have cold showers and hot beer do they really care about their energy bill.

Steph Speirs:

What is really powerful about this moment we’re in is it’s the fourth industrial revolution. This is the decade of clean energy, and energy is going to change more in the next decade than previous decades combined. So it’s not a question of whether the green transition will happen. The world is marching towards that outcome, but it is a question of whether that energy system will be just an equitable. Meaning, will the benefits of this green economy actually be enjoyed by everyone, or will it continue to be enjoyed by a special privileged few?

Steph Speirs:

Specifically, I talked about my, my mother who… this incredible woman who really struggled to figure out how to pay their bills. My mom would have loved to benefit from something like solar power, but she couldn’t access it because she was a renter, and she didn’t make enough money to put solar on her home. There are so many people out there who really want to save money on their bills, but can’t access clean energy. When we’re talking about low income populations, which are disproportionately Black and Brown, these are also the populations that are most effected by climate change. They have a higher energy burden, which means they pay a bigger portion of their income on energy. They live disproportionately closer to fossil fuel facilities, which means they’re suffering more from air pollution, other kinds of pollution, asthma, which is also linked to COVID morbidity.

Steph Speirs:

Studies show they quantifiably live in hotter neighborhoods because they don’t live near green space. By the way, the reason why they’re paying more on their electricity bill is because they live in less efficient housing. Poorly designed, poorly built housing that we prescribe to lower income populations means that they’re paying a higher electricity bill than they have to. So these populations are most effected by climate change, and they’re most excluded by the clean energy industry. Our work to create a just energy system is the work of making sure everyone in this country has the privilege of a hot shower and a cold beer, that they’re not paying disproportionately for energy, that energy is a human right, and they get to benefit from the lucrative aspects of the green economy as well.

Bill Nussey:

You have created a company with your colleagues called Solstice, which has got a wonderful reputation in the industry and is what caused me to reach out to you. I would love to learn about it. I’d love to share the stories of it, and perhaps we can start with an overview of it maybe from a customer’s perspective.

Steph Speirs:

Yeah. So there’s a customer of ours named Joan in New York, and she, like my mom, is a single mom. She didn’t even know that she could benefit from clean energy. She said that, “I’ve always been really interested in the environment. I’ve always wanted to protect the environment. I want the planet to be around for my kids, but I didn’t know that I could benefit from clean energy because I’m a renter. I always thought that clean energy was for rich people. You had to pay more to get clean energy, and so I just assumed it wasn’t for me.”

Steph Speirs:

She said that when someone on our team reached out to her and try to explain to her that, “Hey, you. There’s something out there called community solar, and community solar is this idea that you don’t have to put solar on your own rooftop. You can just buy a portion of a neighborhood-shared solar farm somewhere in your community, and it’s a subscription model, which means that you only pay for the power that’s produced by your portion. You’re actually paying for it at a guaranteed discount compared to what you’re paying the utility, and so there’s no upfront cost. You’re not putting anything on your rooftop. You’re getting a guaranteed savings, and so this is a product for you. Just because it’s clean energy does not mean it has to be more expensive. Just because you’re a renter does not mean that you can’t get solar too. We live in this new, beautiful era of community solar.”

Steph Speirs:

So she told us after she signed up… We often will interview our customers to understand why they signed up and what motivated them, and she said, “I was so excited to save money, and get access to clean energy, and support a clean energy installation in my community because I didn’t think those two things were possible in combination.” That is exactly who we’re trying to serve. We serve everyone. We want to make sure everyone gets community solar. High-income folks, low-income folks, middle-income folks, BIPOC communities, White folks. We want to make sure everyone gets solar because the more people that get solar, the more we mitigate climate change. But we have to be clear that community solar is one of the only ways that someone can get access to clean energy without paying a premium, and that’s really exciting because we live in this new era where we can get solar to everyone. We can get solar to more people that have had access for the entire existence of solar power, and we’re living in that reality right now.

Bill Nussey:

I’m always surprised at how many people have the perspective of your customer, Joan, that solar and wind… I’m primarily a solar guy, but that solar and wind are intrinsically more expensive, and they’re just not. They’re actually much cheaper, and I think that the challenge that you’re helping with is getting some of that cost advantage to people who otherwise can’t.

Steph Speirs:

To your point, for all the reasons you listed, very few people can put solar on their rooftop. If you can, we tell folks, “Please go put solar on your rooftop.” If you’re one of the one out of five Americans that can do it, absolutely do it, and you’re going to save more money over time. But for the four out of five Americans that can’t put solar on their rooftop for all the reasons you listed, community solar is a good option.

Bill Nussey:

So give us a peek behind the curtain, if you will, to… How do you make this… Given all these challenges and capital requirements, and policy quagmires you have to go through to build a system that’s then shared by people, how does that work? What do you need to do? What’s hard about it, and what are you guys proud of that you’ve been able to overcome from those challenges?

Steph Speirs:

So one of the things that we’re most proud of doing is trying to advocate in our industry to get rid of FICO credit scores as qualification standards for people accessing community solar. Little known fact about solar is you have to have a 680 and above FICO credit score in order to access community solar and rooftop solar.

Bill Nussey:

What? Really?

Steph Speirs:

Yeah. It’s kind of crazy. I mean, if you have the $10,000 to $40,000 to install solar on your roof outright, then you can definitely do that. You don’t need financing. But for everyone else, you generally have to pass a financier requirement of a FICO score of 680 and above. I don’t know if you happen to know how many people fail that credit check.

Bill Nussey:

I’m just curious. It’s probably a lot.

Steph Speirs:

Yeah. More than half the country does not have a FICO credit score of 680 and above, and that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not paying their utility bills on time. In fact, our research and looking at 800,000 lines of customer credit data, we found that there isn’t a direct correlation between whether you have a low FICO score and not paying your utility bills. So there are all these people who are paying their utility bills on time, and they’re not getting access to solar. So Solstice created something called the Energy Score, and it’s a qualification standard that’s more accurate at predicting who pays their utility bills on time, and it’s more inclusive of low to moderate income Americans that would have been locked out if you used a credit score requirement.

Steph Speirs:

So we can show that just because someone’s got a low FICO score does not mean they shouldn’t get access to clean energy. So there’s an equity element here because the people who have lower credit scores tend to be low-income, renters, disproportionately Black and Brown. So if you’re making credit worthiness based on a flawed score as the measure of whether someone gets access to clean energy, well, then what we’re talking about is clean energy redlining.

Bill Nussey:

There’s so much to what you’re describing, and it’s… In one sense, it’s incredibly simple. It’s a score that does a better job of predicting someone’s ability to pay their electric bills or their community solar bill than traditional credit mechanisms. But I think that what I love about this is that you are creating one that’s both appropriate for paying electricity bills based on that particular payment pattern, and you’re focusing on making sure that it does include a wide set of people who would be summarily dismissed and traditional ways of doing this.

Bill Nussey:

I have a sarcastic chuckle because I look at all the startups in the United States that are finding new ways to provide business credit and personal credit instantaneously, and they’re using things like your Facebook traffic and other things, and these are considered breakthroughs. Perhaps they are, they are, and they’re enabling more people to get credit, but what you’re doing is focusing on a group of people who are probably in an area of electricity that is just not getting a lot of attention, and you’re opening up the door for this. I mean, truly, this is game-changing. It’s a number, right? It’s simple. But on the other hand, it’s a game-changing, door-opening mechanism to bring clean energy to people that can’t get it. I love it. I love it. Thanks, Bill.

Speaker 1:

As we are learning from our guest today, this is the decade of clean energy, and this change to a clean, renewable energy future requires lots of capital, lots of money. How much? Here’s a quick example. In a 2018 study, the US Energy Information Administration estimated that over the next three decades, approximately $650 billion will be spent on US solar photovoltaic deployment, but barriers may limit how this spin benefits many people. As states aim for a higher penetration of clean energy, pressures are increasing to expand access to solar in harder to reach markets. States are leading the charge in identifying and piloting various approaches to bring the benefits of solar power to low and moderate income households. These are the consumers that in large part make up the 50% of the US households that do not have access to rooftop solar, but are clean energy investors along with community and regional financial institutions keeping up with changes needed to make clean energy more inclusive without taking unnecessary risk?

Speaker 1:

Revising the underwriting criteria by revisiting credit score requirements is a big step. Yet, access to capital and credit is just one impediment to reaching these markets. Eligibility for tax credits and incentives, home ownership status, and a basic unfamiliarity with the benefits of solar products are also limiting access to clean energy in certain market segments. Each of these represent opportunities for advocates and innovators to help more and more people become a part of the clean energy revolution. Does this stir any ideas you might have? If you want to learn more about community solar, how it works, who it can serve, and how it can be financed, head over to the notes for this Freeing Energy Podcast episode on freeingenergy.com. We’ve included links to some amazing resources for you to dig deeper into this important topic. Now, back to Bill and Steph to learn even more about community solar and what it takes to drive change in today’s business environment.

Bill Nussey:

Now, when someone signs up for Solstice, are they committed for the lifetime of the panels? Can they opt out if they move to a different state? How does that work?

Steph Speirs:

Yeah. So your earlier question asking how we help… what are the things that we do to help this industry, and I talked about how we own the customer experience and try to make it more inclusive. A big part of that is for the last several years, we’ve been advocating in the industry to have shorter term contracts that are offered to customers with no cancellation fees and no FICO requirements. In the beginning of community solar, it was not the most customer-friendly product out there. Customers were being asked to sign 20-year contracts with cancellation fees of up to $1,200 that we would see with the FICO score requirement. So, of course, it was difficult to sign people up for that product. What person in the right mind would sign up for something that’s 20 years with a cancellation fee when your electricity bill, you can sign up for without having to worry about a long-term contract?

Steph Speirs:

So a lot of what we did was show our customer data to developers and finances, and work with them to say, “We know you’re trying to fill your projects as quickly as possible. We know that the faster you generate demand for your projects, the faster they get financed, and the faster they get built, and the faster we add clean energy to the grid. So it’s more advantageous to you and the climate if you make your product more customer-friendly. Here’s the customer data that shows you your cost of customer acquisition with a longer term contract, and here’s the cost of customer acquisition with a shorter term contract.”

Steph Speirs:

So by speaking the language of the financial model of a specific clean energy project, we were slowly able to convince developers to shorten their contract, get rid of the FICO score sometimes, or get rid of cancellation fees. That is the theory of change here. The faster we sign people up for community solar, the faster we put pressure on our system to develop more renewables and replace fossil fuel generation with clean energy generation.

Bill Nussey:

Does the price that I pay to rent the panel or to the kilowatt hour that comes from it, is that prescribed by policy, or is that a market where I can have two community solar providers pitching me their competing rates? Maybe the cheaper one is the one I’ll buy from. How competitive and dynamic is the marketplace that you’re helping bring these customers?

Steph Speirs:

So that 10% savings I mentioned before, that is a portion of the developer’s margin that they’re willing to pass to you as an end-user subscriber in order to induce you to sign up for this project. That 10% savings could be… It could be bigger. It could be 25% if the developer was willing to give you more of their margin. It could be smaller, like 5%, if they were willing to give you less of their margin. So the question becomes, why are they willing to give you part of their margin to induce you to sign up for this program?

Steph Speirs:

Well, it’s because their alternative is to sell power to the utility at the wholesale rate, and now they’re getting to sell power to end-user subscriber at something closer to the retail rate. So it’s much more lucrative for them to do community solar as opposed to selling at the wholesale rate, and that’s why they’re wanting to sign up end-user subscribers for their projects, and that’s why they’re willing to give you some of their margin in order to induce you to sign up. So this is a fast-growing industry because the developers are doing financially well because the customers get to benefit in terms of free energy savings without any upfront costs and any installation on their home, and that is what’s driving the fast growth of community solar.

Bill Nussey:

So the last topic I wanted to cover today, before we get to our final round, our lightening round as we like to call it, is your journey as an entrepreneur. A lot of the folks that listen in are entrepreneurs or people that want to get into clean energy through an entrepreneurial vector there. They want to see how they can make a difference in a small footprint that can become large. They want to make… find amplifiers to make their vision touch more people, and they want to do it in this industry and all the variety of ways that it can be done. So just spend a few minutes talking about some of the things you’ve learned as an entrepreneur because Solstice is a startup in every regard, I guess. So what surprised you most about building this, or one of my favorite hard questions is, if you could go back and tell yourself something at the beginning of your journey with Solstice, what would it be?

Steph Speirs:

I would definitely tell myself to give up control of various parts of the organization even faster than I did. I think that…

Bill Nussey:

Oh, great advice.

Steph Speirs:

yeah, you’ve built a few businesses, so you understand that the sooner you realize that you’re not trying to be a well-rounded person as an entrepreneur, that you need to focus on your strengths and then quickly be self-aware to recognize your weaknesses and really build a team around filling in the gaps that you or your co-founders have, the sooner your organization will be more successful. As a student, I was taught that you just have to be well-rounded, you have to get straight As, you have to work on your weaknesses, and that’s very important for character building. You should always build on your weaknesses.

Steph Speirs:

But in a professional context, I realized the things that I was bad at were becoming organizational weaknesses because of my role within the organization. Just to show a little vulnerability with you, I realized that… I love talking to people. I love building our network. I love getting resources and passing them off to the people in our team who are better placed to use the resources. I realized that planning was not my strong suit, and so by outsourcing planning to another person on our team who is an excellent planner, they were able to take the resources and dole them out to the organization in the most efficient, logical sense. We could achieve our goals better because I wasn’t involved in the actual distribution of the resources. So that’s a very tactical example for what it means to recognize that your own personal weaknesses can become organizational weaknesses, unless you get ahead of them, unless you’re proactive about addressing them.

Bill Nussey:

I love that perspective. It’s something I try hard to share with people. It’s been my own experience, and I’ve, at various points in my career, went kicking and screaming. People tell me I should hand off some part of the organization that I’m either passionate about or have this delusion that I’m particularly good at. As an organization grows, you get further and further from the “getting stuff done” part and into the talking on podcasts, and being a face of the organization, and doing other things. It’s an absolutely necessary, but it’s hard than your role. The CEO’s role particularly is hard because it will change more than almost any other role in the company as the company evolves. It’s my own experience. It’s a lonely job, but it’s an incredibly powerful, self-learning journey that I can’t imagine anything else.

Steph Speirs:

On that note, I’d just been shocked at how quickly my job has changed every six months. It’s a new job, and it requires… The organization requires something different from you, and at some point, I’m sure that I won’t… The question I ask myself that I think every CEO should ask themselves is, “Am I still the right person for this job?” I ask myself that every month, and at some point, I’m not going to be the right person for the job, but hopefully, we do a lot more building before then. But I think it takes a lot to be self-aware about things that you’re bad at.

Bill Nussey:

Steph, I have to really commend you on that. I’ve sat on about 30 boards and funded many companies, and one of the first conversations I have with people who I might fund in my days when I did that a lot was, “Are you ready to step aside when the time comes?” People that hesitate with that and didn’t talk about their own strengths typically are the ones who struggle and the ones that come back with a, “Yeah. When it becomes clear that I’m not able to be with this company, I’m absolutely happy to hand it off.” I’d say, “I can’t think of an exception to…” That’s the very person that ends up being the most successful, and so it’s great to hear you say that. So I’m even more bullish on you as a CEO than I was before we started, so that’s great.

Bill Nussey:

So for the last question on your entrepreneurial journey, let’s talk about fundraising. It’s never easy to raise money, and I think you guys have either the bigger challenge or bigger opportunity because you are tapping different sources. You’re going to go to folks that are traditional venture capitalists. You’re also going to go to people interested in social impact. So what have been the big lessons for you and fundraising for your company, and what might those… How might those help educate some other folks who are earlier in their own journey of doing that?

Steph Speirs:

Looking back, we’ve raised money from both very finance-first, traditional venture capitalists, and we’ve also raised money from impact investors. The thing that unites them all is probably an acknowledgement that business as usual is not the way that we should do business in the future. Whether it’d be a rejection of fossil fuels or a repudiation of drilling down on costs so much that you’re not treating your own employees very well. These are ways of doing business that have existed in the past and are the predominant model, and our investors are collectively trying to move beyond that model.

Steph Speirs:

The hardest reality of the capitalist world that we live in is that unless we are financially successful as a company, no one cares about whether we do the social impact, frankly. If we’re not going to create revenue, people think that we’re just a failed business, and so you can’t be a failed business that works on justice and equity if you don’t exist. So you have to create returns for your investors because they’re the ones that took a risk on you. But at the same time, the question we’re constantly asking ourselves is, “What does a return on investment mean?” Certainly, positive benefits for society and for our employees is a part of the definition of return on investment.

Steph Speirs:

A return on investment is not just your quarterly returns. It’s also about whether the planet is around for your grandchildren to thrive. So in a conversation with our investors, we’re always pushing the line on, “Okay. What is a return? What’s an adequate return on investment, and does it have to be 25%, or can it be slightly lower, and we can treat our employees better, and have a pay equity policy?” Right? Those are the lines that we’re walking, and it’s tricky with fundraising, but you have to find your people, and there is enough capital out there in the world to find your people. That’s the biggest lesson that I’ve learned.

Bill Nussey:

We are near the end of our discussion today, and there’s a thousand things to talk about. But as we wrap up, we always like to pepper our guests with four little quick questions. We call them the lightning rounds, and I’m always amazed at the answers and insights that come from this last part. So thank you for your willingness to spend just a few more minutes on this. So first question in the lightning round is, what do you like most about being in the clean energy industry?

Steph Speirs:

I love that our team is changing the face of the industry, and we certainly have a long way to go to make our customer base more diverse and our employee base more diverse. There’s always more we can do, but we don’t look like your typical clean energy company. We’re one of the only solar companies in the country founded and led by women of color and people of color in our management ranks. That is really fun when only 25% of the clean energy industry are women. It’s really fun to change the voices in the room and see when those voices are empowered, what amazing things they can do to change the industry.

Bill Nussey:

Next question. If you could wave a magic wand and see one thing changed in the transition to clean energy, one single thing, what would it be?

Steph Speirs:

I’d love a clean energy standard and a carbon price personally, but I also… I just want the public sector to fund improvements to grid infrastructure rather than utilities pushing that cost to developers.

Bill Nussey:

Great. What do you think will be the single most important change in how we generate store and distribute electricity in the next five years?

Steph Speirs:

I think in the next five years, the thing that’s going to change our engagement with energy the most is the advent of storage solutions for making distributed generation more of a reality that will empower demand response, capabilities to not just be time of use, but to be other parts of the day where we can generate power when we need the power as opposed to just when the moment it’s generated.

Bill Nussey:

Last question. I’m sure, particularly with your background and the mission you’re on, people will come to you, and they want to make a difference, and through this industry, they want to get involved whether it’s something they do at home or professionally. When people say, “I love what you’re doing. How do I do something that gets me involved with clean energy?” What do you tell them?

Steph Speirs:

I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell people that, “Go and see if community solar is available in your area and be a subscriber to community solar because there’s no additional cost for you and you’re getting guaranteed savings.” The more people that demand community solar from their utilities and their policymakers, the more clean energy projects we’ll see in the world. I would say that I don’t have a view though that community solar is a silver bullet, it’s going to solve all our problems because the thing is climate change is complicated, and there is no silver bullet in climate change mitigation and adaptation. There’s this incredibly thorny problem, and we need all hands on deck to solve the problem.

Steph Speirs:

So there’s actually this Japanese concept called Ikigai, and Ikigai literally means reason for being. It’s basically about finding your purpose, and I think everyone could do an exercise using the Ikigai concept and figure out how they can solve climate change because you don’t have to necessarily work in climate. Though I think everyone should work in climate in some way, but you can do things in your daily life that allow you to help climate change. So Ikigai. The four concepts is doing what you love. Think of that as a Venn diagram overlapping with what you can get paid for. Ideally, doing what you love and what you can get paid for overlaps. There’s a third circle about what the world needs, and a fourth circle about what you are good at.

Steph Speirs:

So the four Ikigai circles are what you love, what you can get paid for, what the world needs, and what you’re good at. Do this exercise and look at all four circles with this Japanese concept and figure out what is your role in climate. Everyone has a role to play, and it’s in… Our carbon emissions are coming from agriculture, and land use, and the electricity system, and buildings, and industry, and manufacturing. There’s so many ways that people can help, and we need all of the ways. So I would ask everyone to do this exercise and figure out what’s their role.

Bill Nussey:

Steph, thank you so much for your time today. This has been remarkable conversation. Your point of view is so articulate, and the vision you’ve crafted in delivering for so many people is making a huge difference. I think a lot of folks who listen to this will be very inspired, and I think there’ll be a few people doing Wikipedia, look up Ikigai. So really appreciate your time today. You’ve taught me a lot, and I am inspired by your mission. If I didn’t have solar on my roof, I’d go back to community solar, but I went the other way. So thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you.

Steph Speirs:

Thanks for what you’ve done, Bill, and thanks for having me.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for joining us today. You have been listening to the Freeing Energy Podcast, personal stories from the Clean Energy Movement. To learn more about the Freeing Energy Project, visit our website, freeingenergy.com. Subscribe to the Freeing Energy Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and anywhere podcasts are found. Make sure more people learn about clean local energy by rating and reviewing the show on Apple Podcasts.

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