The U.S. solar industry employed more than 260,000 workers in 2016, a nearly 25 percent increase in over 2015, according to a report from The Solar Foundation.
While there are now more women joining our industry, we still have a ways to go when it comes to diversifying our solar workforce. So, in honor of the 35th annual American Women’s Business Day and to inspire more women to pursue leadership positions in our industry, we are recognizing two women-owned-and-operated SunPower dealers who are blazing trails in their communities.
SunPower dealers and installers carry out the company’s mission of changing the way our world is powered by installing solar on homes and businesses in local communities nationwide and all over the world.
In this Q&A, you’ll learn the stories of Regina Wheeler, CEO at SunPower by Positive Energy Solar in New Mexico, and Jeanine Cotter, President and CEO at Luminalt Solar Energy Solutions, serving the San Francisco Bay Area. They discuss their diverse journeys, from serving in the military to building job opportunities in underserved communities.
Regina Wheeler, SunPower by Positive Energy Solar
What sparked your interest in solar?
I came to solar organically as a natural progression of my career in engineering and leadership. I have a bachelor of science in electrical engineering and worked in the aerospace field, developing radar for F15 fighter jets for 10 years. I decided to get out of aerospace when a bomb was used with a radar I helped build. I went back to school for a master’s in environmental engineering and worked in the public sector leading solid waste and sustainability programs, where I became passionate about Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) construction. Then, one day at the Santa Fe farmers market, the owner of Positive Energy Solar asked me to apply to be the CEO of his small solar company. Six years later, we’ve tripled in size. It’s been an exciting career!
Can you speak to some of your work in policy?
There’s a huge educational opportunity when it comes to teaching people and policy makers about how solar works. It’s often a shift in a person’s vision of themselves. Is solar economical? Is it scalable? I’ve been active in the policy space since I originally came to New Mexico. I’ve always been interested in shaping policy to create the community that we want. Now, some of the legislators have known me for 30 years. Once you understand the process – how policy works and passes – you have a responsibility to utilize this knowledge; it’s been vitally important for solar and how we think about renewable energy.
What are some of your favorite projects that your company has done?
Some of my favorite projects are the megawatts we’ve installed for a local community college and high school. We put 1.5 megawatts of solar on Santa Fe Community College and now that campus is 100 percent solar powered on sunny, summer days. It was our first megawatt project, and we brought in many bright-eyed, brilliant and hard-working installers to build it. Additionally, the megawatt we just put on Santa Fe High School was the first solar project funded by Clean Energy Revenue bonds in New Mexico, and now hundreds of alumni are proud to see their school move into the 21st century with solar power.
What makes Positive Energy Solar unique?
Positive Energy is proud to be B-Corp certified, meaning we are people using business as a force for good. We know the value of our employees and our customers, but we also want to provide a high-integrity transaction – because solar is the hope for our communities. That’s the best part of what the solar industry brings. It’s about doing good in the world with every action that we take.
Jeanine Cotter, Luminalt Solar Energy Solutions
Can you talk a little bit about your background in tech? How did you first become interested in solar?
In 2004, I was a full-time lawyer in Silicon Valley and seven months pregnant with my third child. My husband, Noel Cotter, who in 1981 built with colleagues a 50-kilowatt grid tied battery back-up solar system , wanted to get back into solar full-time. He and I decided to start Luminalt together. After a stint of subcontracting, building systems that another company designed and procured equipment for, we decided that we could do better work if we were responsible for the design and equipment. Why build unless you’re going to do the best possible design with the best possible equipment? We became a SunPower dealer because we wanted to build the best solar systems possible. The objective was to build a company that was going to be resilient for the long haul.
If you could choose three words to describe what it’s like running a business, what would those words be and why?
Solar is a marathon, a sprint and yoga – all at the same time! It’s a marathon because you need to pace yourself and be thoughtful about your resources. It requires stamina. It’s a sprint because you need to be nimble and get things done. It’s yoga because it requires flexibility, calmness and equanimity.
What makes Luminalt unique?
One of the things that makes us unique is our passion and commitment to build career path jobs in solar in underserved communities. Fifty percent of our crew leads started with Luminalt as installer trainees from community-based training programs in such communities. We invest in them, and they invest in us. Solar provides many different job entry points, from installation to customer experience to marketing to sales. Connecting talented people with job opportunities is critical for our long-term success as an industry, and it is bearing fruit. For example, we have one employee who, after graduating from a training program, began in an entry-level role seven years ago. Today, she’s a well-respected manager at Luminalt. What a great industry to materially impact people on so many levels.
Do you have any words of advice to other women in the solar industry?
Dive in and do it. At the risk of stereotyping women, we often think about what we don’t know instead of what we do know, which can be limiting. I can encourage all women across the world to harness their strengths and contribute in every possible facet. Contribute in your workplace by doing good work and creating a culture that is a positive and effective so that you can get things done. Be involved with your families, with your communities, as well as civically and politically, so that we can have a voice in the policy that is made that directly impacts our lives.
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