The POWER Interview: Spotlight on the Solar Wave

Growth in the solar power sector is coming from many angles, with utilities building ever-larger solar arrays, and more homeowners and building owners putting panels on their rooftops. Many utilities and other companies also are expanding offerings of community solar, a way for electricity customers to get the benefits of solar power without having to install a rooftop system.

BlueWave Solar, a Boston, Massachusetts-based company founded in 2010, offers community solar sales and services along with solar financing and project development. What began as a company “that started … with a couple guys driving around in an old station wagon touting the benefits of solar to anyone who would listen,” according to the BlueWave website, today has projects scattered across the U.S. Northeast.

The company works with cities and a variety of energy companies, and recently announced it has secured more than 1 GW of future solar and storage projects across eight states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. BlueWave also has more than 500 MW of solar capacity either under active management or contracted for this year.

BlueWave Solar in 2020 began development on more than 300 MW of solar projects, and initiated construction of 14 MW of solar projects with direct current-coupled battery storage. The company, like many in the solar industry, will continue to integrate battery storage into its projects, and also plans to develop standalone battery storage projects this year.

Mark Sylvia

Mark Sylvia, the company’s chief of staff, provided POWER with his thoughts about solar power and the issues that will impact the sector over the next several years, including the importance of government support, and the technological advancements expected to continue to drive growth.

POWER: How will the Biden administration’s policies impact the solar power sector?

Sylvia: The Biden administration has made combating climate change, investing in infrastructure and creating 21st century clean energy jobs a major priority over the next four years. Solar is a critical part of these efforts and the Biden/Harris administration’s commitment to the extension of the ITC [investment tax credit], investing in clean energy solutions for low-income communities, requiring the federal government and the country to transition to 100% clean, renewable energy by 2050, and re-engaging in the Paris Accords, opening up opportunities for solar globally are just a few of the policies that will grow the solar power sector.

POWER: Is there thinking within the industry that solar projects need to move quickly to be developed and deployed, to avoid issues with policy changes that could come after the 2022 and/or 2024 elections?

Sylvia: Solar development has been driven by policies and regulations at the state level. The federal government plays a key role through key mechanisms such as the ITC, funding programs and setting ambitious goals, but project timelines and incentive programs are driven at the state level. That said, the Biden/Harris administration’s prioritization of clean energy solutions across the U.S. [extension of the ITC, expanding its ability to include interconnection costs and including a standalone battery storage ITC as well as providing the options for a payment in lieu of the ITC] will help significantly expand the amount and size of solar projects currently under development and in the future as well as lower the overall cost of renewable energy and storage in the country for years to come.

POWER: How much have pandemic-related supply chain disruptions impacted the sector?

Sylvia: The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the solar supply chain, beginning in 2020, which led to state solar programs providing relief/extensions to ensure that projects would not lose critical funding. Coupled with the previous administration’s tariffs on solar components and more recently with COVID-19 global resurgence and its impact on imports and the costs of goods, the impact has been directly related to project costs, construction delays, and overall mechanical completion timelines.

POWER: Are there technology advancements that could have a significant impact on the sector in the next five years?

Sylvia: Battery storage is the great equalizer between baseload fossil fuel power and renewable energy. More and more states are supporting battery storage programs to enable solar-plus-storage and storage-only projects—further driving down costs and avoiding costly grid upgrades.

Other technological advances include tracker technology that follows the path of the sun and innovations such as dual-use agricultural solar or “agrivoltaics,” which pair harvesting the sun with growing crops and enabling livestock to graze under panels, and floating solar, which makes use of manmade reservoirs to also generate electricity from solar panels floating on the water.

POWER: Are there concerns within the industry about the carbon footprint of solar equipment manufacturing and transport? If so, how does the industry plan to address those concerns?

Sylvia: Based on our values and as a B-Corp [a for-profit entity that is certified by the nonprofit B Lab as voluntarily meeting higher standards of transparency, accountability, and performance], it is important that we procure as much as possible from local sources. Moreover, how we design our systems both from a land use and system design perspective are focused on minimizing our carbon footprint including the sequestration of carbon. We look forward to BlueWave and the industry continuing to pursue these strategies and to working with the Biden/Harris administration to expand solar equipment manufacturing in the U.S. Moreover, we are supportive of state efforts and the Biden/Harris administration’s commitment to electrifying transportation.

POWER: Many of the jobs associated with solar power come during construction/installation. Are there ways or plans to make jobs within the sector more permanent?

Sylvia: Full-time solar jobs span various types of job functions including construction, installation, business development, site acquisition, human resources, accounting, marketing, engineering and policy in addition to consulting services whether they be land management, permitting and engineering at the project level.

At the federal level, sending important signals like the expansion of the ITC, committing the federal government and all of its departments and agencies to transitioning to 100% renewables, supporting state efforts to establish clean energy programs and rejoining the world’s efforts to combat climate change send signals to solar businesses, capital investors and communities that this is an industry here to stay.

Moreover, investing in vocational school, community college and retraining programs that create the opportunity for more people to work in this industry help to make jobs within this sector more permanent.

POWER: Is the industry prepared to address social justice concerns when it comes to jobs, management diversity, locational (siting) impacts, etc.?

Sylvia: Absolutely—states with well-established solar programs/sector such as Massachusetts are prioritizing efforts to make clean energy/solar accessible to low- and middle-income residents through program changes that enable solar developers to build projects and create mechanisms to deliver to those communities.

The industry can and is doing more to address diversity, equity and inclusion and to ensure that solar businesses and the communities/customers they serve represent more black, indigenous and people of color. Whether by public commitments and internal change/employee driven efforts, by industry associations building resources and creating opportunities to have honest discussions and producing real actions or by investing in internship and co-op programs at the high school and community college/college level, all of these strategies are being employed.

But so much more must be done and it starts with companies and the industry acknowledging institutional racism and speaking out against it.

POWER: What other policy advancements are needed to make change happen on the state and local level?

Sylvia: Land use and siting are issues that remain a major challenge in most if not all states with active solar markets. There needs to be open, honest dialogue between the various stakeholders that includes factual examples of the positive and negative impacts of solar development with a commitment between all parties to develop solutions that meet our shared goals of combating climate change, creating economic opportunity, and preserving land.

Development costs remain a constant/unpredictable variable depending on the community, the state of the grid infrastructure and the utility company and its resources. Addressing these costs through technology, the right cost allocations and policies that create enforceable timelines will enable projects to be built in the most cost-effective, efficient and predictable way.

Grid modernization and interconnection referenced above as part of development costs are also on a standalone basis a major issue that requires progressive policies to make changes happen on a state and local level to drive more DG [distributed generation] at a lower [and equitable] cost. The state of the grid in most states and in particular those deregulated states that do not have regional grid plans continue to pose interconnection challenges including significant cost upgrades that limit access to solar, a lack of equitable cost allocation, unnecessary time delays, and a lack of transparency and accountability on process.   Progressive policies driven by collaboration among the utilities, developers, municipalities and state energy offices can and should drive more innovation, reliability and lower costs to ratepayers.

POWER: As more solar jobs are created, why does the industry need training to make sustainable practices the norm?

Sylvia: The clean energy and solar industries are still young. Because of forward-thinking administrations such as the [Gov. Deval] Patrick administration in Massachusetts, for example, the building blocks were laid and the clean energy industry was born. Now with current administrations in states like New York, Maine, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, the industry has begun to mature and has proven its viability. It grew before there was an infrastructure in place at the high school, trade school, community college/college. Throughout this time period, more and more people are interested in jobs in the clean energy sector and there are more opportunities—and schools and programs have developed curriculum around it. 

Moreover, industry associations have been providing more professional education opportunities because their members have demanded it.

No industry, new or old, can survive without the need for training, and for newer industries that training is not just particular to the technology but also focused on the broader benefits and value of the clean energy sector, and the need for as many tools as possible to combat climate change.

Finally—the newest generations of consumers and workers are demanding a focus on sustainability.  

POWER: Preservation of farmland has become an issue for renewable energy development. Why are dual-use agrivoltaics necessary for advancing clean energy goals?

Sylvia: Because dual-use agrivoltaics help to address a central concern of solar land use and siting tensions— i.e., preserving and restoring farmland. Dual-use solar is unique in that it helps to address multiple clean energy and land use challenges by generating local, clean renewable energy, saving farmland from future development, investing in ecosystem protection and restoration, reducing carbon emissions, improving the land use/quality for the farmer via diversified agricultural production, promoting biodiversity and aiding in the sequestration of carbon.  Moreover, it enables farmers to keep their land and continue the agricultural use for the next generation. Dual-use also provides the local community with property taxes and generates local jobs.

POWER: As a B-Corp, how does BlueWave Solar work to advance clean energy goals and support environmental and social issues through solar?

Sylvia: We’re a mission-driven company committed to transparency, sustainability, and improving the lives of others. As a B-Corp, BlueWave is focused on our business “as a force for good.” It means supporting and empowering our employees to succeed through the benefits we offer, the leadership opportunities we provide, and the forums and culture they help us build. It means expanding access to solar, respecting the land we develop our projects on, and innovating in how we design and build those projects through optimizing standard solar projects and developing dual-use agrivoltaics, floating solar and storage-only development. It also means doing our part in the community through our social impact work and committing to a more diverse workforce.

Darrell Proctor is associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).

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