This blog is sixth in a series on diversity in the solar energy field in Florida. Click here for other posts.
Colleen Clark has a lot in common with the hurricane-resistant solar panel racks her company produces. Determined, tough, and creative, she powered her own way into Florida’s solar industry back when it was mostly guys selling pool heaters. Now she’s President of PCM Solar, a Tampa-based solar racking manufacturer with a diverse workforce of about 25 men and women.
The company thrives, thanks in part to a Florida policy requiring utilities to pay panel owners fairly for the excess power they put back on the grid (known as net metering). She’s poised for a business boom that could be just around the corner, thanks to efforts to further improve the state’s solar policies.
“It’s feast or famine a lot of times. You can’t predict things…. Any policy that helps the solar contractors close the deal [with homeowners and commercial buildings] helps us, and anything that hurts them, hurts us. We hit record sales in November, and we’re really slammed right now,” she told me in December. But she noted that the industry can be fickle. Each solar panel array is on a unique site, so each racking job is site specific. The policy environment affects how many orders come in.
Seizing a Chance
Clark, a businesswoman with a background in writing and marketing, never expected to end up in the solar industry – the call came one morning from a temp agency. “It was raining cats and dogs… I just threw my clothes on and headed out the door. If I hadn’t been so motivated to make that one decision I wouldn’t be here today.”
The temp job turned out to be for Solar Source, a solar contractor, where she eventually did business-to-business sales, a position they created for her. Clark promoted Solar Source to the swimming pool trade (builders, service, and stores) and mostly sold swimming pool heaters to pool contractors, and she quickly advanced in the company through grit and her own initiative to learn about the solar field. It wasn’t easy, being a female salesperson in a male-dominated field.
“I remember wanting to quit within the first two months. There were no women around, the men were terrible. It was pretty rough at that time,” she says.
Her male colleagues’ hardball tactics resulted in slammed doors when she tried them, so she invented her own, dropping off information with goodie bags. “Suddenly I was getting invited to barbecues and getting to know their kids and their pets. I ended up increasing business 60% in 2 years.” She also took courses to learn the electric field better and became more solar electric savvy. “I must have proven myself because a lot of guys actually came to pick my brain. Knowledge is power.”
Like any businessperson, Clark always has the bottom line in mind, but this is more than a job for her.
“Solar works for me because it has enabled me to earn a living, while feeling good about helping Mother Earth,” she says proudly. “I didn’t expect to end up in this industry, but now I feel like I’m helping every time I sell a solar racking system.”
That’s true for her 25 or so workers. Both men and women work on the shop floor, including skilled workers from Puerto Rico, Mexico, Argentina, and Laos, and disabled veterans. They are delivery drivers, forklift operators, machinists.
“We don’t care if you’re gay or straight, black or white, young or old, as long as you can do the job. In the world of Florida solar, you’re going to see people who are killing themselves just to make a living because they’re passionate about what they do,” she concludes. “The people I’ve encountered in solar are the hardest working and nicest people I’ve met.”
A Future in Question
Clark is following with great interest the effort by conservatives and others to put a constitutional amendment allowing third-party sales of solar energy on the 2016 ballot. All of the top ten states for solar energy per capita allow small solar power producers to finance the cost of panels in this way, while Florida is one of only five states that expressly forbids it by law (check out this great 2-minute video from the U.S. Solar Institute in Miami explaining how this works). There are also measures in the legislature that would remove tax barriers for solar panels.
On the other hand, national groups like the utility think tank Edison Electric Institute have set their sights on net metering policies like Florida’s. Fairly compensating solar owners has been essential to mainstreaming solar photovoltaic so that it’s now a major business for companies that used to just sell pool heaters. An attempt to weaken such policies in Florida could be devastating for Florida’s economic development. Small businesses like PCM Solar exist because hard workers like Colleen and her crew have a fair playing field.