Interview with Juan Parra of Nexamp

Interview with Juan Parra of Nexamp | The Largest Community Solar Provider’s $2B Expansion & Environmental Justice

In this Green Light podcast episode, Catherine spoke with Juan Parra at Nexamp, the nation’s largest community solar provider, about the company’s $2B expansion plan & new, second HQ in Chicago. Juan also shared about Nexamp’s purchase of 1.5 GW of American-made solar modules from Heliene – the largest ever community solar module order in history. He shared about how he transitioned from volunteering with WE ACT into a long-term career in community solar, & about the most effective strategies for engaging local communities & leveraging IRA incentives. Juan also shared about Nexamp’s impactful Solar + Storage Construction Rotational Program, Solar Sunrise, which is providing members of local communities with opportunities to enter the industry & grow within Nexamp.


Catherine: Hi, I’m Catherine McLean, Founder and CEO of Dylan Green. And today I have with me Juan Parra. Juan is the director of community engagement at Nexamp. Thanks for joining me once again.

Juan: Thanks for having me.

Catherine: Where are you today?

Juan: I am in New York. Brooklyn, New York,

Catherine: Brooklyn, New York! That’s where I’m from! Where abouts?

Juan: I am East Williamsburg closer to Bushwick.

Catherine: Very nice. It’s very trendy these days. So can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your role at Nexamp?

Juan: Yeah. So I’m Juan. I’m the Director of Community Engagement here at Nexamp. And so my team what we do, most of what we do is to launch our strategy for getting more low income households involved in community solar and signed up for Nexamp. And we do that a lot through different types of partnerships. And then other than that, we also serve as kind of like advocates for low income customers that are signing up for Nexamp, and just really making sure that they have a good experience with Nexamp. And some of that is through the policy side and some of that is through like working with their customer support teams. And then we’re also always on the lookout for other things that might be beneficial to the communities we serve. And so looking for partnerships that could help us maximize the benefits that we offer low income households,

Catherine: Great. And the transition to renewables. So you received your bachelor’s management in marketing and a minor in social justice. How did you end up working in clean energy and community solar specifically?

Juan: Yeah, I think it would start in college my senior year. I was in a business school, getting a bachelor’s in marketing, but I took up a minor in social justice, and I could pick my own concentration, and I decided to do kind of like an Urban Studies minor. And then one of the classes I took was called black and green, but it really talks about the environmental justice movement. And how it’s the birth of it and how it’s grown. And that was kind of like a pretty foundational moment for me, because part of that I couldn’t really identify with the environmental movement. You know, it was very much like the imagery around, like the strength of polar bear and conservation. Which is very important, but I couldn’t identify with that, right? That was the first time I realized like, oh, wow, this really hits literally home. Communities like that I grew up in and communities like the ones that grew up in New Jersey. And so that was kind of the inception, I would say, of this work.
When I graduated, I went to a cleantech company in Boston, and mostly my friend worked there, but I also wanted to work for a company that was doing, you know, whatever the success of the company was based on something good and I worked there for a few years. And when I moved back to this area in the city, I wanted to get back more into community based work. And I started going to membership meetings and volunteering with an organization called We Act. Environmental Justice. Organization down here. And through We Act I found out about a nonprofit called Solar One, which is doing work with getting more solar in the city, particularly in low income areas. And I kind of stalked them. They stalked me. I’m not sure which one it was. I ended up working for them for a few years. And that’s really my start with solar energy. At first, we were helping low income households get solar on the roof, mostly like affordable housing, affordable housing providers. And then I transitioned more to the community solar side of things. And we’re working on a few community homes, community solar systems here in New York. We were learning a lot as we went. We were googling things like you probably shouldn’t have to but be learning experience and that led to my career. I transitioned over to Nexamp after a few years, just to get kind of a more broader lay of the land community. So it plays out.

Catherine: Yeah, yeah. Amy and I and my colleague Amy and I are always googling stuff. Always. So yeah, it’s called being intellectually curious.

Juan: Yes. Yes. Googling ‘how to finance community solar’.

Catherine: Yeah. One of the things that struck me about what you said that I find fascinating is that the black and green class. What college, did you go to a university?

Juan: I went to Boston College.

Catherine: Boston College. I wonder if that’s something that’s taught throughout the US, like if that sort of are able to be replicated because I love how that sounds and what it elicits,it’s awesome.

Juan: I think it’s definitely more common. I’ve seen a lot of resumes, when I was hiring someone, and people that graduated in the last, you know, five years or so. Obviously, it’s a little biased because they’re applying to an energy company, but if a lot of resumes highlight some kind of classwork with environmental justice. I think it’s really interesting because yeah, back when I went to school 2010 or so it was pretty unheard of, especially in the environmental space. Now it’s very common.

Catherine: Yeah. So you’ve been working in community solar, as you said, since 2017. What things are you most focused on now and he share from the top lessons that you’ve learned in the last few years?

Juan: Sure. Yeah. So the Nexamp is basically in every state with community solar enacting legislation. It’s kind of a state by state legislation that needs to be passed. Right. And then our team we’re primarily focused on projects that have reserved capacity reserved space for low income households. And those are in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Maryland. And then those are some active projects or projects are about to be turned on. And then we’re more in the planning phases in Delaware, Virginia, Hawaii, which a lot of people want to go do in person outreach. So I think in terms of lessons, I think it’s a little bit of a contradiction, like I realize like community solar has grown very quickly. And then I step out of it. And I’m like, a lot of people still don’t know what community solar is. I’m very dialed in to how much it’s grown because I’m looking at how many projects we have and customers and the partnerships and all that and, and we’re really in the weeds. And I think that tells us, you know, there’s a lot that has been going well in the industry, that it’s poised for continued growth. And then when I step back and I consider still the newness of community solar, that tells me that there’s a lot that we still need to do to get this to be more widely adopted and more and have more people be familiar with it.

Catherine: Yeah. What are some of the best strategies you found for educating engaging communities and getting them excited about community solar?

Juan: Yeah, I think it starts with what we’re offering. So even before we go out and start engaging communities, you know, just making sure that what we’re providing is something that is going to benefit people. And so, what our team does is we like to provide guidance. We have a policy team that’s out there in the state capitals and DC, advocating for changes or updates or new programs. And part of those changes would impact how people could participate and benefit in community solar, how they would sign up for community solar, how they kind of determine if you’re low income or not, in the as in a community solar project, and what the savings that the community solar project can provide you and I think working that’s one of the I think the great things about working at Nexamp is that we have everything happens under our roof. We have like a development team here. We have the policy team here, we have the customer facing team here. I thought we could have a conversation. And then we could kind of start developing a product or program whatever you want to call it, that would benefit the community that we want to work with. Because we could do great community engagement. But then if we’re not offering something that people want, it’s all for not right. That’s where it starts. And then we tend to establish partnerships with community entities that are trusted. We tend to offer community entities. And because we realize that like before profit company coming into a community, particularly one that has probably been a target of shady practices in the past. You’re coming in saying like, we’re gonna lower your bill. A lot of people are going to be skeptical about how these guys I’m like, you know, I’m from New York, like, I get it like, nobody’s offering you something for free. So the partners really provide us with that platform and establish that trust in what we’re offering, which is basically savings on people’s energy bills, right? And so we work with our partners, we’re really intentional. We try to be good community partners. And something that people on my team have done too is like, what more can we do? What additional benefits can we bring? Now that we have established a partnership? That’s not necessarily like something we have to do? But because we’re there we want to be good partners. How can we support the community? So we tend to have partnerships where we’re cutting referrals. But, there was a partner in Maryland that we work with that we found out they were having a shoe drive, and one of my direct reports Stephanie was like, let’s join the shoe drive. And she got like 200 pairs of shoes for this, so it’s something that I think it’s really important to continue to do is just not think about it as like, alright, we’re in this partnership for this one goal of signing people up for community solar. It has to be something greater than that and working with the community to see where other opportunities exist to support them.

Catherine: I love that.

Juan: That’s a great

Catherine: I think it’s also just like not being in your bubble, right? Like just being aware that there’s like a broader need there. So important. So how can state and federal incentives be leveraged to maximize community benefits?

Juan: Basically, we need sales centers. Because especially if we want to provide more meaningful savings, and we want to encourage low income households to sign up who would need savings more arguably, this all cost money, right? And so incentives are really what helps us to incur those costs that would then allow us to be able to provide higher savings and enroll low income households. And that’s just because it requires more intention behind it like I would say a lot more work to do that partnership and in that, and engagement. And so I think state incentives should look at kind of what other states are doing because back to the lessons one thing I realized is that every state looks very different. And now we’re going to play with community solar, where we’ve seen what works and what doesn’t work.
And then the federal side, I think the federal government through the IRA has a few what they’re calling low income bonus tax credits that are meant to incentivize either development of community solar, or solar in general in low income areas, or participation in community solar projects or other solar energy that reduces household energy burden. I hope that the success of the program is a clear indicator that this is something that is really something that a lot of developers and communities want. There are six gigawatts of applications. So those almost six times as much as a program could support they received in applications and so, you know, that goes to show that this is a program that is poised to continue to be around for at least 10 years. And there’s a lot of opportunity to increase the benefits through that program.

Catherine: Right. And what are some of the largest challenges that we mean when it comes to expanding access to community solar?

Juan: Yeah, I think I’ll touch on the technical development side for a bit. I’m not the expert on that, but I do know that one big challenge on the development side is interconnection. And we’re getting a bunch of these renewable energy assets on the grid. There’s a lot of ways to support that growth. And so I definitely think there’s a lot of Nexamp, and a lot of people in the industry, are doing a lot of work to mitigate some of the barriers that interconnection could face. On the like, more customer and programmatic side. I think going back to the states and the incentives, we’re seeing now that there are some more mature markets where the incentives and the programs are changing. Either the incentives are changing or drying up or the programs are going from pilot to permanent program. I just think it’s important to have a consistent market as these changes are happening. And so some states are doing that well and moving that forward and some other states have seen in the past some kind of dips in activity as the programs are kind of being flushed out. I think but more so than that more on like the participation of the adoption side is really taking a look at how we are, especially in regard to how low income households can participate, looking at that kind of customer experience, because the reason why Nexamp and a lot of other providers offer reserve capacity for low income households is that we tend to offer a higher savings for those households. So we could enroll anyone to any project as a matter of income. But for those projects where we offer the higher savings, we need to verify that you meet the low to moderate income definition. That process of verification is set by the state program. We push for the easiest verification method which we call self attestation. Basically someone is like saying yes, I do meet these income limits or no I don’t. And not every state has that. And so I think that is one key thing that we can continue to encourage states to consider is simplifying the enrollment and verification process. So this doesn’t become another like extra step for people who are low income to take advantage of a program, you know. That’s something that they’re faced with every day. It’s like, if you want to do this program, you have to provide more paperwork, which can be a form of inequity, right and so make the process easier than anyone else trying to set up. So I think it’s looking at what your experience after someone signs up. So now they’re signed up for Nexamp and they’re starting to get credits on the bill, the payments and for those credits at a discount. I think we’ve seen that we need to have continued support from utilities and regulators to come on that side of the experience so that people can continue to receive consistent and foreseeable steady flow of credits. And then also working with the utilities and the state regulators to encourage participation of LIHEAP participants allow us to use LIHEAP funding for community solar and just generally provide a customer experience I think is almost like a set it and forget it mindset for people that are working through that with our utility and our regulator partners.

Catherine: To switch topics a little bit and I’m interested to hear about Nexamp’s, and this number seems crazy to me, $2 billion dollars in planned investments in Illinois, which also includes a second headquarters in Chicago. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Juan: Sure. So yeah, we recently announced our second headquarter in Chicago, which is really exciting. Civilian and plan investments. It’s basically the sum of like, what our current and planned development pipeline is, and some of the benefits are going to come with that. And so, we have something like 75 community solar projects that are so that’s you know, part of a big part of that calculation. And so, A) I think it goes to show off growth, growth within Nexamp, growth within the industry. Chicago was an exciting place, and Illinois in general is an exciting place, for a few reasons. It’s a place that we’re seeing that the state is doing a great job of developing community solar and renewable energy. And the location was something that was very close because of its centrally located in the country. And then one thing that was also really exciting about Illinois is that they have kind of a framework of equitable workforce requirements, basically. And so, we can now kind of like use Illinois to set up some of these workforce programs, some of which are existing, some of which are new and then we can then scale those programs out to other areas, and so kind of a leveraging Illinois framework to help build what that program could look like or those programs and trying to replicate that in other areas.

Catherine: So another announcement Nexamp recently made was about its partnership with Heliene on 1.5 gigawatts of American made solar modules, which was the largest ever community solar module quarter in US history. Can you share more about this?

Juan: Yeah, so the Heliene partnership I think, is something that just shows our commitment to domestically manufactured components of our solar energy system. And so this is really like a combination of efforts what Nexamp has been doing but also with some of the incentives that the federal government had made available. And we really wanted to secure a partnership with a company that could help us meet our goals for development through domestic manufacturing. So it’s really exciting. It’s going to be something that’s going to have sustained impacts for that local economy, bringing more jobs there. So we placed a big solar panel order there, and I’m willing to bet it’s not the last one that will place either right.

Catherine: Nexamp’s solar and storage construction rotational program, Solar Sunrise. Sounds like a great opportunity for those looking to start their career in solar. I’d love to hear more about the program and how it came about.

Juan: Sure. Solar Sunrise, it predates me, but it was a program that was actually developed by our, what we call CMD team are both physically or EPC construction team. And so the VP there and a few folks on our team just realized that, hey, we needed good talent, good local talent, and there was an opportunity to hire folks from local communities that might not have had past experience in solar. And so Solar Sunrise is a rotational program where we take a few people from the local community and take them through, basically about three month rotations, of different teams at Nexamp, in the construction side, so they’ll get exposed to like the design, development like procurement, and then different types of construction training. And at the end of Solar Sunrise, the goal is to get them placed at a full time job and one of those things.

Catherine: I just love this love this love this. I think EBF did something similar to this. I just think it’s so needed. And I think it also just gives people an opportunity to see if there’s a certain part of the lifecycle they’re really excited about right. So they might think, oh, I really want to do procurement, and then they might get into it and be like, actually, I don’t procurement. I really like being out in the field. It’s just I think it gives them an opportunity to kind of explore a few different areas before they commit to what they’re going to do full time.

Juan: Yeah,I totally agree. And I think, traditionally with energy and solar energy workforce programs. There have been many more programs leaning towards the on the field contraction, which are programs because those are programs that we can also hire folks that have limited experience in the field or in solar energy and get them trained up. In fact, we have a separate workforce program called Construction Catalyst that’s more training people to be construction managers, so more on the field. But one thing I like about Solar Sunrise is that it kind of shows another opportunity for a workforce program in the solar industry. It’s more in the office. It’s a different set of skills. We’re able to offer it to different people who are interested in different things.

Catherine: Yeah, yeah,I love that. So my final question is around DEIJ, cleantech, something I’ve talked extensively about. We’ve highlighted a lot of your experience in clean energy. From your perspective, why do you think it’s important to increase diversity in our industry?

Juan: I think it’s fair or just I’m thinking about my role and the work that our team does. I think our team is establishing partnerships with local nonprofits, local community based organizations, doing a lot of face to face outreach. And I think a lot of the communities that we are working with or we hope to work with, their diverse communities are mostly Latino and mostly black. Maybe they don’t speak English as their first language, but I think just generally speaking, if community solar and solar energy renewables wants to reach a broader audience, you are probably going to be more successful in doing that. If you have people on your team who that audience can relate to in one way or another right?

Catherine: It looks like the community that you’re trying to engage with. Groundbreaking!

Juan: There is just so much conversation about community solar and how it’s going to tie in with Justice 40 and environmental justice and low income access. And they really want to democratize community solar, which is great and if you want to democratize it, you gotta look at who’s the part of the democracy right? And so it’s not just something that’s good to do. I really think that we have to do this if we really want to meet the goals, that we’re setting up for ourselves as an industry when it comes to getting community solar and renewable energy in general, to be to be something that’s more common and widespread especially if we want some of those benefits to to reach the communities that we intended to reach.

Catherine: So one of the things I think as well as like, it just makes good economic sense. Like I always preach about how statistically speaking, having more women in your organization yields more money to the business, right? If we just put that it’s the right thing aside and just look at the money, right. And I think it’s the same thing with what we’re talking about with these programs. If you’re saving people money, especially on something that is probably such a big portion of their spend like energy, that allows them to spend money in other parts of the economy that they wouldn’t necessarily be able to do. A win win for everyone really. Suit economically, environmentally, socially, so forth. Anyway, I appreciate you taking the time to speak with us Juan. I want to thank you for all the work that you’re doing.

Juan: Thank you for your time. This was a fun conversation.