This is the latest installment in Utility Dive’s “Taking Charge” series, where we engage with power sector leaders on the energy transition.
Community solar provider Nexamp is focused on building relationships with customers, partner companies and communities, says CEO Zaid Ashai – and he thinks that approach will help the company weather the labor shortage and supply chain challenges faced by the booming industry.
Nexamp announced in August that it had reached an agreement with Canadian solar module manufacturer Heliene to purchase 1.5 GW of modules produced at Heliene’s Minnesota facility over the next five years, building on an existing relationship with the company to make the largest-ever community solar module order in the U.S.
Heliene has “always been a manufacturer that's been committed to Canada and the U.S., and committed to sort of insourcing, or friendsourcing, as many materials as possible,” Ashai said in an interview, and securing a domestic supply of modules allows Nexamp to ensure the panels were produced ethically.
“The last thing we wanted is a supply chain that had any elements of forced or slave labor,” he said. “Heliene was part of that discussion, and those discussions definitely advanced and accelerated with the passage of the [Inflation Reduction Act].”
Solar panels are one of the imported goods that U.S. Customs and Border Protection is targeting for seizures after the passage of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, and U.S. manufacturer First Solar announced in August that an internal audit had found forced labor practices occurring in its Malaysia facility.
Solar exports to the U.S. have also been throttled over the last few years by the pandemic’s impact and a Department of Commerce investigation into tariff circumvention, which concluded in August and is set to result in new tariffs beginning in June.
Ashai said that the aftermath of pandemic shutdowns and a global shift in trade policy has made nearshoring and onshoring more necessary for businesses.
“It's just a reality that we are quickly moving from a more integrated global economy to more regional and protectionist policies,” he said.
Like many solar companies, Nexamp has faced challenges resulting from the cost and scarcity of materials in recent years, but Ashai says that this remains a highly promising time for the solar industry.
Since the passage of the IRA, solar companies have announced billions of investments in U.S. manufacturing, and a forecast released last week by the Solar Energy Industries Association and Wood Mackenzie predicts that U.S. solar installations will outperform expectations in 2023 and reach a record of nearly 32 GW in new capacity.
“Our technology continues to improve, we continue to create better solutions as an industry,” Ashai said. “I think coupling solar with storage allows solar to behave more like baseload power, and addresses any concerns that grid operators may have about the stability of adding more and more solar to the grid.”
Ultimately, he said, solar is one of the few clean energy technologies that can “clean the grid” while saving ratepayers and consumers money.
“That's the number one thing,” Ashai said. “I think there are other technologies that may be compelling from a net-zero standpoint, but none of them really compete well when you talk about cost savings, except for solar.”
Ashai said he feels that solar is also “at the forefront” of solving land use concerns that are vital to issues of permitting reform and transmission with innovations like agrivoltaics, which co-locates solar and agriculture, and solar farms that create a habitat for pollinator-friendly plants beneath an installation.
“How do we ensure that when we're in communities, communities feel good about these projects?” he said. “As an industry, we're trying to think through that.”
Rethinking the workforce
Nexamp is also working to address the shortage of solar labor by reassessing its hiring practices, Ashai said. The clean energy industry as a whole is facing the existential threat of low labor supply amid its increasing labor demand, and the Interstate Renewable Energy Council’s 2022 National Solar Jobs Census found that 44% of solar industry employers reported that it was “very difficult” to find qualified applicants.
“We revisited our job requirements — we realized that there were arbitrary barriers to entering Nexamp — for example, four year degrees,” Ashai said. “I think, frankly, we could have been more thoughtful on what jobs require four year degrees.”
In April, Nexamp opened an office and operations center in Lawrence, Massachusetts, “one of the poorest cities in our state,” he said. “This is one of the communities we're trying to uplift from the deployment side, and we’re really now trying to connect on the labor side.”
The company has created an initiative that it internally calls Solar Sunrise, “focused really on bringing in people from non-traditional and underrepresented backgrounds” and providing them with mentorship and upskilling during a rotational program through the company before finding them a permanent role, Ashai said. The company is expanding this initiative into other states where it has solar deployments, like Illinois.
“We're working more in [environmental justice] communities, trying to find folks that have either been traditionally underemployed or not in the labor force, to come back and realize that there's really exciting and meaningful work in the climate movement,” he said.