As the solar industry grows and matures it is facing new challenges, and Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) is changing as well. While the first eighteen months of CEO Abigail Hopper’s tenure saw many of the same faces in SEIA as under former CEO Rhone Resch, of late the organization has been changing out executives as its strategy evolves to adapt to new political and market circumstances.
Three weeks ago SEIA let go VPs Tom Kimbis and Christopher Mansour, both of whom had served the organization for many years. This was followed today by an announcement that the organization has hired John Smirnow as VP of Market Competitiveness and General Counsel, as well as Tony Chen as VP of Business Development.
Smirnow is no stranger to SEIA; he served as its VP of trade and competitiveness four four years from 2011 to 2015. In addition to this he is a widely respected trade lawyer who has served on advisory committees to the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Office of the United States Trade Representative, as well as serving for two years as secretary general of the Global Solar Council, a body that attempted to coordinate the efforts of multiple national solar advocacy organizations.
Incidentally he has also been an invaluable source to pv magazine, particularly for trade matters such as translating Harmonized Tariff Schedule (HTS) codes in trade rulings into actual products.
“He gives us a level of gravitas within the industry that is really valuable,” SEIA VP of communications Dan Whitten told pv magazine. “We think he is a great asset and a huge talent.”
Raising funds for growth
Tony Chen has also spent many years in solar, with nine years as VP of business development and project finance at Cool Earth Solar, as well as developing commercial projects for SolarCity for a year. For the past year he has been the Americas CEO and founder of a company which produces gender-specific performance and detox beverages for men and women.
Tony’s role as VP of business development will in part involve raising more money for SEIA through events and partnerships. “Tony comes in with his own ideas about raising revenue,” notes Whitten, who elaborated that this will include non-dues revenue and affinity agreements with different organizations, including corporations that are increasing their purchases of renewable energy.
Contrary to rumors, Whitten says that this will not involve opening its membership to utilities at this time, but he does note that the organization’s needs are changing. “As we get bigger, the stakes get larger,” states Whitten. “We can’t be what we were five years ago or even two years ago.”
Addressing strategic needs
The new hires can be seen in the context of evolving priorities at SEIA. Earlier this year the organization laid out a vision document defining four strategic goals, and Whitten says that the hiring of Chen speaks directly to strategy #4: “Ensure SEIA continually evolves to offer value to its members and grow revenue to support its activities.”
Smirnow’s return also speaks to Strategy #1: “Ensure that existing solar markets remain open and robust, while opening new ones”. While Smirnow has been advising SEIA on trade issues for some time before being hired back on, he will no doubt enhance SEIA’s legal firepower as the solar industry copes with the pugnacious trade policy of the Trump Administration.
A third area of strategy involves reforming electricity markets, and SEIA CEO Abigail Hopper has been clear that this will include an expanded presence at FERC and regional transmission organizations, in light of recent actions by FERC regarding proposals by PJM and ISO-New England that weaken the competitiveness of renewable energy.
And while neither of today’s hires are expected to directly address that need, Whitten revealed that SEIA has also posted an opening for a VP of federal affairs last week. “We will be looking at someone who is more familiar with operations at FERC, at RTOs, about how to influence markets,” explains Whitten.