Solar for the many, not the few: An interview with Nexamp CEO Zaid Ashai

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pv magazine: You’ve been involved with Nexamp for over nine years. Can you talk a little bit about the history of the company, your personal path and how these two intersected?

Zaid Ashai: The company was founded a little more than 11 years ago, in 2007, by Will Thompson and Dan Leary. Both were veterans and they started the company after finishing their service in the Middle East.

They were looking to create a company in a very nascent green energy industry. They were trying to figure out if they could become the solution provider to commercial and industrial players who were looking to reduce energy costs but also to reduce their carbon footprint. And that was the birth of Nexamp.

I met Dan and Will in late 2009 when I was at Good Energies. I was focused on looking at venture and private equity investments in new energy platforms, and I was impressed by their vision. Solar, at that time as you know was in its infancy; it was still very much a niche industry at that point in the overall generation landscape.

But I appreciated their larger vision and wanted to support what they were doing. So in early 2010 Good Energies and PJC led an investment and I became chair of the board.

Subsequently and totally unrelated I left Good Energies and joined PJC. So I moved up to the Northeast from the Washington D.C. area and worked closely with the company on strategy and building out their financing solutions. And then in 2013 there was an opportunity for me as the company grew and was trying to think through its next chapter on how to become really a full solution suite provider where it could create a solution that went from development to financing to active management.

I thought that was an interesting challenge, so I joined as CEO. Given my background in strategic management and finance the company felt that it would be a good match. And that’s sort of how I landed at Nexamp.

 

pv magazine: So obviously Nexamp works in several markets; you do C&I solar, but you seem to be largely focused on community solar. That’s the first thing I see when I open up the Nexamp website. Why community solar and what opportunities does this segment provide that other market segments don’t?

Ashai: Yeah, look: I think solar is a diverse generation segment in the United States and there are healthy segments whether it’s in residential, C&I, community solar or utility scale.

What we find attractive about community solar is it is a product that democratizes solar. As you know there are a limited number of roofs that are suitable for solar. So many residential customers who really want to participate in solar to reduce their carbon footprint, reduce their energy costs – some of them want to do it for resiliency – essentially can’t participate. Period. Because the roofs are not suited.

And by industry estimates that number is anywhere from 80% to 85% of households cannot do rooftop solar. So community solar is really interesting to watch because it allows that segment of ratepayers and customers to participate in solar. It also allows us to build larger power plants – they are still fairly closely located to load centers – and creative solutions.

So for us it was an interesting segment that didn’t have a really good solution. We felt that our DNA which is in development, which is customer centric, could create a really compelling solution not only in the development side of the equation but on the customer side – on the folks that are participating in these solar farms –  and that is why we’ve been focused on it.

We do C&I solar and utility-scale solar as well. But as you alluded to community solar is the largest part of our business and we’re really excited about it. We’ve seen a number of states such as Massachusetts, Maryland, New York, Illinois, Minnesota really start leaning into this because they see the value to ratepayers and customers and that excites us quite a bit.

 

pv magazine: You mentioned the number of states that have started to adopt policies. For our readers can you briefly mention the significance of policies for community solar and what the role is for policy in jumpstarting these markets?

Zaid Ashai: As you are aware the energy industry is heavily regulated, and policy greatly impacts the generation mix that we see in our states and also greatly impacts how we’re able to consume energy. And the existence of these policies in every state means there is a huge regulatory element to all of this.

We are big believers that states should adopt regulations that allow third-party owners like ourselves, that are entrepreneurial private companies, to develop solutions because we believe we can continue to drive down the cost and provide superior customer experiences.

And that’s our goal when we work in the policy landscapes – to foster competition from the private sector, to foster frameworks that allow private investment into the energy infrastructure of these states. Because we believe that this significantly benefits the ratepayers, significantly benefits customers and it significantly benefits the surrounding ecosystem.

There is something very powerful about making it possible for states to not purchase their power from regions that they are not located in close proximity to. When you build clean power plants in your communities, you are creating jobs short-term and long-term and you’re also creating other benefits outside of that. And we see huge value to that and we are glad that many states have seen that value as well.

 

pv magazine: In the opening of your office in downtown Boston, you spoke eloquently about how community solar can be a tool for empowerment of marginalized populations. For those who couldn’t make that talk or the opening, can you share your personal vision around solar and social equity?

Zaid Ashai: My view for all of us – whether we’re in solar or another other sustainability-based business – is that our products cannot be for the few who can afford them. Period. For us to have an impact that’s lasting, and in our communities, we can’t leave anyone behind.

So that’s how we’ve thought about it at Nexamp. We have been very conscious of creating products that anyone can participate in. And that’s important because as you’re aware there is a huge movement around climate justice. There are a lot of fossil fuel power plants, dirty power plants that are sited closer to lower-income neighborhoods. And that frankly is a major issue in our society.

Where the externalities are realized is by those who don’t have voices that are heard and the benefits are instead given to the wealthiest of our communities. And we want to change that. We think affordable clean energy should be available to all. Period.

And that’s how we’ve thought about community solar. When we crafted our product we looked at this long and hard and it took a lot of work throughout various parts of our team to create a product that requires no FICO score, and that’s available to renters as well as to owners.

And what we found that’s really meaningful in our product is that we attract a wide range of customers – we have college students, we have folks that are on fixed incomes. We have immigrants from low-income communities that are participating in this. And that’s important. If you want to make not only an environmental impact but a social impact you have to be able to do that. And that’s been critical to us and I think that’s something that’s going to be important for us in the future. And I do hope as an industry we continue to advance that purpose.

 

pv magazine: Which brings me to my next question. I know that you recently joined SEIA’s board. What kind of directions do you want to advance to SEIA, and do you want to see the larger solar industry take and how do you plan to do that?

Zaid Ashai: I joined the SEIA board early last year in 2018. I’ve enjoyed the honor of serving among a very diverse set of constituents in the solar industry in the United States.

My goal for SEIA personally has been to continue to advance solar as a message to markets that are not served currently. As you’re aware most of the solar markets are on the coasts – the West and East Coast. There’s obviously a few pockets in the middle but not many. There are many states where ratepayers and consumers have been unable to go solar and get the benefits of distributed energy.

And my goal within my capacity as a board member is to advance this mission such that hopefully in the near- to medium-term we have robust solar markets in all 50 states. That’s goal number one.

And goal number two is to ensure we have frameworks that allow for competition to create better and better solutions in distributed energy, whether solar or storage, to continue to drive down the cost and create better products.

We want open markets where we can leverage private investments to modernize and decarbonize our energy infrastructure – in all 50 states again. And that’s critical.

And then goal number three is the social equity message. Making sure that we have policy frameworks where these benefits accrue to every individual irrespective of income thresholds, race, and gender. And I think that’s how I see those three goals for us, and in my opinion for SEIA.

 

pv magazine: Specifically in terms of this mission to bring solar to all 50 states: What are the big barriers and how do you plan to broaden the geographic reach of solar?

Zaid Ashai: The key barriers in the newer markets are regulatory. And for us as an industry as we’ve grown, as we’ve created jobs, we need to spread those success stories from states where we have robust solar markets, to newer states where the solar ecosystem is either nonexistent or nascent.

At Nexamp we are working with the rest of the industry to make sure that legislators and policymakers understand the benefits from an environmental standpoint, from an economic standpoint, and from an equity standpoint. Make sure they understand what frameworks have worked in the past, what haven’t as well, and allow them to craft their own legislation and policy to encourage private investment from solar and storage in these markets. That’s been our goal.

As you know in the United States we have 50 unique discrete energy markets, and there are unique challenges that underlie that mission. We obviously don’t have a federal government that is supportive at this point for distributed energy, so that makes the challenge even harder.

But I think what we’ve seen with some of the political changes of 2018 is that there is more and more interest. We want to be able to continue to dialogue with folks that are interested and make sure that message is heard and collaborate with them to make sure that policy prescriptions are done in such a way that they can leverage private investment in these markets and create affordable solutions for their ratepayers and customers.

 

pv magazine: You talk about the lack of support at the federal level and the political changes that we’re seeing in 2018 and this year. What’s your personal perspective on the Green New Deal proposal which has been put out at the federal level?

Zaid Ashai: I can tell you my political journey personally. I grew up in Maryland and was active in the Republican Party. Later, for a number of reasons, I became a Democrat.

So ideologically I’ve spent time in both parties and I could tell you – before I talk about the Green New Deal – my goal, whether it’s at Nexamp or as part of SEIA, my goal is to make climate change a bipartisan issue. That’s where we’re going to succeed, where this isn’t a Democratic issue or Republican issue.

This is not only an issue that’s of a national significance to us, it’s of global significance. So we have to sort of set aside our political differences and try to come together to look at solutions. And I’m optimistic because there is legislation that is circulating that is starting to garner bipartisan support. Not the Green New Deal, but a sort of cap and dividend where there would be a carbon tax and dividend that goes out to taxpayers.

That’s a start. I think the Green New Deal has compelling elements. As you know there are still a lot of vagaries around it. We want to see specifics at SEIA, and as an industry member we are talking to legislators actively to see what we can really create in terms of tangible and specific policy prescriptions.

I think the Green New Deal has set a very aggressive goal with 2030 in mind. And I think that bold vision is important. But now we’re getting to a point where the Green New Deal has to go from vision to implementation. What can realistically be implemented from tax policy, from an infrastructure standpoint.

The Green New Deal is seen right now very much as a progressive Democratic issue. My hope is that the Green New Deal can evolve into something that Republicans are excited about, because it’s going to create energy resiliency. It solves national security because we become energy independent, and it creates jobs in many of these geographies that have been hit hard by manufacturing losses.

So my hope is that some of the proponents of the Green New Deal are able to create that dialogue with folks across the aisle. Because again, climate change is such a complicated issue, if we’re fighting one another on this, then nothing’s going to get solved. At SEIA we’re engaging both Democrats and Republicans on this because everyone has different views and policy prescriptions, whether they’re market-based or for federal investment. Based on my views, I want to look at all the above and see what can get done.

And that’s the hope. For me the Green New Deal is a positive step. It starts the dialogue. Next we have to get to the hard business of seeing what can be implemented effectively and simply and leverage the interest from the private investment community. I can tell you that infrastructure investors – both domestic and international – have a large appetite to continue energy investing in the United States given the growth in the U.S. economy, given the move to decarbonize, given the move to decentralize.

Now we just have to create a predictable policy framework that investors will have strong confidence won’t change. And that’s what’s going to be critical and that’s why this has to be bipartisan. Responsible energy policy is critical to ensuring a bright future for the next generations.

 

Interview conducted by pv magazine Americas Editor Christian Roselund