Meet the Women Leading and Shaping the Solar Industry
It’s not really that big of a deal. Or is it?
Oh look, another article celebrating women in an underrepresented field during women’s history month. How original.
I know that’s what you’re thinking, but that isn’t what this article is about. (Well, it is, but it isn’t.)
Each well-intentioned media post that boasts about women in male-dominated fields — like they’re some sort of an anomaly — may be viewed as furthering the goal of being able to see these women as equals to their male counterparts. When we spoke with Rebekah Carpenter, owner and president of Fingerlakes Renewables, she perfectly articulated this feeling:
“For a lot of women, they think it has to feel like a big deal to be doing something in a male-dominated world, instead of it just being like, ‘Yeah, this is what I’m going to do now.’”
And she has a point. It shouldn’t feel like a big deal. No one should view their gender (or any other characteristic) as a barrier to employment, nor as a celebration of astronomical achievement. And yet, society does it all the time.
The truth is, while we’ve made great strides toward equality in the renewable energies field, we’re just not there yet. And the numbers reflect that. So, by highlighting the women at the forefront of the solar industry, we hope to:
- Celebrate these women for not being scared to enter a “boys club” tech field.
- Inspire future female technicians to enter into the field of renewable energies.
- Acknowledge that women and minorities don’t come into this industry on an even playing field — and that we can all work harder to even it out.
Looking at the Numbers
According to the U.S. Solar Industry Diversity Study, women represented only 26% of the solar workforce in 2019, while gender non-binary employees comprised 1.4%. Of the 26% of women represented in the solar workforce, only 28% hold manager, director or president-level positions — and the differences are even starker for women of color.1
The study also found that, among all senior executives reported by solar firms, 80% were men, and 88% of them white men.2
The pay gap between genders is nothing new and spans multiple industries in the U.S. workforce. However, the gap is wider for women in the solar industry.
The report also found that women were less likely to describe themselves as “very satisfied” with their wage and position compared to men, and also less likely to feel as though they were climbing up the career ladder.5
Women aren’t the only demographic underrepresented in the solar industry. According to the report, Hispanic or Latino workers only represented 16.9% of the workforce, Asian workers represented 8.5%, and Black workers represent only 7.6%.6
White respondents were also more likely to report being very satisfied with their wage and position than any other race.7
Life as a Woman in Solar Tech
When solar technician Amanda Perez read that women represented only 26% of the solar workforce, she was surprised — in a good way.
“It’s actually more than I was expecting,” Perez said. “I’ve been in the industry for 5 years and have only run into a handful of other female field technicians.”
That’s likely because Perez is represented in this more bleak statistic — only 13.8% of solar technicians identify as female.8 Although she loves her work, Perez admits it can be “very isolating” to be a female solar tech. In her five years in the solar industry, she said she’s never worked with another female electrician, as a co-worker or teacher.
“On my first day of [solar panel installation] classes, I was asked if I was lost because nursing and aesthetician courses were at the other side of the building,” Perez said. “I’m not what people picture when you say the word ‘electrician.’”
Today, Perez has a Colorado wireman — ahem, wirewoman — license, a certification from the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP), and five years of experience under her utility belt. Yet, she said she still has to achieve “above and beyond” that of her male coworkers to be seen as an equal on the job.
“I’ve been asked for proof of my license at a much higher rate than that of my male co-workers,” Perez said. “As a woman, you will have incredible challenges in every aspect of the field, but to me, it has been worth the extra effort.”
Perez is fortunate enough to work for Apollo Energy, a solar company based out of Denver that was founded by a woman — Melissa Theesen — who’s currently the Chief Operating Officer. Perez said that’s a major reason she chose to accept the job offer.
“I work directly for her, so it’s been a really great experience for me to work so closely with another woman in a traditionally male-dominated field,” Perez said.
Breaking Down Barriers
Fortunately, Apollo is not the only female-owned solar installation company. We spoke with Rebekah Carpenter, owner and president of Fingerlakes Renewable Energies, about her 20+ year experience as a female technician and business owner.
Carpenter said she practically grew up in the construction and electrical field. She was working as an electrician when she was presented with an opportunity to help build an eco-village in Africa, as long as she could learn how to install solar panels. She fell in love with the work, which led her to start her solar installation company back home in upstate New York.
During the conversation with Carpenter, it almost seemed like she’s become immune to the fact that she is one of the few females to have climbed her way up the ladder in a trade field. Although, she admits it was “a lot different” when she started 20 years ago as a young woman with much more to prove.
“You’re going to get pushback, but it’s not your problem for getting pushed back. It’s someone else’s problem for pushing back,” Carpenter said. “Let it just be part of the process instead of letting it be a detriment to the process.“
Carpenter encourages women to get into the field by teaching women’s electrical training and intro to construction courses. When asked what advice she’d give to a woman who’s nervous to enter into a male-dominated trade field, she said it’s working through the “emotional block.”
“There’s the emotional aspect of it that says, ‘I’m supposed to feel like I don’t belong here.’ And instead of buying into that aspect of it, you just kind of like show up and start working and decide you’re going to belong,” Carpenter said.
“Some days I focus a lot on the aspect of being a woman business owner. And some days, it’s just not really a big deal. And I think that alone is a privilege.”
Female-Owned Solar Companies
Rebekah Carpenter is not the only woman who’s pushed through those barriers. Here are some of the companies with women in solar who are breaking the glass ceiling (then repairing the roof and installing solar panels on it):
Alpha Energy Management
When CEO Rachel Xu founded Alpha Energy Management in 2001, she broke barriers in the solar industry by opening one of the few woman-owned and minority-owned solar companies. Alpha Energy is a commercial solar business committed to helping corporations reduce both their carbon footprints and operating costs.
In 2019, Rachel and her team won SunPower’s National Rising Star award for their work.9 Plus, according to her LinkedIn, Rachel has also co-founded several other businesses, so it’s safe to say this woman puts the alpha in Alpha Energy.
We briefly mentioned Apollo Energy earlier as Amanda Perez’s employer, but this impressive solar company deserves a little more attention. Apollo was founded by Melissa Theesen, who’s helped bring more sustainable solutions to communities all over the world while also building her own solar company serving Colorado and Wyoming residents.
Not only is Apollo a local, women-owned solar installation company, it’s also a certified B Corp. According to its website, Apollo makes solar more accessible by hiring English- and Spanish-speaking technicians and offering training and employment to more vulnerable communities.10
Plus, Apollo has partnered with Grid Alternatives (which we’ll mention later on) for a “Women’s Build,” during which women who work in solar come from all over the country for a solar installation. In 2019, Theesen helped build an enormous 40-kilowatt solar panel system for low-income veteran housing.11
(Oh, and Apollo was named one of EcoWatch’s best solar companies in Wyoming — just saying.)
Green Earth Roofing Solutions
Green Earth Roofing Solutions, LLC was founded in 2016 by Taylor Scyocurka, who currently oversees the company as its owner and president. In an article posted by her alma mater, The University of Hartford, Scyocurka said she opened Green Earth Roofing Solutions as, well, a solution to a problem she saw in the solar industry — many roofs were in no condition to support solar panel systems.12
Scyocurka also made it clear that she doesn’t see her gender as an obstacle. She was quoted in the article saying, “the only entrance barrier for those looking to start their own business is a reluctance to do so.”13
GroundWork Renewables, Inc
Ann Gaglioti is the CEO of GroundWork Renewables in Monterey, California. GroundWork goes beyond installing solar panels, instead providing full-service meteorological (MET) measurement services to support the development of profitable solar and wind energy projects throughout North and Central America.14
Gaglioti is also on the board of The Offset Project, a nonprofit founded by another incredible woman, Kristin Cushman. The Offset Project counteracts carbon emissions through local initiatives including solar projects and zero-waste programs.15
Kinect Solar’s founder and CEO, Lauren Carson, is another problem-solver in the renewable energies field. Carson was introduced to solar energy after moving to Hawaii and, according to an article by Energy Bin, she quickly realized the huge demand for solar equipment and felt there was a need for a strong secondary market to keep up.16
It seems her intuition was correct. In 2015, Carson and her sister Annie started Kinect Solar in Texas. In just a few years, Kinect became a multi-million dollar company distributing renewable energy equipment all over the world. In 2019, Kinect was ranked No.162 on Inc 5000’s fastest-growing companies in America and No. 20 of the fastest-growing female-founded companies.17
Luminalt Energy Corporation
Jeanine Cotter co-founded the solar installation company Luminalt alongside her husband, but she’s the one running the company as president and CEO. According to Luminalt’s website, Jeanine is not only one of the few female CEOs in solar, but one of fewer who still holds the company’s solar contractors license.18
Jeanine is widely regarded as a solar industry expert, serving on several national and local committees to establish solar industry standards, renewable energy advocacy and the creation of solar jobs.19
A major reason Jeanine created Luminant was to create more solar employment opportunities for people underrepresented in the field — like women. She currently serves on San Francisco’s Workforce Investment Board and her work has earned recognition from California’s Legislative Assembly, including the 2015 Woman of the Year award for District 19.20
Sunrise Power Solutions
Heather Ingebrigsten is bringing clean energy to local government buildings, schools and more through her work at Sunrise Power Solutions. With Heather in charge as CEO, Sunrise has earned its stamp as a certified Women’s Business Enterprise and, according to its website, the company has done more solar installations in the Long Island K-12 educational market than any other installer.21
Sunrun is the largest dedicated residential solar company in America, and it gives us a two-for-one when it comes to female leadership.
Lynn Jurich co-founded the company and kept it in line for seven years as CEO before handing the title over, but Jurich was sure to hand it to another powerful woman — Mary Powell — and stayed on the board as co-executive chair.
Powell is certainly no stranger to breaking barriers in male-dominated fields, either. She comes to Sunrun after serving as the president and CEO of an electric services company for over a decade.22
Female-Run Solar Nonprofits
Along with for-profit companies, there are a number of female-run nonprofits in the solar industry.
Grid Alternatives is a major nonprofit run by Erica Mackie. The co-founder and CEO has received countless awards for her work, including the “Green Building Super Hero Award” by US Green Building Council in 2010. The solar company works with low-income communities across America and in Nicaragua to “advance economic and environmental justice through renewable energy.”23
But beyond that, Grid Alternatives is dedicated to bringing women into the industry through its Women in Solar Program. The program hosts an annual “Women’s Build” every year to bring more women into the industry and encourage them with professional advancement, recruitment, exposure, training and networking opportunities.
People who identify as non-binary and feel they belong in the community of cis and trans women are also invited to participate in the Women in Solar Program.24
OC Goes Solar
Long-time environmental justice advocate Senait Forthal came to realize that the reason solar wasn’t taking off in her neighborhood was most likely because people didn’t understand how it worked and how to get started. That’s why she founded OC Goes Solar, with a goal to educate people on solar solutions and simplify the complicated process of going solar. The nonprofit is 100% volunteer-run and focuses on reducing barriers and increasing access to solar energy, having helped more than 300 homeowners in Orange County, California.25
Solar United Neighbors (SUN)
The idea for Solar United Neighbors (SUN) started in 2007 after Anya Schoolman’s 12-year-old son watched An Inconvenient Truth. Fired up about combating climate change, Schoolman told EcoWatch the family decided they would install solar panels on their home. But after calling multiple solar panel companies, they were told none would install them due to complicated permitting rules and nonexistent interconnection rules in Washington D.C.
Instead of accepting defeat, the Schoolmans decided to fight these policies. They started lobbying for a law in D.C. that would create solar incentives and, in 2008, the Schoolmans led the charge of helping 45 houses in their community go solar.
Since then, SUN has grown to an organization with several thousands of participants and volunteers across 12 states. SUN helps people navigate community solar fights for energy rights and advocates for policy changes around anti-solar HOA provisions and restricted net metering. SUN is also committed to promoting diversity and inclusion in the world of renewable energy, and Schoolman remains the company’s executive director, with many other females on the board.26
How to Support Women and Minorities in the Solar Industry
There are several ways you can support women and minorities in the solar industry. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
1. Use a diverse supplier for your next clean energy project
The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) has made it a mission to make the solar industry more inclusive, even forming a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice (DEIJ) Leadership Council. To support diverse ownership, they’ve created a Diverse Suppliers Database you can use to identify potential partners or contractors for solar projects.27
2. Support or volunteer with a solar nonprofit or organization
The solar nonprofits we mentioned above (as well as many others) are dedicated to promoting sustainability among diverse and underprivileged communities. Consider donating your time or supporting one of these organizations to make solar more accessible to everyone.
3. Read the Diversity Best Practices Guide for the Solar Industry
Part of the SEIA’s mission to make the solar industry more inclusive is teaching members and others about how to best stay informed and proactive about encouraging diversity in the industry. The association partnered with The Solar Foundation (TSF) to make a Diversity Best Practices Guide for the Solar Industry for solar business owners and the public to be better informed on how to build systems to support inclusion in the field.
Kristina Zagame is a journalist and content writer with expertise in solar and other energy-related topics. Before joining EcoWatch, Kristina was a TV news reporter and producer, covering a wide variety of topics including West Coast wildfires and hurricane relief efforts. Kristina’s reporting has taken her all over the U.S., as well as to Puerto Rico and Chile.