Sandy Anuras is Chief Technology Officer at Sunrun, a leading home solar, storage, and energy services company in the United States. In this feature interview last fall, she talked about nine million renewable energy jobs to be created over the next decade, a tipping point for rooftop solar, and the opportunities for workers who are too often left behind.
The Energy Mix: What is the job transition scene like in the U.S. solar market, and how has it changed with the adoption of the Inflation Reduction Act?
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Sandy Anuras: There’ve been a few catalysts, especially in certain cohorts. My cohort is the tail end of Gen X and some of the older Millennials who’ve spent enough time in the tech industry and made some money getting a lot done. They’re now taking a step back and asking where they’re spending their time, and what it means to the world.
There’s a concept in Japanese culture, Ikigai. It’s an overlapping Venn diagram of what the world needs, what I’m good at, what I can get paid for, and what I love. When I cofounded an affordable housing startup, I didn’t expect to be paid much, but I loved the work and knew I could bring my knowledge of tech and IT systems to bear. In my next job, I didn’t wake up in the morning feeling like I was doing something good for the world. A lot of technologists are fortunate that we can take our skill sets to many of the problems in the world, and for many of us, you’re seeing that maxing out our compensation packages is no longer our top goal. Now we can look at opportunities that are paying very well while also solving problems that are important. A lot of my peer group feels that way.
Talking to Gen Z folks, they’re already taking an interest in problems that are bigger than themselves. They want to work on things that matter because they want a better world for future generations. So a lot of these folks are looking at cleantech to be their next move, and we’ve been able to pull Gen Z and older Gen X workers away from bigger tech companies to help solve some of these big climate-related issues facing our planet.
I’m not sure I’ve seen the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) make an impact in technology quite yet. People are still looking at what it means, how we innovate, and where the clean energy jobs will be created.
But the IRA will help create millions of jobs over the next decade. We’ll have a huge opportunity with our installers, our solar energy system designers, and some of the harder engineering tasks. People are excited because they know solar is only going to grow over the next 10 years, so they’re starting to feel safer investing their careers in this industry. The IRA gives us that security that the industry is being supported by policy, and it allows us to recruit and retain talent and make those slightly more meaningful strategic investments as a company. I think we’ll see more people coming into the cleantech sector as a result.
The Mix: How does the current business environment play out for rooftop and community solar, as distinct from utility-scale projects?
Anuras: I don’t think of it as an either/or. We’re going to need solutions across the board. Our CEO [Mary Powell, former head of Green Mountain Power] is a huge proponent of “radical collaboration” with utilities. One example is our ability to tap into our solar and battery systems to provide resilience to the energy grid. When our distributed energy resources are networked together in the right way and backed by innovation and technology, they can be a utility-scale solution. If you think into the future with decentralized smart grids, these networked homes could be a part of a bigger solution to deliver reliable energy to all grid-connected customers.
The solar Investment Tax Credit extension under the IRA really buys us the time to think about how we build technologies that will unleash this customer-led revolution. We’re at a tipping point in residential rooftop solar where people are banging down our door saying, “hey, give me this stuff”. So the next short-term solution is to get our consumers educated. Policy is saying residential solar is important, it can save money, it seems like a win all around, and we as an industry need to do a better job of informing our customers about the possibilities for their homes.
Then, more in the medium to longer term, being able to focus on lower-income communities and multi-family housing types. That’s where I can work with the utility and radically collaborate in the future. We’re also trying to make it consistent across municipalities. All these executional friction points that we can remove will make a huge difference in deploying solar at scale, because we have so much available rooftop space to work with.
Anuras: One of the strategies we talk about a lot is whole-home electrification. If you look at our history, we’ve gone from solar, to solar plus storage, and now with our partnership with Ford we’re looking at EVs and bidirectional charging with smart panels.
There’s a lot to do here, but we’re right on the cusp of major [climate] disruption. And with customers driving this clean energy revolution, I really believe cleantech retrofits and broader climate topics are going to start showing up in normal TV shows. It’s unfortunate, but until it makes it into mainstream media, people refuse to believe what’s happening. But there are a lot of ways to shine a light on these topics.
The Mix: You’ve been a powerful voice for inclusion of women in technology, particularly women of colour, in the United States. How are the renewable energy technologies doing, and what additional steps does the industry need to take?
Anuras: The first myth we need to break down in renewables is that you need a PhD in climate science to make a difference. That desire to make a difference is in many people. And women in particular and people of colour realize they’re going to bear the brunt of climate change, so they want to put their effort against it. We have to get the word out that there are so many different roles and so many different ways we can band together to push that rock another inch.
With the hard sciences and engineering, especially in construction, there are some built-in barriers to women being in this space. It’s a very male-dominated field with a lot of heavy lifting, working outside in the elements, so we see fewer women working as installers. But the U.S. construction industry in general is over-indexed on people of colour. What we’re really trying to figure out across the board is how we make it a friendly place to come in, whatever your skill set is. Then it’s a funnel, taking people and investing in them and making sure they have career opportunities to grow in the renewables space.
The IRA is a huge moment to make sure those millions of jobs go to people who are looking for opportunities, and some of them may not come from what are traditionally thought of as diverse pools. What about coal workers? How do we retrain people whose industries are dying? It’s about diversity of experience, diversity of thought. As we move into this massive expansion of cleantech opportunities, how do we advance this industry to attract and retain the best and most diverse talent?