Q&A: DCSEU Solar Director Shelley Cohen
Shelley Cohen serves as Director of Solar Programs for the DC Sustainable Energy Utility (DCSEU). She oversees the DCSEU's work on the District Department of Energy & Environment's Solar for All program. Through the program, the DCSEU is collaborating with local solar contractors to design and install solar photovoltaic (PV) systems at no cost to income-qualified District homeowners. These systems have the potential to offset electricity costs by as much as $500 per year. Learn more and see if you qualify.
Q. Describe your work with DOEE's Solar for All program.
A. I am so excited to be working with the DCSEU on behalf of the DOEE to rapidly deploy solar across the district as part of the Solar for All program. In my role as Director of Solar Programs, I manage a team of solar professionals who use their expertise to help ensure that the solar projects we are incentivizing are moving quickly and efficiently through the solar development process. The DCSEU Solar for All program has an ambitious goal this year of installing solar directly on roughly 130 income qualified homes, along with over 7MWs of community solar with all of the output designated to income-qualified homes. I am also working with the team and other programs to find ways to increase solar penetration in DC by reducing policy and permitting barriers, helping identify ways to reduce solar installation costs, and finding ways to be innovative in the solar funding and technology space.
Q. What did you do prior to joining the DCSEU's solar team?
A. Prior to joining the DCSEU, I founded a woman-owned solar consulting company where I helped District residents to understand solar, solar incentives, and how to solarize their homes and businesses. Like most job opportunities in my life, I sort of “fell into” solar. For the past 13 years, I worked at a company developing energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. The projects I initially focused on developing were landfill gas utilization projects. Not too glamourous, but very beneficial to the environment because the projects combusted methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and used it as a fuel source. When natural gas prices fell, renewables like landfill gas were having a hard time competing. That is when I started to focus on new markets such as energy procurement, combined heat and power (CHP), and solar project development.
I fell in love with solar the first time I was up on a sunny roof checking my first installation — a 77kW PV system on a government building in Delaware. What an incredible site to see the panels lined up and soaking up the sun’s rays. I was hooked. As my passion for solar grew, so did my desire to dedicate all my time to developing solar projects. I left my job in early 2015 and incorporated Alpha Solar Group a few months later. While I enjoyed being the CEO of my own company, working for the DCSEU enables me to do what I love on a broader scale and have a greater impact on residents and the DC community.
Q. What interests you most about the solar industry?
A. Solar is a simple technology that is easy to install and track. The exciting part of the solar market is that it is continually evolving and there is always something new. I am really excited about solar + storage and microgrids and have been examining areas in DC where we may be able to employ some of these strategies. Plus, all of the available incentives make solar more accessible and affordable. With the Solar for All program and the incentives, the District hopes to solarize the majority of DC homes by 2032.
Secondly, solar is a great career and gives me the opportunity to do something good for planet, community, and people. According to the Solar Foundation the solar industry is more diverse than the overall US workforce and the number of women employed in the industry is growing at a rapid pace. We need to mentor and encourage women to go into the renewable energy field because it is a growth area and presents great opportunities for a future career. We also need to change perception that solar is a male-dominated field. Every day, I see more and more women choosing a solar path for their career and I am very encouraged that the tide is shifting.
Q. What have you learned so far from working on the Solar for All program?
A. I have learned so much working on the Solar for All program. Solar impacts people in so many positive ways. One of the most meaningful is what an impact our program is making on people’s lives. Some homeowners are making decisions between critical items such as food or prescriptions and keeping the lights on. I am so glad that we can provide some relief for some homeowners from the cost of their utility bills and put more money back in their pockets.