An interview with Shaun Keegan, CEO at Solar Landscape
Shaun worked at Solar Landscape in high school, and now he’s CEO. Read on to see his take on commercial solar.
Can you provide an overview of Solar Landscape?
We work in commercial and industrial (C&I) solar. What we do in C&I solar is look for commercial business owners or offtakers to site rooftop solar projects. We also function as an EPC^ on ground mount^ projects that may be virtually net metered or remote net metered^ projects. So behind the meter^ is our core business, and in states that allow for remote net metering, sometimes referred to as community solar^ gardens, we will construct large ground mount projects and do high voltage interconnections. Our company develops, designs, constructs, and maintains long term solar assets.
So Solar Landscape is a developer and an EPC?
Right. We develop, EPC, and self perform the build. We’re a little different from a typical EPC in that we self perform the electrical contracting piece. As a company, we started in 1985 with electrical contracting and installation.
What states do you build solar in?
We primarily cover the Tri-state area: New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. State incentives make these attractive markets. Our construction shop is based in Central New Jersey—that’s where we do the majority of our projects.
How does Solar Landscape find customers that will be likely to install solar? Can you describe your target customer?
It’s really all over the map. A climate-controlled facility will have the demand to warrant a full solar system. Any type of an office building that has a load^ is a candidate. The more likely are the newer more progressive companies, buying buildings and expanding their business —a lot of them are already looking at solar.
What sets Solar Landscape apart?
I would say for our clients, it’s a customer-focused approach to the sales process. We are flexible as to what the customer needs are. We offer operating leases, PPAs, and the option to purchase the system directly^. We’re also completely transparent, and we try to present the options in an honest and straightforward way when it comes to equipment selection, O&M^ packages, and the timeline for construction. It starts at the first meeting, where we first try to reduce their demand through energy efficiency and then we look to size the system correctly to generate the right amount of power. We make sure we are diligent throughout the design process. For our employees, we value our team and everyone’s opinion. We are a lean company that has grown from the ground up. We have a team of collaborators. We respect everyone’s opinion and include everyone in the conversation—even if it may not be in their job description necessarily.
How many employees do you have?
45, including the construction team.
What are some of the biggest challenges that Solar Landscape faces?
Just keeping a steady workflow is the biggest ongoing challenge. As a construction company, we only take on projects that we can build. So we don’t bite off more than we can chew. We’ve grown organically and have tried to keep things in balance.
How did you become CEO? Can you talk about your career journey?
I grew up with, and went to grade school with my business partner, and I worked for his Dad’s company, Solar Landscape, in high school. After college, I decided to join up with him again. I had studied at CU Boulder and went to law school at Drexel in Philadelphia. Both of those environments were friendly to solar. Pennsylvania in 2009 was the first state to really blow up in solar. I followed the policy and what was happening. My friend’s father still had the company—I said let’s get into commercial solar—it seems like the market we want to be in. Our first job was as an installation subcontractor. I called up the solar companies that were building and said “can we subcontract and build for you?” That’s how we got our first job. From there we spent a few years building for others. Then we started building for ourselves and doing more customer outreach.
How much have you built and developed to date?
Over 100 MW. We’ve built 17 MW in the last year.
What advice would you give someone who wants to get into the cleantech industry?
Have a skillset and have a sense of what you want to do within renewables. We’ve met very passionate people and wanted to hire them, but we couldn’t find a good role for them. We need people with expertise in one field or the other—whether that’s marketing or sales or finance or engineering. There’s room for everybody but you need to have a direction you want to go.
If an individual feels like they don’t have the skillset now and wants to go build that, what would you recommend they focus on?
I’d recommend focusing on electrical theory and how the grid works. Every time we hire someone, I sit down with them and explain the grid. I take them through what the old utility model looked like, to deregulation of the power industry, to where we are today. How our grid operates and how it’s changing is something to read about. We are in the midst of transformation in the electric utility industry.
You mentioned earlier that C&I solar has experienced the slowest growth relative to residential and utility scale solar. As an executive in C&I solar, why do you think that is?
I think it mostly has to do with customer awareness and the reality of businesses being uncertain about their future. With behind the meter solar in the C&I space, the stars have to line up just right. You need a business owner who knows he wants to stay in that location and is financially sound. That in and of itself can be a challenge. Whether they sign up for a PPA or purchase a solar system outright, it’s a long-term investment. He or she also has to have a roof in good condition—not only the roof surface or membrane, but also the infrastructure to support the weight. You get across those hurdles, but then the business owner might still be unwilling to move forward because they’re not aware of how many other companies are already going solar. With residential it’s really easy to see when your neighbors are installing solar systems, but it’s harder to tell when a business with a flat roof has solar. In residential, there are a ton of homes out there. With commercial, more factors need to come together. As we are moving into community solar, feed-in tariffs, and other “rent the roof” type programs, I think you will see more and more growth.
Is there anything that can be done to make C&I solar easier?
Simplifying the interconnection process. Also, I like the certainty of a feed-in tariff model^ more than the market SREC^ model.
What do you think will surprise the cleantech industry in the next 10 years?
I think larger IPPs^ and energy companies will continue to gobble smaller players up, but I think C&I will become more regionalized. Solar will continue to become cheaper and more straight forward. I think in ten years, it will be as simple as “You’re building a new building—call the local installer to put it on the roof. Of course you know what it costs—it’s this, this, and this.”
What clean energy industry developments are most exciting to you?
I love community solar. You get paid for the energy you make and you credit it to those who need it, especially if you are targeting low-income households like New Jersey is doing. There are companies that are working on ensuring credit for offtakers so banks can lend to community solar projects. There are customer aggregators that are figuring out billing the offtaker. I’m a big fan of everything going towards making community solar projects easier.
Footnotes from Watts Up:
^ EPC: EPC stands for Engineering, Procurement, and Construction. An EPC company provides engineering design, obtains equipment, and then builds the solar array.
^ Virtual net metering / remote net metering: an arrangement that allows for the electricity generated from a solar system at one location to be credited towards electricity consumption at a different location.
^ Ground mount: a type of solar system. Options are rooftop, ground-mount, and carports.
^ Behind the Meter: Behind the meter solar systems are designed and built to provide electricity to a specific home or building.
^ Community solar: Community solar projects are offsite solar arrays that allow homeowners and businesses to benefit from solar without needing to install the panels directly on their home or business. Community solar subscribers receive credit on their utility bill for their portion of electricity generated by the solar project.
^ Solar thermal: Solar thermal technologies capture the heat energy from the sun and use it for heating and/or the production of electricity. Solar thermal is different from photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, which directly convert the sun’s radiation to electricity. A common example of solar thermal technology is solar water heaters.
^ ”has a load”: another way to say “has an electricity bill”
^ Operating leases, PPAs, and direct purchase: Different ways to finance a solar system. PPA stands for power purchase agreement.
^ O&M: Operations and maintenance
^ Feed-in tariffs: A feed-in tariff (FIT) program guarantees that the owner of a FIT-eligible solar system receives a pre determined price from their utility for the electricity produced.
^ SREC: Solar Renewable Energy Credit. Renewable energy certificates, or RECs, are tradable commodities that represent the green attributes associated with energy generated from renewable energy. One REC is generated every time one megawatt-hour (MWh) of renewable electricity is produced. Solar renewable energy certificates or “SRECs” are RECs generated from solar power.
SRECs are a tough thing to wrap your head around at first. Here is a good resource to learn more: https://www.srectrade.com/srec_markets/
^ IPPs (Independent power producers): an entity that is not a utility yet owns power generating facilities