Lisa Oelke - Solar Women Summer Series (Canada): Policy, Philanthropy and Play

Lisa Oelke is the Marketing Manager (North America) for Advanced Racking Solutions, a division of hb Solar Canada, in Ontario. She is also the Solar Development/Renewable Energy Consultant Off-Grid Specialist for the Solar Majengo Tanzania project and an Advisory Board member for Women in Renewable Energy (WiRE). Recently, she gave us a Canadian perspective on renewable energy policy, her philanthropic endeavors and the importance of play.

Takeaways:

  • The nonprofit sector of solar is growing exponentially, with poor regions of the world in need of renewable power sources. This will lead to a greater need for B2B marketing and limitless opportunity for women in solar sales.
  • A future with cleaner air, more widespread adoption of solar technology and policy reform is not as far off as it may seem.
  • The key to landing the “perfect job” is to create it yourself!

What do you do in the solar industry? How did you get started?

I am the Manager of Business Development and Marketing for hb solar Canada and Manager of Marketing N.A. for Advanced Racking Solutions Inc. In addition, I am the Project Leader for the Solar Majengo in Lights & Electricity 6kW off-grid project in Tanzania. I started my career in Solar in 2010 after working in Conservation and Demand Management with a major Ontario Canada Utility. I worked with EDF Renewable Energies as a Rooftop Solar Developer for a year after taking a 5 day Solar PV course to learn about the technology and understand the language. I have been with hb solar/Advanced Racking Solutions for 4 years.

You’ve worked with and volunteered for a lot of different companies- what has been your favorite project thus far?

My favorite project so far was working with young teenage girls at a Home for trouble youth in Jamaica West Indies. That was in 2005. My present Solar Majengo project is not yet complete and therefore doesn’t quite qualify as completed. The process has been long with numerous delays… however, we are pretty sure that once the lights are turned on at Majengo we will be basking in the glory of our 18 month long accomplishment.

What is Advanced Racking Solutions Inc. doing to get more women into the industry?

Advanced Racking Solutions continues to strengthen the efforts of women in the solar community by supporting all events and activities that are dedicated to a not for profit group called Women in Renewable Energy (WiRE). They have also approved of enrollment at the SPI (Solar Power International) Women’s Meet ups, Breakfasts, and networking events since 2011.

Any specific people or companies who have helped you grow in this industry? Professionally? Personally?

There is a strongly unified group of women volunteers who dedicate numerous hours on a monthly basis to support and grow the WiRE network. We encourage growth and development of women in the sector and honour our female colleagues with annual Women of Distinction awards for the Wind and Solar industries in addition to offering student bursaries to up and coming females in the Renewable Energy sector.

Tell us about the Solar Majengo Tanzania Project. How did you get involved? How can our readers get involved and help out? What over nonprofit work are you currently involved in?

I was very fortunate to meet Lynn Connell, co-founder of the Majengo Orphanage. I was inspired by her work and passion to improve the lives of vulnerable orphans in Tanzania. A group of us were invited to join her in the fall of 2013 and we traveled to Tanzania where we volunteered at Majengo. We were touched by the children and have since become sponsors, assisting 7 children with access to better education at a vocational English speaking school. In Tanzania, primary school is taught in Swahili and secondary school is taught in English. Without English proficiency the children are limited with how they can give back to their communities. The Majengo Children’s home has well adjusted, bright children… many of whom want to be teachers, engineers and tourist operators. The children at Majengo live in newly constructed buildings on government donated land. The buildings were wired for electricity, however there is no grid access. With my knowledge of the solar industry, I reached out to a group of peers in January of 2014 to see if there was interest in raising the funds and designing an off-grid solar system to power the orphanage. We assembled a team of 4 solar professionals and had many others volunteer their expertise. We raised $45,000 USD and sourced a local supplier in Tanzania to provide all solar system components and to do the rooftop solar install with the team of volunteers traveling to Tanzania to oversee and audit the install. We felt strongly about driving economic development locally and building a system with low maintenance that will last a minimum of 5 years. To make a donation to support the Majengo Orphanage, follow this link. All donations are tax deductible. Specify SOLAR so we can track those funds and ensure the funds are directed there.

What are you most excited about right now?

I am most excited about the introduction of storage as a viable solution complimenting rooftop solar. I see a future where energy neutral homes will put less stress on depleting fossil fuels and the air quality will be improved with EV infrastructure supporting greater adoption of clean vehicles. This vision is not far down the road, and with 5 years of experience in this relatively young sector, I am proud to be part of this early adoption and take every opportunity to educate others on future technologies. I am also excited to hear about utility scale solar development in countries like Africa and South America. I would like to drive further community solar initiatives like the Majengo off-grid project adjacent to utility scale projects that could benefit children in poor communities. I am engaging a number of large solar developers who are keen to learn more about how to make that happen.

What are your three favorite resources, tips, books, etc. for someone interested in joining the solar industry?

For sure I would recommend that anyone entering the sector take a course on PV and or complete a degree. Join one of many Renewable Energy groups available in most major cities. Subscribe to newsletters and stay current with the ever changing landscape of the solar industry.

What do you do as an Advisory Board Member with WiRE (Women in Renewable Energy)? How can women get involved with this organization and what are the major benefits?

My role on the Advisory board as well as those of the other 9 members of the board is varied. We attend all industry trade events and schedule WiRE members to manage the booth. As a group we determine educational field trips and an itinerary that appeals to women in the sector. I have lead two such excursions and participate in monthly calls. We also have monthly meet-ups with guest speakers and all Advisory Members lead a number of those events. I populate the LinkedIn page ensuring content is relevant and assist in the Marketing and Trade Show sub-committee. We all contribute to content for the monthly newsletter and mentor young women entering the industry.

In your experience, how are governmental/legislative matters regarding solar and renewable energy different in Canada than in the U.S.? How is policy similar? What are the major challenges you face in this matter? 

The government issues relating to solar: incentives, political support, etc. are very similar in both Canada and the U.S. We have a Prime Minister who supports the oil and gas industry and a Premiere of Ontario who supports the Renewable Energy sector to an extent. In our province we lack a clear long term energy plan for renewable development and integration into the energy mix. We are proudly Coal free in Ontario well ahead of schedule. In 2009 the Green Energy and Economy Act was put in effect with the aim to close all existing coal fired plants and replace them with clean renewable energy. Ontario’s current supply mix is 37% nuclear, 29% Gas + Oil, 24% Hydro, 8% wind and 1% bio and less than 1% solar. In 2003 dirty coal made up 25% of Ontario’s supply mix. Ontario is expected to reach 2,650 MW of solar PV by the end of this year and like the U.S. we anticipate grid parity by 2020.

What are some tips you might share for women trying to get involved with B2B (Business To Business) solar sales/account management in this field?

Find a way to make your mark. Don’t wait for others to hand you the perfect job, invent it. Ask lots of questions. Early in my days with WiRE I commented to the co-founder Rebecca Black that I was impressed at how boldly she asked questions during an educational field trip to a power electronics RE company. Lots of them. She didn’t have any fear around asking what she was unsure about. I won’t forget that she said: “if we don’t ask how will we learn?” Simple yet so very true, especially in a technical, ever changing field such as renewables. I am curious by nature, and this experience gave me the license to vocalize my own need for clarification. My second piece of advice is to stick with it. Surround yourself with people you admire and trust. If you don’t get the support you need from colleagues, ask them why, tell them what you need and back your discussion up with facts.

Do you have any free tools to share with the HeatSpring audience? How can readers become involved in WiRE/Solar Majengo/Advanced Racking Solutions?

We would love to have a U.S. audience sharing insight into the solar industry. We encourage you to sign up to receive the WiRE newsletter. If you are visiting Canada, try to join us at an industry event or a monthly meet-up.

We are always looking for volunteers to assist with the WiRE sub-committees and those who would like to connect with Majengo in either the U.S. or Canada.

As a marketer, what digital tools do you utilize?

Most marketers are pretty well versed in social media: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and MailChimp. I spend a fair bit of time on each of these and balance my time with business development and growing our rooftop solar portfolio of 45 MW of projects delivered to date.

What three qualities should someone trying to break into the solar industry have?

 3 great qualities… be collaborative, determined and tenacious. Work with others to build your reputation, help, and don’t be afraid to ask for guidance.

What are the benefits of having a diverse board room/staff for a solar company?

Diversity in all its forms is beneficial. Not only with women but with ethnic diversity and gender equality for straight, gay, bi and transgender people. In Canada we feel blessed to live in a very accepting country. As women we continue to strive for the same representation at the executive level. If we make choices to spend time with our children when they are younger, we still have many years to make a very worthwhile career. As a parent, I balanced career with parenting and felt like neither were 100% successful. We need to give ourselves more credit for being the exceptional multi-taskers that we are. My sons are in University now and I am proud of the men they are. They, too, are proud of their Mom. We celebrate one another.

Anything else you’d like to share?

I’d like to share a weekend I spent with my young nieces and nephews. I thought I would be exhausted hosting a 7, 10 & 12 year old for four nights. The opposite was true. I was completely de-stressed. We played. Their enthusiasm for life, their ability to laugh and to be creative was such a welcome change to a busy work and family life. Play more. Find the time to get on your bike, take in a playground, spend a day at the beach. Turn off the noise of our worlds a bit each day and tune in to what really matters.