Last week, I had the opportunity to interview my colleague, Rocky Shoemaker. Rocky has worked with New Energy Equity for the past six years and is currently a Senior Project Manager at the company. With a background in electrical and computer engineering, I thought Rocky would be especially well poised to shed light on what it takes for an engineer to be successful in the solar industry and what engineers stand to gain professionally and personally through a career in renewable energy.
After earning his Bachelors of Science in Engineering, Rocky worked as a skilled tradesman for a commercial and industrial electrical contracting company. Working in electrical contracting and gaining invaluable field experience proved to be great way to build an understanding of electrical systems and learn about their connection to each other and the grid — important fundamentals for a career in solar. Rocky had always been intrigued by solar; as he puts it: “I am a sucker for free stuff. I thought the idea of a giant ball of gas in the sky beaming free energy onto the earth was pretty cool. We have the tools to harness that, so why not do it?”. After just a few years into his professional career, Rocky saw an opportunity to partner with a large organization and form a subsidiary company that would focus solely on solar energy projects.
Fast forward a few years and Rocky is happily employed at New Energy Equity. As a senior project manager at a commercial and industrial solar developer, Rocky oversees the successful deployment of solar projects throughout the country and organizes those projects into investment grade assets. His day-to-day entails quality assurance and control, document organization related to projects, ensuring contract terms are adhered to, maintaining schedules and budgets, amongst various other tasks. These are all responsibilities I could easily see an engineer excel at as they require attention to detail, organization, and of course, a deep understanding of the technical aspects of solar projects. However, a lot of Rocky’s job goes beyond what you might expect from a typical engineer, or even a project manager. Rocky emphasized how his job requires him to work with a wide variety of people throughout the lifetime of the project and that he is more of a liaison than anything else. Project managers meet with landowners, contractors, permitting authorities, and system owners, just to name a few. Each of these stakeholders have different interests in a project that need to be addressed, and Rocky’s job is to align those various interests. Communication and emotional intelligence are therefore key skills to possess to successfully manage the development of solar projects.
Engineers don’t necessarily have the reputation of being superior communicators, as communication isn’t always required of engineers. At commercial or industrial engineering firms for example, communication might not be an essential skill. In the solar field, the ability to connect with a rural farmer or efficiently communicate to a school board how a school sited solar project can be used as an educational tool for students is crucial. Throughout my conversation with Rocky, it became clear to me that Rocky fills a niche role. He can successfully develop and manage projects because he has a background in electrical engineering, has a mind geared towards numbers and data, is highly organized, yet also has a high level of emotional intelligence and great communication skills. How many engineers do you know tick all those boxes? For the engineers who are able to develop all those necessary skills to excel in the solar industry, the field offers a fulfilling career.
Project management at a solar company is dynamic: project managers are constantly switching gears and see plenty of variety in their day-to-day duties. The nature of the position requires interfacing with a wide variety of people, allowing for rich conversations and countless learning opportunities. Another exciting part of project management within the solar industry stems from the evolution of technology. Though project management itself hasn’t changed drastically, solar project managers have more and more opportunities to work with a variety of technologies. For example, while storage is more mainstream now, a few years ago it was a novel technology that required adaptive thinking for integration with solar projects. Now, the industry is seeing technological innovations in broader technologies, like Combined Heating and Power (CHP). Rocky is working on his first CHP project now; he is embracing the unique siting challenges associated with the project as well as the opportunity to learn about the technology, which entails researching new equipment and safety standards. The solar industry will certainly continue integrating varied technologies into its projects, which implies that project managers will always have something new to learn.
Looking back on his career, Rocky expressed gratitude that he had the foresight to enter the solar industry when he did. Since entering the industry 12 years ago, solar has grown tremendously, providing ample opportunity for professional growth and giving Rocky a truly rewarding career. Beyond the intellectual stimulation associated with the job due to the necessity to interact with a diversity of stakeholders, the varied nature of the work, and the evolving technologies, Rocky emphasized gaining a sense of meaning from his job. Since the environmental benefits of solar are significant and its role in combating climate change crucial, one can be sure that dedicating their career to solar will be fulfilling as well as intellectually engaging.
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