You may have seen Julia Hamm, president and CEO of the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA), speak at industry shows, but here’s a chance to get to know her and her organization a little better.
In our Ask a Vet podcast, we spoke with Hamm about why she’s spent practically her whole career at SEPA, her most memorable conversations with utilities and what she remembers about the first Solar Power International (SPI).
Read excerpts from our conversation below and listen to the whole podcast.
You’ve led SEPA for 13 years. What’s made you stay so long?
I was a business management and marketing major in college, and I had no idea what I wanted to do. I moved to D.C. after college and about a year out I took a job at SEPA after finding it in a newspaper ad. I really fell into the energy industry, but once I got in I caught the bug and can’t imagine working in another space now.
When I joined SEPA—then known as the Utility Photovoltaic Group (UPVG)—the solar industry was nascent, mostly R&D based. SEPA was founded on a public-private partnership with the DOE to pay for solar hardware to get projects in the ground. SEPA funded the first 1,100 grid-connected PV systems in the country. We shared what we learned from these demonstration projects with the industry. Today solar has become a significant player in the energy industry.
I really love my job actually. I think the most exciting aspect is that things are in a constant state of change. People ask if I’m bored and want to do something else—that’s not at all how I see it. The role SEPA plays is a very unique one, being at the center of the transition that’s happening with the electric power industry. Things are constantly evolving. That keeps it exciting and fresh every day.
What are some of the most memorable conversations you’ve had with utilities?
SEPA runs Fact-Finding missions every year, in which we take executives from utility and technology companies to a market where we think there’s a lot to learn (Germany, Spain, Japan, Italy, Hawaii, Australia, etc.). We get people from all types, sizes and geographies of utilities to participate. Some of the most interesting conversations happen on those field trips. Regardless of the perspective that those people come into the week with, by the end of the week everyone’s perspective changes in some way. It’s fascinating to actually watch the learning process happen and for people to digest a very intense week of learning. By the end of the week everyone has some takeaway they’re bringing back to their home utility that they didn’t expect.
For example, we went to Germany on our first mission in 2008. A manager for a utility in Gainesville, Florida, said he was “getting harassed” by the Germans telling them Florida should have a feed-in-tariff (FIT). He had come to arm himself with facts to tell them why they’re wrong. By the end of the week he said, “Oh my gosh, they’re right,” and returned to Gainesville to create the U.S. industry’s first fully recognized FIT. That happened because of SEPA. We didn’t tell him FITs were good or bad, we just exposed him to it so he could form his own opinion.
SEPA founded SPI with SEIA 12 years ago. What was the first SPI like?
There had been plenty of solar conferences before SPI, but it was unique in that it was the first true tradeshow for the industry. What made it so successful was our collaborative approach of pulling together 50 or so leaders from the very early U.S. solar market to help design, structure, recruit and market the event. From the beginning, the industry talked about it as their event, taking personal ownership over it, which is exactly what was needed. We had about 1,100 attendees and 65 exhibitors—nothing like today’s SPI.
Talking about memorable, it was in the middle of a hotel strike in San Francisco. The whole thing was supposed to be at a hotel, but none of the city or California state employees were allowed to cross the picket line. We had to move significant portions of the event to other places so the key government leaders could participate. But it still turned out to be great and the beginning of the momentum that made SPI the event it is today.
Check back monthly for a new episode of Ask a Solar Vet, in which editor Kathie Zipp brings you the unique perspectives and insights of those who have spent more than a decade in solar.