It’s easy to assume a progressive state like Washington, with a governor who’s more than outspoken about climate change, would inherently have solar-friendly policies in place. But the solar industry had to pull a seat up to the table to ensure a fair and competitive solar policy landscape.
Seattle contractor A&R Solar (No. 139 on the 2019 Top Solar Contractors list) recognized Washington solar installers needed a voice in state policy, so the company decided to step in and fill the void. Employee Bonnie Frye Hemphill had been working in technical sales for the company designing solar-plus-storage systems, but she had a strong background in policy work. She’d worked for a number of clean energy nonprofits and even held an internship in the Obama administration’s Council on Environmental Quality in 2012. Hemphill began transitioning into a policy-related position at A&R.
“I had really enjoyed learning technical sales — the minutia of properly sizing a battery storage system was cool, but always did feel like, ‘Oh boy.’ It was a steep learning curve for me,” Hemphill said. “So, when it was back to just changing the law, that actually seemed a little bit easier to me.”
CEO Reeves Clippard said Washington’s solar policies have not been the strongest. Until last year, net metering was very limited. He looked to neighbor state Oregon and saw a cohesive industry voice making changes in favor of solar and knew Washington needed to catch up.
“In Washington, we only had one, maybe two manufacturers that were really speaking up, but hundreds of contractors and thousands of jobs where no one had a voice at all,” Clippard said.
Hemphill started off spending about half her time on policy issues, but soon stepped into a full-time role as A&R’s policy director.
Since then, A&R has been directly involved in getting a number of progressive solar policies passed, most notably the Solar Jobs Bill and Solar Fairness Act. The former was a 2017 law that reinstated solar production incentives and expanded community solar options, and the latter was an update to the state’s net-metering incentives that passed this year. Hemphill is also proud of A&R’s efforts in helping to get a sales tax exemption for solar this year that will last for the next 10. But she and Clippard are quick to point out they aren’t doing all this work alone.
“While we are the only company that has a full-time policy position, a lot of our friends here in the state who are also our competitors have worked tirelessly as well to help shape the policy and get involved, provide the testimony and really get across the line and have some deeper expertise than we do in a lot of areas,” Clippard said.
Hemphill agreed, and said part of her role that she enjoys is keeping all the lobbying participants on track and guiding them toward achievable policy goals. She works closely with the nonprofit group Solar Installers of Washington, which aims to be a unified voice for the common business interests of its members.
“I really enjoy the sort of ‘team of rivals’ aspect,” Hemphill said. “Keeping our efforts focused on what we can in fact solve and the strategy that we devise to do that, that’s actually a huge part of my job on behalf of A&R; but with our team too.”
In addition to helping A&R set policies that benefit the company and the solar industry in general, employing a policy director has also helped position A&R as a thought leader. Its status was possibly most evident when the company got a phone call from Governor Jay Inslee’s office in February. Inslee’s staff told A&R that he was considering running for president and wondered if he could make the big announcement at A&R’s warehouse.
“That was unexpected, but certainly wouldn’t have happened if A&R hadn’t been putting ourselves out there as somebody that anybody talking about green jobs should obviously be waving our flag,” Hemphill said.
A&R’s policy leadership also helps on a smaller scale in sales conversations with customers. If people are concerned about the different policies underpinning solar that could affect their future incentives, sales reps can tell them they have a policy director who is working full time to make sure the legislature keeps solar-friendly policies in place.
“It’s hard to measure how much those people would have indeed signed up to go solar, but I do think that it gives customers some reassurance that we can’t promise anything, but we are trying,” Hemphill said.
This story was featured exclusively in our 2019 Top Solar Contractors issue. See the issue and full list of top U.S. solar installers here.