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The Common Sense Colloquy: Q&A with Abby Hopper of SEIA

Wednesday, Jul 31 2019

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By
Ben Finzel

This blog was originally published by RENEWPR as part of the Common Sense Colloquy series

This month’s Common Sense Colloquy is with Abby Hopper, the President and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). We talked with Abby about the role of communications in supporting public policy advocacy, lessons learned from the growth of the renewable energy industry and the emerging interest in diversity in the solar industry. And of course, we asked Abby about the best common sense communications advice she’s received and the best common sense communications advice she gives to others.

Abby came to SEIA from the U.S. Department of Interior, where she was the Director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. Earlier in her career, she was Director of the Maryland Energy Administration and Energy Advisor to Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. She also served as Deputy General Counsel of the Maryland Public Service Commission and started her career as an attorney in private practice.

We’ve had the privilege of working with SEIA on Solar Power International in 2015 and 2016 and with Abby for the last several years on the annual release of the Sustainable Energy in America Factbook with RENEWPR client the Business Council for Sustainable Energy. Abby is both a leader and a visionary and we’re thrilled to have this opportunity to learn from her experience and benefit from her expertise.

Our BIG thanks to Abby for sharing her time and insight with us – and you.

Q: You've had a number of leadership positions in your career in both government and the private sector. What have those experiences taught you about the role of communications in supporting regulations, advancing policy and promoting industry?

A: Having a strong communications team is essential. I’ve found that you can’t get anywhere if you don’t have a solid team that’s advocating for your work and telling your story. Some stories are easier to tell than others, and I’m lucky to be leading an industry that has such a great story to tell.

It’s also important to build strong partnerships. You have to know who your partners are and who you can count on when it comes time to mobilize, like we are right now in our fight to extend the solar Investment Tax Credit. I’ve found that allies and surrogates are key to winning any major policy battle, but you must put the time and effort in to sustain those relationships every day and not just when you need them. It’s a give and take relationship, so you have to show up for your partners as well.

Equally important is internal communication. When I was at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM, I managed hundreds of people and focused, among many other things, on accelerating the growth of the offshore wind program here in the United States. I made it a point to be as transparent as possible about what the agency was doing and why. Our staff were concerned about the day-to-day details, but I felt that as the leader it was my job to take a step back and help them see the bigger picture. It’s important for staff to know how their work contributes to the broader goal and I feel like it’s my job to help make this connection.

I’ve found that when staff at every level understand what’s happening, you get better outcomes. When people know the ‘why,’ they feel much more connected to the work and motivated. I’ve brought this same mentality to SEIA.

Q: The renewable energy industry is now viewed by many outside the industry as an example of a communications success story. Is that accurate? What principles do you and your team follow in communicating about solar? What lessons have you learned? 

A: Solar is responsible for adding $17 billion to our economy annually and creating nearly a quarter million jobs that can’t be outsourced. If that’s not an American success story, I don’t know what is. And we have done a good job at conveying that broadly. There is a reason solar is the most popular energy source in poll after poll.

When talking about the value of solar, we need to be clear, concise and relatable, and intentional about meeting people where they’re at. We often forget that many Americans are still being introduced to solar or re-introduced as costs have come down. We tend to make solar more complicated than it needs to be and quickly get into the weeds. There’s a time and place to be wonky but most of the time we should be talking about jobs, the economy, and cost savings, because it’s personal and speaks to the value of solar.

Q: SEIA has launched a diversity and inclusion initiative within the solar industry. Why is diversity and inclusion important to the industry and what will the initiative do to address it? 

A: When I started at SEIA, I identified diversity and inclusion as one of my top priorities. For too long, this industry and the energy sector broadly has not been reflective of the diversity of our nation. Women and people of color are underrepresented, especially at the leadership level.

Acting on this inequity should be an urgent priority for all companies and organizations in the energy space. It’s simple math: companies that have more diverse senior leadership teams perform better and are more profitable than their peers. We want our companies in the industry to be successful and this is one way they can gain a competitive advantage.

Our recent Diversity Study found that the solar industry has a long way to go but we have chosen to acknowledge that truth and are taking steps to address this. Alongside this study, we hosted a roundtable and released a best practices guide to give companies a starting point for working on these issues. We also launched a Diversity Challenge to get other energy industry companies involved as equity and inclusivity aren’t issues unique to the solar industry. We’re trying to get energy companies to set concrete action plans to address this issue.

It is not enough to pay lip service to our lack of diversity. We have to actually take action. SEIA will have next steps to the challenge in the coming months.

Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you’ve received?

A: To be honest and clear—don’t overcomplicate the message. A message is always strongest when it is direct and concise, and that applies in any form of communicating. As an advocate, I always go into any meeting, interview or discussion with a clear ask or goal. Framing everything around that goal always yields stronger results.

Another great piece of advice I have received is to be accessible. That’s why I give my cell phone out to my staff, partners and colleagues, really anyone. Having that openness and availability breaks down unnecessary barriers of communication and helps with the transparency piece I mentioned earlier.

Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you've given to others?

A: I believe that if you articulate a bold vision, others will follow. The Solar+ Decade is a good example of that. As an industry, we’re at a critical point where so many Americans are turning to solar and want solar, yet we only represent a small fraction of U.S. generation. To become a much bigger piece of the pie, I thought we needed a bold goal that the whole industry could rally behind—for solar to account for 20% of U.S. electricity generation by 2030.

So now that we have this vision, we’re looking at what we need to do in order to get there. What are the policy mechanisms we need in place? What about the grid and other possible constraints? How will we spread the message of this goal and stake claim to it? My team is now developing a roadmap that will lay all of this out and what we need to do as the solar industry’s national trade association to make it happen.

Communication is about leadership and the confidence to own whatever you are talking about, while keeping the transparency needed to grow trust and productivity.