Community Solar 101: Unlocking Renewable Energy for Everyone with Jason Kaplan of PowerMarket


In this episode of Green Giants: Titans of Renewable Energy, host Wes Ashworth welcomes Jason Kaplan, the Chief Operating Officer and General Counsel at PowerMarket. Jason shares his incredible journey from studying geology and environmental law to becoming a pivotal leader in the renewable energy sector. Under his guidance, PowerMarket has transformed into a leading force in community solar, supporting nearly 400 projects across 11 states and servicing over 85,000 subscribers. Discover how PowerMarket combines cutting-edge software with deep energy policy expertise to deliver affordable, clean power to communities, especially low and moderate-income households. Join us as we delve into the transformative potential of community solar and learn how you can make a tangible difference in the fight against climate change.

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Transcript

Welcome to Green Giants: Titans of Renewable Energy, the podcast where insights and innovation meet. Every episode, we dive into conversations with industry leaders, experts and change makers, bringing you the stories and ideas in the renewable energy sector that shape our world. And now let’s jump into today’s episode with your host, Wes Ashworth.

Wes Ashworth (00:25):

Welcome to our latest episode of Green Giants: Titans of Renewable Energy. Today we’re excited to welcome Jason Kaplan, the Chief Operating Officer and General Counsel at PowerMarket. With a robust commitment to advancing clean energy solutions, Jason steers PowerMarket’s strategic operations and legal directives, significantly enhancing their community and solar initiatives. Since his arrival five years ago, Jason has transformed PowerMarket from a modest team of six into a thriving force of 26 diverse professionals.

Under his leadership, the company now supports nearly 400 community solar projects across 11 states, representing over 800 megawatts of capacity and servicing over 85,000 subscribers. PowerMarket is a leader in the community solar industry, offering comprehensive acquisition, management, and billing and support services to solar project developers, financiers, and the incumbent energy industry generally. As an employee-owned, mission-driven company, PowerMarket combines the industry’s best software platform with deep energy policy expertise to deliver cleaner, local, and more affordable power to communities, with a special focus on delivering those benefits to lower and moderate-income households. Join us as we dive into Jason’s journey in renewable energy, his strategies for growing a sustainable business, and his vision for the future of community solar. Jason, it’s an honor to have you. Welcome to the show.

Jason Kaplan (01:21):

Thank you, Wes. It’s an absolute pleasure to be here. It’s the first time I’ve been considered a Titan before, so, you know, I’ll take it. I made it.

Wes Ashworth (01:24):

Absolutely. Yeah. So starting out, a little origin story is usually a great starting place. Tell us a little bit about your background, how you transitioned from environmental law to the cleantech startup world, and eventually became the COO of PowerMarket.

Jason Kaplan (01:46):

Yeah, so I think my genesis kind of started in college from a just environmentally focused initiative. I was a geology major at Colgate, and it was a little bit unusual because Colgate is a liberal arts school, and I got exposed to all these different disciplines and fell in love with geology. That’s where I started appreciating our world, Earth’s processes, and how fragile it is. I come from a long line of lawyers. My grandfather was a trust and estates lawyer, my dad was a trust and estates lawyer, but I knew trust and estates law was not for me. I worked with my father for a bit, but it wasn’t where my passions aligned.

My senior year of college, I decided I wanted to do environmental law. I wanted to take my geology knowledge and background and apply it to something I was passionate about. That brought me to Vermont Law School, which had the number one environmental law program. I got my law degree and a master’s in policy there. That experience opened my eyes to how I can affect change in the environmental landscape. I loved the policy aspects because you could see how individuals can promote programs and initiatives that enable a better world for us all. That was the basis of my academic path to becoming an environmental lawyer.

Afterwards, I had the privilege of working in a variety of different environments. I worked at General Electric in their environmental health and safety department, giving me great exposure to how the business world treats environmental issues. I then moved to a law firm doing Superfund site litigation, which wasn’t the type of law I had envisioned. I wanted to do something more related to climate change, not just helping people fight over who should clean up contaminated sites. While my geology background helped in understanding these issues, it wasn’t where my passions lay.

From there, I saw there was more out there. Sitting in a law firm, reading documents every day, wasn’t thrilling for me. I had a business, entrepreneurial spirit, and could see the potential in the clean energy industry. This was around ten years ago, and renewable energy was really coming into its own. Based on Long Island, I saw the opportunities in solar energy. I gave a presentation on solar energy on agricultural properties on the East End of Long Island and started exploring the clean energy industry.

A significant moment was attending a green career event hosted by the NYC ACRE, a cleantech incubator. I met a lawyer who was the general counsel for a small wind energy company. I connected with him after the panel, had some coffee, and he offered me a chance to review wind leases while he was on vacation. Sometimes it’s just right place, right time. That opportunity got my foot in the door, and I knew I wanted to be part of the cleantech startup universe. The CEO of United Wind, Russell Tenzer, became a mentor and helped me navigate the clean tech space, leading me to where I am today at PowerMarket.

Wes Ashworth (07:03):

That’s incredible. It’s amazing how aligning passion and skill can lead to the right place at the right time. Transitioning to a key topic of this interview, which is community solar, can you explain what community solar is and how it differs from other renewable energy solutions?

Jason Kaplan (07:38):

Sure. Community solar is a state-enabled program designed to enable those who couldn’t otherwise install solar on their roofs to participate in solar energy. Historically, if you didn’t own your roof or have the financial means, you couldn’t install solar. Community solar allows renters, residents of multifamily housing, small businesses, churches, universities, and hospital systems to access solar energy without installing it on their property. It democratizes access to clean energy, making it possible for many more people to participate in the clean energy transition.

Wes Ashworth (08:40):

Right. Including low-income households in community solar programs is important. Can you elaborate on the challenges and benefits of this inclusion?

Jason Kaplan (09:37):

Yes, the history shows a desire for inclusion of low-income households, but there were barriers. Early community solar programs had FICO requirements and cancellation fees, creating barriers to entry for low-income individuals. Policies in states like New York, Maryland, and New Jersey have evolved with net crediting or utility consolidated billing, which applies the savings directly to the customer’s bill, eliminating the need for credit scores or payment details. This policy change has opened doors and encouraged the inclusion of low-income households in community solar.

Wes Ashworth (12:00):

It seems like a win-win solution. Speaking of practical examples, PowerMarket recently announced a partnership with Redwood Family Care Network. Can you elaborate on how PowerMarket tailors its community solar offerings to meet the specific needs of organizations like RFCN?

Jason Kaplan (13:05):

When people think about community solar, they often think of residential households, but it also includes nonprofits and affordable housing organizations. Redwood, an intellectually and developmentally disabled housing provider, participates across 35 residential properties. They have ESG goals and benefit financially from guaranteed savings. They reinvest these savings back into their properties and services, creating a positive impact through clean energy.

Wes Ashworth (14:23):

Absolutely, a win-win-win situation. Transitioning to the challenges, why do you think community solar isn’t more widely known and accepted?

Jason Kaplan (14:50):

Skepticism is a major challenge. People often think it sounds too good to be true, especially with past bad actors in the retail clean energy marketplace. There’s also confusion with rooftop solar. Education and awareness are crucial to overcoming these barriers. We need to communicate effectively to show people the benefits of community solar.

Wes Ashworth (17:36):

For those interested in community solar, what steps can they take to get involved?

Jason Kaplan (18:20):

They can visit PowerMarket.io to see if there are community solar projects in their state. Community solar is state-enabled, so it only exists where state legislature and public utility commissions have created the rules. PowerMarket operates in 11 states, primarily on the East Coast. If you live in a state with community solar, you can sign up and start benefiting from clean energy.

Wes Ashworth (19:50):

Great practical steps. Can you explain the impact of the Treasury IRS guidance on low-income households and community solar?

Jason Kaplan (22:35):

The Inflation Reduction Act enabled the Low Income Communities Bonus Tax Credit, providing an enhanced investment tax credit to community solar projects that ensure benefits go to low-income households. This aims to boost the ITC benefit by 20% if 51% of the project value goes to low-income households. However, the challenge is implementing this in states without net crediting. We need to find ways to deliver these benefits effectively without creating barriers.

Wes Ashworth (26:01):

What are the successful use cases in states with net crediting, and how can they influence other states?

Jason Kaplan (27:13):

States like New York, New Jersey, and Maryland have implemented net crediting successfully. These states can serve as models for others. We need to learn from these examples and encourage other states to adopt similar policies to include low-income households in community solar.

Wes Ashworth (28:49):

If listeners could take away one key message about community solar, what would it be?

Jason Kaplan (29:06):

Community solar allows individuals to make a difference for themselves and the world. It’s a gateway to clean energy participation without any risk or burden. It can inspire people to make more informed decisions about their energy use in the future.

Wes Ashworth (30:07):

Looking ahead, what are your hopes and goals for the future of community solar and PowerMarket?

Jason Kaplan (30:37):

PowerMarket aims to expand beyond community solar to include other energy services and programs. We see community solar as a gateway to other clean energy solutions. We want to grow alongside utilities and help customers engage with their energy use more consciously. Building strong relationships with utilities and being creative in implementing policies are key to our growth.

Wes Ashworth (32:29):

Anything else you’d like to share about PowerMarket or community solar?

Jason Kaplan (32:57):

I’ve had the privilege of being part of the growth of community solar and working with a tremendous team. Building strong relationships with utilities and understanding policy nuances are crucial. PowerMarket is always innovating and creating solutions for our clients. We’re excited about the future and continuing to make a positive impact.

Wes Ashworth (34:38):

I love hearing your passion and the positive impact you’re making. For listeners interested in community solar, how can they get involved?

Jason Kaplan (35:15):

Visit PowerMarket.io to see our active projects and sign up. You can also email me directly at jason.kaplan@powermarket.io, and I’ll connect you with our team to find the right project for you.

Wes Ashworth (35:53):

Thank you, Jason, for joining us and for all you’re doing for renewable energy. And thank you to our audience for listening. If you enjoyed the conversation, share it with your network, subscribe to the podcast, and stay tuned for new episodes. We’ll catch you next time.