Industry interview: Carl Ramsbey, CAM Solar

San Antonio-based CAM Solar is a solar sales and installation company serving customers in San Antonio, Austin, the Rio Grande Valley and parts of Colorado. They’re also a TXSES Platinum business member. Industry conversations are one of the benefits of a TXSES Platinum membership.

We recently sat down with Carl Ramsbey, regional sales manager with CAM Solar, to talk about CAM Solar, COVID, winter storm Uri and live music. Here’s our conversation.

TXSES: How did you find yourself/make your way to CAM Solar? According to your LinkedIn profile, you started your career in audio engineering. Makes perfect sense, especially living in Austin. How did you get from audio engineering to solar?

CR: Good timing and good luck. As an audio engineer, I focused on room acoustics, designing custom home theatres and sound systems for bars and restaurants. By accident or providence, I met a former Solar City employee who was moving to Austin and wanted a sound system for her house. She ended up becoming my mentor, and through a series of connections, I found my way to CAM Solar in 2017 without any solar experience but a strong desire to become part of the solar community. I started in sales to learn and understand the business, making my way from sales and business development to regional sales manager. Gotta say it’s a breath of fresh air to work with a like-minded group of people like those at CAM Solar who are deeply committed to helping people understand the benefits of going solar.

TXSES: All that in just four years. It’s obviously a good fit.

CR: Definitely! But it was Daniel Moyer and Brian Cullen who saw market opportunities for solar about twelve years ago and started the company in San Antonio. Brian was a trader in Chicago and was feeling the stress and chaos of that fast-paced lifestyle. He and his wife moved to Telluride and built an off-grid cabin in the mountains. His continued interest in solar took him to Farmington, New Mexico at San Juan College that had, at the time, the only renewable energy program in the country. That’s where Brian met Daniel, and the rest, as they say, is history.

TXSES: Besides being San Antonio-based, CAM Solar is in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV), Laredo, Austin and has a large presence in Colorado. Why did you target RGV and Laredo?

CR: They were easy choices for us. It’s a very productive market with lots of sun and wide-open spaces; few trees to obstruct rooftop access and it’s a deregulated environment. Our presence in Laredo is interesting compared to other Texas cities we’re in. For example, residential rooftop installations are large, averaging from 12-15kW. In San Antonio, systems tend to average 7kW, and they’re even smaller-sized systems in Colorado, primarily because it’s a less-heavy air conditioning climate in the summer.

TXSES: How much are you engineering systems to offset load?

CR: We like to engineer for 100% offset. While we don’t want to oversize systems, we do want to make sure we’re offsetting as much energy as possible. We help homeowners understand net metering. And we’re having more and more conversations about battery storage.

TXSES: Thanks, Uri. What’s the breakdown of residential v. commercial work that CAM Solar installs?

CR: We’re about 85% residential. We do commercial installations. In fact, our largest commercial project is 2 MW. We’ve always focused on the residential market, but we are installing more commercial projects these days.

TXSES: One of the most frequent issues we hear about is the lack of a highly trained, well-qualified solar workforce. The workforce was just keeping up with demand before events like Uri and a greater urgency to address climate change. With the demand for solar and (now) storage systems, are you finding it difficult to find qualified workers? What’s your greatest need for workers?

CR: That’s always a challenging factor but especially more so now with greater consumer demand for information. We have four master electricians, and every crew lead is a journeyman electrician. All lead installers are NABCEP-certified. We’ve found that Colorado’s e-permitting process is especially painstaking; lots of bureaucratic procedures and while designed to protect the consumer, we find that bureaucracies and utilities don’t work as fast as we do. Our installations only take a couple of days. Our project managers (PM) are a combination of traffic cop and clinician, someone who can keep the bureaucracy moving while keeping the homeowner apprised of the process and progress. Our sales reps are the point of contact with the homeowner. We also have a robust customer support team.

Our biggest needs right now: 1) Colorado installers; 2) site technicians; and 3) project managers. Finding the right PM is extremely difficult. It takes a special kind of person to do this job, someone who can balance the homeowner and utilities, who has excellent communications skills, is uber-organized and has the honed people skills to problem solve and keep customers happy.

Most of our folks in PM roles may come from other management backgrounds. That’s really a plus for them and for us since they already have those inherent management skills. Then it’s industry onboarding. Some folks may come to project management with technical backgrounds which means they may lack the organizational, communication and people skills that are absolutely essential to keep things moving. It’s always a mix. We’ve been working with other groups, like Solar Austin and its clean energy internship program. Coco Wilson, who’s currently a student at Huston-Tillotson, has been working with us in inside sales for the past year. We’ve discovered that hiring someone out of college is a good fit for us. They’re eager, more malleable.

TXSES: Winter Storm Uri. Need we say more?

CR: It definitely impacted us. In fact, it’s still affecting us. People are a LOT more curious about solar than before Uri. Battery backup/storage conversations and consultations are serious sales drivers. Our battery inventory barely touches down in our shop before it’s gone. Solar’s return on investment (ROI) has always been easy to explain to consumers. They see the numbers. Batteries…not so much at this point in time, but I like to refer to battery/backup storage as ROE (return on experience). All you need is one experience like Uri to re-think security and realize that the best thing any of us can do, especially in the business world, is to be as nimble as possible, knowing when and how to adapt when changes arise. Riding the solar coaster is keeping all of us on our toes, knowing when and how to adapt as change appears, in some cases, out of nowhere!

TXSES: Uri is NOT a one-off. If anything, it’s the beginning of what we can expect from climate activity and how these technologies will scale as we rapidly and enthusiastically demand them. And back to the workforce issue…will we have a trained workforce to accommodate us as these technologies advance. As if Uri wasn’t disruptive enough, how was COVID for CAM Solar?

CR: Fortunately, we were building lead funnels and moving toward more remote selling ahead of COVID, but COVID inspired us to ramp up this approach. We had the infrastructure in place. Yes, things did slow down but I’m proud to say that we kept all our staff. And while we didn’t make the gains we’d planned for, neither did we fall behind. People were home 24/7 using lots of electricity. Folks had time to delve deeper into solar. Post-COVID, we’re appearing at more in-person events like farmer’s markets and flea markets. I’m a big music fan, so we’ve been taking our 2kW solar PV/19kWh storage Solar Roller to music venues across the state as they begin to re-open giving us the chance to interact with consumers and even to power some of the stages! The Roller was at the San Antonio flea market recently. That was our office for the day.

TXSES: Solar-powered live music. Let us know when and where we can catch the Roller. Final thoughts: what’s been the biggest surprise in your work with CAM Solar?

CR: I’d have never guessed that working in the solar industry would give you a front-row seat to work with this amazing resource and ever-advancing technologies. Even more rewarding is working with folks who share the solar’s values and battles. I love our common goals and deeply appreciate working with like-minded folks.