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Miles Braxton, Associate, Renewable Power Group, Goldman Sachs

Miles Braxton

"Given the electricity cost disparities we face as a Black community, I believe it's really important for people of color to be interested or have some understanding of how clean energy works and how low-to-moderate-income communities can be positively affected by clean energy."

Miles is a co-founder of BlackOak Collective, a community of Black professionals and advocates across environmental fields in the DC area. He also coordinates risk management (insurance and environmental health and safety) for Goldman Sachs Renewable Power Group’s solar energy assets.

How did starting Black Oak intersect with your time in FDCE?

I worked at a solar developer based out of DC called Sol Systems. It was Grace Kankindi, Masters of Environmental Management graduate from Yale, who recommended the FDCE program to me and my coworker Jill Rathke. Grace was one of the only Black people at Sol Systems when I started, so of course, we had an instant connection there.I wasn’t sure if I’d get into the program, but I thought it would be amazing to be part of the first FDCE cohort, so I decided to give it a shot and see what happened. I was fortunate enough to be admitted and learned a ton in the program, more than I thought I would, honestly—there were just many facets of clean energy that I had no idea about having been strictly on the project development side.

Then in March or April of 2020, I really got started with BlackOak, which started with one of my friends, Kiera, from UVA. People would just send her environmentally-oriented jobs and she would send them around to all the Black people she knew in environmental industries. She saw that her method of basically running her own listserv wasn’t very sustainable, so she told me and another colleague from UVA, Wes, about this idea to essentially make a job board for environmental careers and positions for the Black community. The first thing that popped into my mind is that this could be much bigger than just a landing page with a job board; this could be a community of underrepresented minorities in what is already the underrepresented field of environmental sustainability. That’s a niche network that I thought could be tapped and cultivated.

As I was in the FDCE program, I began bouncing the idea off of some of my fellow cohort members who I’d become closer with, since you always want to validate these ideas when you’re starting an organization. Having my peers in the FDCE cohort was so useful because they were helping me fine-tune this idea; I was asking them, “what’s your interest in this as someone who works for XYZ company,” “would you run the idea past your HR person and see what they have to say about it,” etc. 

How was the program helpful in developing your knowledge of clean energy?

As a business development analyst at Sol Systems, I was tasked with designing preliminary solar arrays for a potential client, using those outputs to synthesize a financial model, and using the outputs of the model to present information back to the companies interested (or not interested) in going solar. The problem here was that I didn’t have any formal training on project finance and didn’t even take one economics course in college. I didn’t know the many facets about types of different financing, what investors are looking for in clean energy portfolios, what types of risks are associated with different projects, and all the types of professionals needed to finance, build, and operate these million-dollar projects. It was really helpful to understand the different ways you can finance clean energy projects. At Sol Systems, the Sol Customer Solutions team had one major financing mechanism, and now I work for an investor that uses different financing models based on project characteristics.

What is an example of a discussion you had with an FDCE peer that gave you useful insights as you were getting Black Oak started?

I had my most meaningful conversation with my FDCE peer, Peter Gerson. He immediately saw BlackOak as a potential solution to his company which was seeing lack of diversity in its candidate pools. We talked about the issue of not having a diverse enough set of faces in clean energy and larger environmental causes from conservation to corporate sustainability. From there, he kindly connected me and BlackOak to his HR team. 

How did you choose the FDCE program?

I knew from my undergrad experience very early on that I wanted to have a career in clean energy. I worked in labs with the “Father of Photonics,” - Dr. Mool Gupta at UVA, interned at the Department of Energy, and other local government entities working in the solar industry, but I hadn’t had coursework centered around clean energy. All of my knowledge on how actual projects worked (outside the lab) came from Google, YouTube, and leaning on the expertise of my peers early on at Sol Systems.

As a professional with a clear gap in finance and project deployment education, FDCE was the most realistic next step for me; I majored in environmental science and wasn't required to take any finance or economics courses. So my understanding of economics terminology and its mathematical relationship to outputs was very low, despite making up 50% of my job at Sol Systems. Like what’s an EBITDA and why is it so important? It seemed like I was constantly playing around with different variables in our financial models to get deals to work. I knew that just to have a basic understanding of finance, from the perspective of clean energy and in general, is something I would want in order to excel at Sol and grow in my career. One of my career goals was to work on the investment side with a company that acquires projects as opposed to being on the front end of working with clients to develop projects. So it was very clear that I needed to have an in-depth understanding of the financing aspect to get where I wanted to be in my career, and FDCE was such a clear-cut way to gain that knowledge.

Are there any key skills you learned in the program that you found yourself using immediately?

Professor Dan Gross did a lesson on sensitivity analysis where you look at different variables in a model and create a separate chart with different levers to see how any given change in one variable affects the rest of the model. So for example, if the cost to build a solar array increases by 5%, the sensitivity analysis would show that the increase would have X% effect on Internal Rate of Return. This was super useful given that a lot of assumptions we make in preliminary models typically don’t end up holding throughout the lifecycle of a project and negotiations with subcontractors and other third parties. Previously, I would have created 15 different scenarios for an opportunity and run a macro on each just to check, “what happens if the utility company actually charges us $550,000 for interconnection as opposed to $200,000. Is the project still financeable?” Professor Gross showed us that there was a simple, intuitive, less time-consuming way to play with the different variables and outputs. It was pretty mind-blowing, really. As soon as I learned that, I made a tab that linked to our financial assumptions and shared it with the team at work so that everyone could have access to that quick analysis for each project we worked on.

Who would you recommend this program to? Why would you encourage more people of color to apply to the program?

I would recommend the program to anybody who's remotely interested in clean energy and its development. The course does a really good job not only of teaching you the high-level need-to-knows about clean energy, but also goes into detail on the financial aspects. Before you get there, the course offers a highly comprehensive overview of the different clean energy technologies and how those are implemented across the world. It gives a great overview for anyone interested in a career in clean energy, transitioning from a different career sector, or even currently working in the industry. 

As far as the Black community and communities of color are concerned, it’s just so important to think about the fact that people of color have been and will be the first and worst affected by climate change. Rural communities largely populated by African Americans are most impacted by the negative side effects of energy development given the placement of oil rigs, processing plants, and big compressors in pipelines that span thousands of miles. That’s no coincidence. Additionally, when you think of energy access and really look at the savings that residential and commercial clean energy systems can bring, they’re just not as accessible to communities of color. According to a new study by the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), Black households spend a much larger portion of their income on energy bills than non-Hispanic white households - 43% more on average. Low-income households spend three times as large a share of their income on energy costs as other households. These disparities make low-income households and communities of color disproportionately vulnerable to utility shut-offs, despite there being cheaper ways to procure electricity through community solar and other offtake programs.

Given the energy/electricity cost disparities we face as a Black community, I believe it's really important for people of color to be interested or have some understanding of how clean energy works and how low-to-moderate-income communities can be positively affected by clean energy. Just an overall understanding of the industry has the ability to be a game-changer for Black communities. With this understanding, we can research information about our utility’s energy mix, we can proactively subscribe to energy efficiency and community solar programs, and we can even use those savings on electricity to invest in other issues that plague our community such as the disproportionate gaps in higher-education and homeownership to name a couple. 

I also don’t want to go without mentioning that clean energy is not only the future of energy infrastructure in our country, but globally as well. There’s no better time to build skills in an industry that will be around for centuries to come as we continue to expend our natural resources. Not only will you be fighting the good fight against global warming, but you’ll also gain a little job security doing it!


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