State of the Planet

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MPA Alum Focuses on Solar Energy

erica helson squareIn her role as a New York State Solar Ombudsman for the City University of New York at Sustainable CUNY, Erica Helson (MPA-ESP ’14) is applying skills she learned in the program to further her career in advancing solar energy in the city of New York. Prior to joining the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program, Erica served as an Americorps Volunteer as well as a Preparedness Education Manager for the American Red Cross. Erica hopes to apply her degree toward a future in environmental policy implementation, working alongside her MPA-ESP colleagues.

1. What is your current job?
I work as a New York State Solar Ombudsman for the City University of New York (CUNY) at Sustainable CUNY. There is a team of about six of us who work on various grants from the U.S. Department of Energy, New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, and others. Our goal is to lower the balance-of-system costs of solar energy, which can account for over 60% of the price to install solar. These costs include things like the cost of getting a permit to install solar, the marketing costs for solar companies to acquire new customers, and other non-hardware costs.

2. Do your current job responsibilities align with the professional goals that you originally had when you began the Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy program (MPA-ESP)?
Yes, absolutely. Prior to the MPA-ESP program I learned about the significant balance-of-system costs involved in going solar while working as a project manager for a solar installer. The owner of the company advocated for policy changes in municipal building departments and utilities in order to streamline processes and lower costs. Realizing the great potential for policy to lower the cost of solar energy inspired my interest in environmental policy and the ESP program. My role at CUNY is different from my role with the solar installer in that CUNY is a neutral party. CUNY does not advocate for the solar industry; it interfaces with all key industry players from installers to utilities to municipalities. Our team convenes stakeholders to identify barriers that keep costs high, and works on projects that aim to lower these unnecessary costs.

3. What skills has the MPA-ESP program taught you that you think have proven useful to your current position?
One of my colleagues at CUNY is a fellow ESP graduate. We’ve joked that our job is like the workshop course. We create project implementation plans, just as we did in workshop, and have various deliverables that must be met for each grant. A project team works together to complete the deliverables, so the skills gained from workshop, like task delegation have proven useful. My takeaway from workshop was how to take a large and complex problem or project, and break it into manageable pieces that, when combined, offer a solution. At CUNY, I am working on a new three-year initiative, the Smart DG Hub, to strengthen the resilient solar market in New York City. On its face, it’s a hugely complex task. However, when broken into individual tasks, there’s a path to establishing greater resiliency in our energy infrastructure through solar and energy storage.

4. What skills and tools do you hope to acquire through this job?
I hope to gain a better understanding of the policymaking process, and who the decision makers are who influence the green energy market in New York. Many of the changes that can streamline the solar installation process don’t have to be legislated; they can be achieved within city agencies or outside of government completely. Finance options for resilient solar is another area where I hope to learn more. Models similar to power purchase agreements for solar are being developed for energy storage projects. It will be interesting to see if consumers are as receptive to this type of model for energy storage as they have been for solar. In this role, I look forward to expanding my knowledge of the financial services industry and how it can support the growth of resilient solar. In both of these areas working groups will be formed to identify barriers and solutions in their respective areas of focus, so coalition building is a skill that I’ll need to further develop.

5. How has collaborating with your fellow students in class projects benefited you professionally and personally?
The majority of my career up to this point was outside of the environmental field. The ESP program provided me with a network of professionals working in this area, which I’ve called upon in both the positions I’ve held since graduating. Collaborating with my classmates through workshop and other courses gave me a good sense of how they function in professional settings. When I reach out to my classmates outside of the context of the program for work needs, I have confidence in the quality of their work. I’m also finding that continuing my relationships with my classmates, whether as professionals or friends, is deepening my understanding of the environmental field. It’s enriching to learn about what others are doing, and it often provides unexpected opportunities for collaboration.

6. What kinds of environmental initiatives do you hope to start in your new position?
The Smart DG Hub endeavors to grow the amount of resilient solar in NYC. Increased storage is essential for the expanded use of renewable energy, so I’m excited to see how CUNY can support energy storage growth over the next three years.


Students in the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program enroll in a year-long, 54-credit program offered at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, in partnership with the Earth Institute.

Since it began in 2002, the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program has given students the hands-on experience, and the analytical and decision-making tools to implement effective environmental and sustainable management policies. The program’s 682 graduates have advanced to jobs in domestic and international environmental policy, working in government, private and non-profit sectors. Their work involves issues of sustainability, resource use and global change, in fields focused on air, water, climate, energy efficiency, food, agriculture, transportation and waste management. They work as consultants, advisers, project managers, program directors, policy analysts, teachers, researchers and environmental scientists and engineers.

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