Direct Current - An Energy.gov Podcast presents People Powered, a series that brings you real stories of the folks getting their paychecks in the clean energy sector. There are millions of good-paying jobs in energy, and you’ll get a chance to meet some of the people who have jumped into these fast-growing careers.
Meet Conrad Flowers
"Everything will change when your desire to move on exceeds your desire to hold on."
Chicago-area native Conrad Flowers knew he wanted something more out of his career, something that would leave a lasting legacy. So he decided to move on — from his job as an engineer with a utility company to a new role with a solar company, where he now helps connect renewable energy projects to the electric grid.
He said the work is more meaningful to him, giving him the opportunity to make an impact on climate change and help train the next generation of engineers in the renewable field. Listen to the episode to hear how Conrad made the jump to a clean energy career, what an average day looks like on the job, and his advice for aspiring engineers.
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CONRAD FLOWERS: These projects have a lifespan of like 25 years. It might seem like a small two megawatts is not much. But when you add it up over the lifespan of a project and maybe doing 10, 20 of them, you're powering a lot of homes.
CONRAD FLOWERS: When I'm looking back in 30 years, will I be able to smile on the things I've done and the legacy I've built?
CONRAD FLOWERS: I don't have a case of the "Mondays" anymore, which is very important to me. I don't really dread getting up and going to work because I know it's something new every day.
MATT DOZIER: Over the past few decades, we’ve seen renewable energy flourish in America — especially wind and solar, which have dropped sharply in cost and now make up a rising percentage of U.S. generation. New solar and wind farms are coming online all the time, and one of the key steps in delivering the electricity they generate to consumers, is talking to the utility, and getting them connected to the grid. And that’s more challenging than it sounds. Thankfully, we’ve got someone on the show today who has worked on both sides of that process. You’re listening to Direct Current – An Energy.gov Podcast. I’m your host, Matt Dozier. I want to introduce you to Conrad Flowers — he’s a lead power engineer for Nexamp, a Chicago-based solar company, and he went to work there after leaving his job with the utility company to pursue his passion for renewable energy. This is the latest episode in our People Powered series highlighting clean energy workers, so stay tuned!
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CONRAD FLOWERS: I’m Conrad Flowers. My job title is lead power engineer, and I live in Chicago.
MATT DOZIER: Nice. So tell me a little about yourself — where you grew up, how long you've been in Chicago, that sort of thing.
CONRAD FLOWERS: So I kind of moved around a little bit. I was born in Chicago, then I lived in Jamaica for a few months, then I moved back to Chicago, then I moved to Florida for a few years, like 13 years. And then I ended back up in Chicago. I lived in the suburbs for a while, so basically, a lot of Chicago in my travel history.
MATT DOZIER: So I want to talk about your job. Tell me a little bit more about the work you do, and if you can, explain it like you're talking to a friend or relative who doesn't understand the work that you do. Can you explain that a little?
CONRAD FLOWERS: So what I do, my main goal is to act as a, like, intermediate between the utility and the company I work for, which is Nexamp. So, we build solar farms. The most simplistic way to describe this is, a solar farm consists of solar panels which absorb the light and turn that light energy into direct current, which is just basically power flow. And then on this side, we also have an inverter, which turns the DC current into AC current, which is basically the current that the utility and most houses use. So along the line, after they turn power to AC, we use a transformer to step up the voltage. So basically, more power in the higher voltage. The reason you increase the voltage is to reduce losses — when electricity travels distances, there are losses, but higher voltages sustain less losses.
MATT DOZIER: Right. And so OK. And then your role, what is your specific focus?
CONRAD FLOWERS: OK, so I have a lot of responsibilities. Like I said earlier, primarily communicating with the utility. So the first thing, we'll submit our application to connect to the grid. And I kind of make sure the equipment is up to standard and what the utility wants, and it performs as the utility would expect. After we submit the application, they would give us the data back that corresponds to our site. We'll review the data and make sure everything looks good, looks like the standard we're used to. And the main goal of all these schematics and data is to connect the solar farm to the to the grid. And also, like, when they give us data, sometimes you've got to push back and challenge the utility, and give them recommendations on ways to be more efficient and like alter requirements. So it's just for, I would say, cost engineering for the most part, to make sure — cause among a lot of things, the site has to be financially viable as well as electrically complete. So.
MATT DOZIER: Yeah, I was going to say, how much of your role is kind of like, are you thinking about engineering? Are you thinking about voltage and that kind of thing? And then these other considerations like business considerations, too.
CONRAD FLOWERS: Well, it all depends what phase of the project we're in. A lot of times you have to wear a lot of hats, like in the initial interconnection phase it will be like probably 30% engineering, and the rest is just paperwork and making sure you're dotting your I's crossing crossing your T's. And then when you move more into the review and document, that's pretty technical, so I'll say, 80-20, 80% engineering and 20% focusing on business needs and requirements and officials.
MATT DOZIER: You can't just be thinking about kind of one aspect of it, right?
CONRAD FLOWERS: Absolutely not. It's a lot of aspects that go into getting the project off the ground. A lot of projects don't get past the interconnection phase for one reason or another. Sometimes the interconnection costs are completely too high or, the utility is saying that their equipment can't sustain whatever we're trying to put on the grid. So yeah, it's a tricky situation trying to connect. But I guess we make it work for the most part.
MATT DOZIER: Right, right. As best you can, I'm sure. Your region that you're focused on, is this all immediate Chicago area or is it more kind of across Illinois, that sort of thing?
CONRAD FLOWERS: My region is pretty big, so I tend to Illinois, Minnesota, Tennessee, Georgia, Maryland, Hawaii, New Mexico and California. Some of them are newer markets, so I guess that's where the lead power engineer term comes from. Like I kind of go in first, get my hands dirty, figure out like the tariffs and things that are going on and how the utilities work and make the initial communications and bring back that information and kind of distribute it and train some of the newer interconnection engineers on the processes and procedures.
MATT DOZIER: Gotcha, OK, so yeah, you cover a real wide area.
CONRAD FLOWERS: Yeah, basically, yeah. It's a lot.
MATT DOZIER: Well, so OK, when you're kind of like, as the lead interconnection engineer, you say you kind of go in first. Get your hands dirty. First time you go in, you're looking at a project, you're gathering information, doing research — what are you looking for in the in the first place? I mean, what's kind of like, what's the first place you start?
CONRAD FLOWERS: The most important thing will be understanding the utility requirements. Like what equipment they will require, how they go about things, how the process is from the interconnection stage to the study process, what documents they require. If they have any unique requirements for their schematics or drawings. So it's a wide range of things you kind of have to look for. The more you do it, the more you get used to it, because initially it was basically like hieroglyphics at first, but now it's a little better.
MATT DOZIER: Right. I mean, does it vary really widely from utility to utility, state to state?
CONRAD FLOWERS: I would say yes, especially from the East Coast to the Midwest, and Hawaii might be the most difficult. I think they're pretty advanced. But yeah, it's like the small nuances. But the general concept is the same.
MATT DOZIER: Gotcha. OK. So, can you describe a typical day on the job for you? What would it look like as you're going through your work on a typical day?
CONRAD FLOWERS: Oh, wow. I guess the most of my day would consist of meetings.
MATT DOZIER: Right. (LAUGHS)
CONRAD FLOWERS: Outside of meeting with the utility, I kind of do a lot of reviews, I'm always trying to keep up with the utilities' changes. They have, like, monthly update calls to kind of say what's going on in the region. Sometimes I'm in the field doing site visits or I'm doing commissioning of a site or witness testing. Yeah, it varies. It's a it's a new thrill every day, I could say.
MATT DOZIER: Yeah. (LAUGHS) How did you get into this line of work?
CONRAD FLOWERS: Well, it was a little unorthodox. So I started in the utility and I worked there for a long time, for about eight years. And I mean, I like my job, but I kind of was looking for a little more fulfillment. And while I was working at the utility, I was also a STEM instructor. So I found a lot of fulfillment training the next generation of engineers. So that kind of became my focal point, I definitely want to train people to help them and develop them as engineers. So that kind of segued into a lot more volunteering, like hosting volunteer events. I kind of found out when I was volunteering, I that's when I was my most happy, so I kind of wanted to figure out how to direct my life in a more altruistic lifestyle and include that in my career path somehow. So I wasn't exactly sure what that looked like. I looked at a few nonprofits, and they kind of were — nonprofits were pretty good, but a lot of them weren't that technical, and I didn't want to be too much of a paper pusher. I hate to use those words, but I wanted to kind of stay on a technical track. So I found this thing called the Caribbean Climate Accelerator, and that piqued my interest in renewable energy. I attended a few of their calls and I spoke with a few people, and the one thing I noticed was everybody that was in that field was happy. And I figured that was a good mix of helping the environment and also still utilizing my technical acumen. So that's how I kind of got into the renewable space. I guess the next steps for me were just kind of figuring out where I would fit with my utility experience. So I kind of segued into interconnection engineer, because I had the background in the utility. So that gave me a kind of a foot in the door. At this point, I just had to really learn the DC side of things, which was kind of a learning curve, but it was really interesting. So it worked out pretty good.
MATT DOZIER: Useful background, you know, with the utility side of things, to come in from sort of the other side.
CONRAD FLOWERS: Yeah, it helped a lot, actually, so when I'm communicating with utility, I can speak their language, which helps me tremendously in my role, for sure.
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MATT DOZIER: Regarding the sort of education and training that you got in the course of your career that kind of led you to this point, what kind of level of education and training did it really take?
CONRAD FLOWERS: I can't really speak for everyone, but I think — I have an undergraduate and a masters in electrical engineering. I think a technical background in any type of engineering would help you, just in general with this field, but I would say mechanical and electrical probably are your best bet. But the thing about the field is like, there's a role for every type of person, every type of background, every type of engineer, every type of — any field can get their hands in there. I mean, we have accounting department, we have civil, a civil team that looks at all the projects. So, you know, it's kind of like, if you have a passion for renewables, you can get in as long as that's what you want to do.
MATT DOZIER: So you mentioned teaching, what are you teaching, electrical engineering or a variety of courses?
CONRAD FLOWERS: Well, when I was teaching, I was a STEM instructor for a program called Project Sincere, a really great program that kind of — that was kind of a pivotal point in my life where I kind of chose. I like I had to figure out what I wanted to do, and it kind of pushed me in the direction of figuring out something different. So I was just teaching science, technology, engineering, mathematics to a wide range of students, from I would say elementary school through high school. It's project-based learning so we would just do projects and then go through the scientific aspects of them after we did the project. We made hydropower cars, we made catapults — we made a lot of things, but it was a really good experience.
MATT DOZIER: That's awesome. What do you like about your current job?
CONRAD FLOWERS: I would say the thing I like the most is, one, that I'm helping the environment in general, but even more than that is the learning curve. I mean, because even though renewable is like, it's been around for a while, it's still in its infancy. So a lot of growth, a lot of energy being put in, advancing technology. So it's always something — you learn something new all the time. I think why I wanted to be an engineer was learn and keep on learning — like, continuous learning is kind of what I like about it the most.
MATT DOZIER: You know, you talked about being like the lead interconnection engineer, mentoring, that sort of thing. I mean, that must really push you to kind of really sharpen your skills and fostering that kind of next generation of engineers.
CONRAD FLOWERS: Yeah so, a lot of it is on-the-job training. So another thing about the company is the autonomy of it. So my job, you've kind of got to make your own path. You learn what you want to learn. I think the best way to develop — this is what kind of what the Project Sincere STEM instructors taught us — like, the whole goal of the program was to make self-directed learners. So I kind of absorbed that mentality myself, too. So I kind of take it upon myself to learn different aspects and attend different trainings that I find online, and reach out to other engineers in the field. and join groups like Young Professionals in Engineering, and kind of pick their brain, stuff like that. So I think a lot of it is just me going out to get it on my own. I mean, I don't want to take away from my coworkers and colleagues that have helped me along the way, but yeah, they kind of teach you the basics and you've got to hit the ground running.
MATT DOZIER: Right, right. So this move to the renewable space, Nexamp, what kind of impact has that made on your life?
CONRAD FLOWERS: I guess the main thing would be I don't have a case of the "Mondays" anymore, which is very important to me, so...
MATT DOZIER: (LAUGHS)
CONRAD FLOWERS: I don't really dread getting up and going to work because I know it's something new every day. And I kind of feel like I'm making an impact, even if it's really small. Every time we turn on projects, I know that I've done something. Like it's tangible. It's something that you can touch, you can see, you can tell people about — you can drive past and say, like I had a hand in making this project work. I'll say that'd be the greatest impact on myself.
MATT DOZIER: Yeah, I mean, you know, when it comes to seeing a new solar project come online, get connected to the grid through the work that you've done, you know, knowing that that's going to be reducing carbon emissions and helping fight climate change, that sort of thing. You ever think about that aspect of it?
CONRAD FLOWERS: Of course, yeah. I think that's what I basically mean by doing my part. I think a lot of times people overestimate what they can do within a year and underestimate what they can do in ten years. So like, these projects have a lifespan of like 25 years. So it might seem like a small two megawatts is not much. But when you add it up over the lifespan of a project and maybe doing 10, 20 of them, you're kind of making an impact. You're powering a lot of homes and a lot of businesses, and you're doing it in a renewable energy space.
MATT DOZIER: Yeah. Do you see this as a lifelong career, something you want to stick with for the long term?
CONRAD FLOWERS: Yeah, of course, in some aspect or another. I would eventually like to get back in the teaching role, maybe as a professor or something. So expand the minds of others to get in the field, making it fun and accessible. So yeah, I would like to stay in a new space for the remainder of my career, yes.
MATT DOZIER: Can you talk a little about the pay, benefits, advancement, generally speaking, of the type of work that you're doing?
CONRAD FLOWERS: I think the main perk would be the ability to grow, because since the field is growing so rapidly and all the companies are hiring so, so much, the companies will be growing under you. I mean, even me as somebody with two years experience, I'm like pretty experienced relative to my coworkers — and that's completely different from what I'm used to working at a utility, where, like, the person with the most experience had 52 years and a lot of people had 30 years of experience. So you can grow. As far as the pay, relatively, I think it's on par with the pay scale for engineering. The perks are good, and that's really on the specific company you join. Because a lot of companies are newer and smaller, it's more progressive and modern like workspaces and idealistic individuals in general. So yeah, I think it's a good field to get in, especially now, because it's just at the beginning of beginning the peak.
MATT DOZIER: Right. I know you have a passion for educating people and helping them find their own career paths. What advice would you have for others looking to get into this career?
CONRAD FLOWERS: The first step would be is you have to decide you want to change. OK, so I had a meeting with somebody a while ago, and the person was talking, and one word he said that stood out to me was "legacy." So he was like, "What do you want your legacy to be?" And I thought about it in my current career, I was like, "Yeah, I don't know my legacy is going to really make much of a difference or impact," like, where my name is written and where my stamp is won't really kind of create the legacy that I would envision for myself. When I'm looking back in 30 years, will I be able to smile on the things I've done and the legacy I've built? So yeah, think about what legacy you want to leave like leave and how you want to do that in your career. For me, it started with committing to actually leaving where I was at, because I — you might have noticed that I'm into quotes — so I saw quote a long time ago that said, "Everything will change when your desire to move on exceeds your desire to hold on." So the first decision I had to make was that I was going to leave the space I'm in. And then I had to figure out where I wanted to go. And once I figured out that I wanted to do renewables, I started training myself and doing self-learning, and it was much easier for me to segue into renewables because I did it for myself. It was something I wanted to do, so me getting on the computer after work for a few hours and going through coursework and learning on my own and figuring out the D.C. side of things — they helped me a lot getting into the field. So even when I was interviewing or talking to people, a lot of people were like, "How did you know these things?" I'm like, yeah, because I took the time to go out and learn it. So that would be my advice.
MATT DOZIER: Well, Conrad, thank you so much for joining me. I really appreciate it.
CONRAD FLOWERS: Oh, no, the pleasure's mine.
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MATT DOZIER: That’s all for this episode of Direct Current. You can find more about Conrad’s work, and the Department of Energy’s efforts to streamline interconnection for renewable projects, in our show notes at energy.gov/podcast. Thanks to Conrad Flowers and the folks at Nexamp for their participation, and to our intern, Keya Barot, for her help with the episode. Subscribe to Direct Current on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts, to hear more episodes in our People Powered series. Direct Current is produced by me, Matt Dozier. Sarah Harman creates original artwork for all of our episodes. This is a production of the U.S. Department of Energy and published from our nation’s capital in Washington, D.C. Thanks for listening!
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