This week I interviewed UPS Alumni Carl Larson, who currently works in energy services at Solar City!
When did you graduate from UPS?
Can you tell me about your work at SolarCity? (What do you do? How did you end up there? Do you have an idea of where you want to go within/outside of SolarCity?)
My work at SolarCity definitely builds on what I studied in Econ at UPS, which is great. SolarCity is the nation’s leader for rooftop solar energy, we’re sister companies with Tesla Motors and SpaceX, and majority-owned by Elon Musk. I’m in sales at SolarCity, even though I’m never asking for a dime out of peoples’ pockets. Much of my work is spent telling people, over and over, “Yes, this really is a free program, zero cost to sign up, get installed, and we maintain the system long term for no cost.” Everyone says, “Oh, nothing’s free,” and I just remind them they’re already paying their electric bill anyway, so, may as well spend less on it. Plus, hey, are the best things in life not free? I’m working in the Bay Area as well, which is probably the most mature rooftop solar market in the US, even though the monopolies are always trying to kill our industry like Wile-E Coyote goes after Roadrunner.
What got you into economics/what do you like about it? What was your favorite economics course?
Looking back, I realized I knew I was going to study economics when I was reading “Rich Dad, Poor Dad,” by Robert Kiyosaki, going into my freshman year. I knew money was at the heart of what people did with their actions, and as a lifelong existentialist (though I didn’t really even know what that meant until taking a class on it my senior year at UPS), it’s all about what one does, it’s all about action. I knew people could lie with their words, but people don’t lie with their money. I appreciated the honesty that came with that. Though it’s hard to pick just one, I think my favorite economics course was Philosophy of Economics with Professor Hands, since it really opened my eyes to how economics, though quite respected, with its own Nobel Prize, is still hanging by a thread as a true experimental science. I liked realizing how Economics is kind of the bridge between the hard mathematical sciences, and the social sciences that do affect us every day. I really also liked taking econometrics, game theory, urban econ, and I could go on. I love that stuff!
Did you do any internships/research while at UPS?
Yeah, I worked for a political campaign, Congressman Adam Smith, and did a lot of grassroots stuff, and once his campaign was locked in as somewhat of a landslide, they lent me and my team to the Obama campaign, so I got to finish by working for Obama, which was a lot of fun. Election night was unreal, since I had gotten to meet Obama when he was a senator, at a book signing in Chicago in 2006 (for the first stop on his Audacity of Hope tour), it was so amazing to see the man I had shaken hands with and talked to celebrating winning the presidency, and knowing I had a part in it all was really fun. They had a crazy ice sculpture at the hotel for the big official party in downtown Seattle, and getting up there to celebrate was just the perfect icing on the cake after a hard summer, sweating it out, going door to door.
Can you talk a little about your senior thesis?
I really enjoyed this, it ended up being the perfect topic to bring up in my job interview at SolarCity, and my bosses were thrilled to know I had been seriously interested in this for so long. I wrote about the electricity industry in the west, asking the question whether it would be wise for Washington state to deregulate its electricity industry, as California had. California has far less hydroelectric resources than Washington, and far more population and demand, so they needed to get a bit more creative in California, even though deregulation ended up being super messy, and people lost electric service, and the utilities even went bankrupt while charging the highest rates of all time. So my thesis was on how electric monopolies hurt consumers, and I’m literally seeing this play out today, as well.
What interested you about the electricity industry (in both your thesis and your current job)?
Into my senior year, I realized that energy really is the heart of the economy, I could see how cash follows energy, and I was fascinated. My senior thesis advisor was an lifelong expert on the electricity side, and so it was easy to use his knowledge and connections in the industry to get a great thesis going. I remember my interview with the guy at the Tacoma power regulatory board, and the gentleman told me point blank, there was no economy of scale in generating electricity. I knew about economies of scale with like, auto manufacturing via the assembly line, but for energy, there is no exponential advantage to being bigger. This was shocking for me, and as I now do small-scale distributed electricity generation, I literally put this fact into practice every day. On the small scale, it’s just as efficient on the large scale, other than the fact that we have to have more conversations to get the same amount installed as utility scale energy.
What were some of your favorite things about UPS (extracurricular-wise, the campus, professors, etc.)?
I really loved Tacoma and the greater area, it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, especially on a clear day when you are by the water with Mt. Rainier in the background, maybe the Olympics too, nothing beats it! Tacoma is super quirky and fun, from coffee shops and dive bars to the glass museum, and I enjoyed everything about the campus, the professors, being on the tennis team, doing the sailing class, getting out and hiking, the ghost stories of Schiff hall, the “secret” underground between the Greek houses, it’s such a truly unique place. I loved making a goofy film for Foolish Pleasures, living on theme row, and even all the torrential rain of the autumn season was fun, and made it easy to stay inside and study while hearing the rain.
Any advice for future economics grads?
Everyone has their own path. Taking yourself out of your comfort zone is how you find out who you are, and you have to be true to who you are long term. You can’t go wrong with just making lots of friends and studying hard.