GRID Alternatives is a national 501(c)(3) certified non-profit organization that facilitates solar power implementation and energy efficiency projects between community partners, volunteers and job trainees. Since it’s beginning in 2001, GRID Alternatives has installed over 24 megawatts of clean power, provided almost $200 million in lifetime electricity cost savings, and trained 27,000 people in solar installation. Learn more about the mission to make solar power affordable to all from founder and CEO Erica Mackie.
You’re the founder and CEO of GRID Alternatives. Tell us about your mission.
We believe that we need to transition to clean power in a way that includes everyone. For us, that means that everyone, regardless of income, should have access to clean power, bills they can afford, and employment in the growing solar industry if they want it. We’re making this possible by providing solar electric systems to families that qualify as low-income, and installing them using a “barn raising” model that gives volunteers and job trainees hands-on experience they can use to get jobs in the industry. In addition to this core model, we’re currently working with state and federal policymakers to improve solar access broadly, while developing new models and partnerships to help us expand our geographic and demographic reach. In Colorado, for example, we’ve been partnering with rural utilities to develop dedicated low-income community solar projects. We’re also building out our multifamily program with a technical assistance offering to help affordable housing owners and developers add solar to their buildings to benefit renters.
I’m curious about the numbers: how many solar homes has GRID Alternatives been responsible for installing? How many communities have you helped?
GRID Alternatives has installed more than 24 megawatts of clean power for over 7,100 families nationwide, providing them with $195 million in lifetime electricity cost savings, and preventing more than 480,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s the clean air equivalent of taking 104,000 cars off the road for a year. We’ve also trained 27,000 people in solar installation, helping prepare them for jobs in the industry. Going beyond the numbers, people come away from their experience with us inspired and empowered to become clean energy advocates in their community, spreading the word that solar really is for everyone.
How did GRID Alternative’s start? How receptive were people, communities, governments, and other stakeholders to your new business model?
My co-founder Tim Sears and I founded GRID Alternatives during the 2001 California energy crisis. We were engineering professionals who were implementing large-scale renewable energy and energy efficiency projects for the private sector, and found ourselves wondering why this amazing technology could save corporate clients millions of dollars but was out of reach for people like my neighbor in Oakland, who could barely pay her bills. Through GRID Alternatives, we developed a model to make that technology and training practical and accessible for low-income communities that need the savings and jobs the most, yet have the least access. We’re continually amazed by the support for our work, both when we first started and today, as the industry continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Our work is truly a community effort. We bring together volunteers, families, local leaders, community-based organizations, corporate supporters, foundations, local state and Federal policy-makers, and all of us roll up our sleeves together to get the job done.
GRID Alternatives started in California and has expanded to ten regional offices and Nicaragua. How did this expansion process work? What’s your expansion plan for the future?
As the solar industry grows, we will continue to grow with it and ensure that the benefits of solar are accessible to people that need them most. Over the past several years that has meant scaling up our work nationally. Since 2012, we have expanded to seven new states beyond California and built out a national tribal program with support from a 5-year, $2 million grant from the Wells Fargo Foundation. Expansion for us also means building out our workforce development program, and continuing to innovate new models for making solar accessible to renters and those who are living in remote rural areas, or even off the grid. Our international work began when we acquired Power to the People, a nonprofit which was working to bring off-grid solar systems to rural Nicaragua. This fall we’ll be doing a pilot project in Nepal–a country where 6.6 million people are living without electricity–which we hope will be the first of many projects to help bring solar to communities there.
In 2008, GRID Alternatives was selected by the California Public Utilities Commission to serve as the statewide program manager for its Single Family Affordable Solar Housing (SASH) incentive program. How did that selection process work and what impact has it had on your business?
At the time we were selected to manage the SASH program, we had already been developing our Solar Affordable Housing Program in several local markets since 2004. We had a proven track record of serving low-income families, providing hands-on job training and developing successful partnerships, which made us a very competitive applicant. The SASH contract really allowed us to take that unique model we had developed and bring it to scale in California. We went from around 60 installations in 2008 to 130 in 2009 to nearly 1,000 in 2011. That’s big growth that we’ve been able to maintain and build on in the years since.
How did the Solar Spring Break Program start? To date, would you say the program has been successful?
The solar industry is growing, and it needs incredible talent that includes all types voices. I think young people are well-poised to lend their voices and help make this transition to clean energy. Solar Spring Break started as a way to bring young people out to installations and give them a meaningful way to touch and feel solar, to deeply understand what it’s all about. In the past three years, over 300 college students from 25 schools across the country have spent their school breaks experiencing solar firsthand and learning about the energy and environmental issues facing low-income communities while gaining a foothold in the solar industry. That’s an incredible thing for a young person.
As Co-Founder and CEO, what does your job entail?
In my job, it’s important for me to get out of the office, the boardroom, the fundraising world, and make sure I can touch and feel what we’re doing, because I think there’s something really magical about the way people come together on these projects. I also spend a lot of time thinking about how our organization can be a model for the rest of the industry in terms of diversity and being a good workplace for people of all kinds of backgrounds. But most of my time is spent the way other CEOs spend their time, making sure the organization is running smoothly; looking for opportunities to expand, deepen and improve our work; and raising money to help us do that.
How did you get interested in renewable energy and energy efficiency? What sparks your passion?
I think of myself as a social worker, turned engineer, turned back into something in-between. My path to clean energy included work with survivors of domestic violence, at-risk youth, women’s studies, outdoor education, math, and physics. I became an entrepreneur because in the end, in order to have the job and impact I dreamed of having, I needed to create it. I wanted to contribute to our nation’s transition to clean energy, and do it in a way that lifts up communities that are typically left out. I’m passionate about a transition to clean energy that includes everyone: women, people of color, tribal communities, veterans, everyone. I feel so proud to be able work toward that vision each and every day.
Do you have advice for women (especially younger women) trying to go into your line of work?
I spent a lot of time in engineering school and in the solar industry looking for a mentor–that one person that everybody says you’re supposed to have–who could teach me how to be a CEO in a way that’s consistent with my values, who could show me how to be a working mom in a way that’s consistent with my parenting ideas, who could tell me how to constantly innovate and improve. It took me years to I realize I was looking for something that I might never find. It’s not really about finding that one person; it’s about crowdsourcing from everyone around you. If you’re the first person blazing the trail, you need to get insight from everybody. Learn from lots of different people, take advice, and ignore what doesn’t work.
What’s next for you?
This is it. There’s still so much work to be done to build a diverse, inclusive and equitable solar workforce, and to create a successful transition to clean energy that includes everyone.
Erica Mackie is co-founder and CEO of GRID Alternatives, which she’s developed into a major national non-profit. Her amazing leadership has been recognized numerous times. She’s received the Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award in 2008, the New Leaders Council Energy Leadership Award in 2009, the James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award in 2010, the US Green Building Council’s Green Building Super Hero Award in 2010, and the 2013 Clean Energy and Empowerment Award from C3E. With an academic background in mechanical engineering and physics from Southern Illinois University, Erica’s previously worked in the social sector, helping survivors of domestic violence and at-risk youth.
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