This isn’t the first time we’ve recognized this month’s solar veteran. Erica Mackie is cofounder and CEO of GRID Alternatives, the largest nonprofit solar installer in the country. We honored Erica as one of our 2016 Innovators and Influencers.
Enphase’s cofounder nominated Erica, saying, “She’d rather wear a hard hat and work clothes than buttoned-down business attire. She sees solar as a force for social good, a way to ease the energy cost burden on those who spend a big part of their income on their utility bills, and an opportunity to improve the quality of life in disadvantaged neighborhoods.”
She shares keys to GRID’s success, which any solar installer can learn from, as well as what the solar industry can do better. Read some of what she said below and listen to the full interview to learn more.
How did you come to found GRID Alternatives?
I was working for an energy efficiency consulting firm in San Francisco, along with my partner Tim Sears. We audited corporate buildings, telling them how they could save money on their energy bills with measures like adding solar.
Meanwhile, I saw people around me barely able to pay their electric bills and looking for work. I thought, “How come these companies get to use these technologies to save lots of money and real folks in my neighborhood, who have the most to gain from solar, couldn’t?”
Over dinner on the road one night, Tim and I hatched the idea for Grid Alternatives. In 2004 we did our first two solar electric installations. Those two families who had gone solar told their neighbors and family. Fast forward to today, we’re now installing thousands of systems every year and training hundreds of people to get jobs in solar.
What are some of the keys to GRID’s success?
I’ve been in the solar industry for about 20 years and it’s ever changing. But combining passion with persistent good businesses practices is important: how do you scale and grow your business?; how do you create wealth and ownership for your employees? The how is equally important as where we’re going. Businesses that have thought a lot about equity and process, along with strong deliverables and metrics for performance, are the ones that continue to grow because it gets more megawatts out there but also creates the job market.
What can the solar industry do better?
It’s more about the amazing opportunities in solar. As we continue to grow as an employment force in this country, there’s a lot of opportunity to match those growing jobs with communities that need them. To do that, we have to be more equitable and more diverse employers and companies.
One very specific thing employers can do is think about: who you are; how are you recruiting; who are you hiring from; where are you sourcing your employees; how are you training them; how are you structuring their opportunities for career advancement?
We’ve made some mistakes getting here because, in the effort to grow in the start-up climate, a lot of companies hire people they know and look like. I don’t think that was the intention, but some of what happened as startups grew really rapidly. Stepping back and thinking about how we’re going to grow a really different kind of solar industry that is inclusive and making sure we’re intentional about that, that’s a place I see a huge opportunity for becoming better, smarter businesses and more equitable.
Check back monthly for a new episode of Ask a Solar Vet, in which editor Kathie Zipp brings you the unique perspectives and insights of those who have spent more than a decade in solar.