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Episode 48: Andrea Luecke

This week, Jon Powers speaks with Andrea Luecke, President and Executive Director of the Solar Foundation. Andrea started out as the sole employee for The Solar Foundation in 2010 and has since expanded the organization from a shoe-strong budget to a multi-million dollar set of programs dedicated to advancing solar energy growth. This conversation discusses the growth of The Solar Foundation, what they do, and how Andrea started this foundation.

Prior to The Solar Foundation, Andrea ran the City of Milwaukee’s Department of Energy Solar America Cities program, “Milwaukee Shines”, implementing policies aimed at increasing solar energy capacity. She also served in the Peace Corps for two years. Andrea has a M.S. from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and a B.A. from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

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Jon Powers: Welcome to Experts Only podcast, sponsored by CleanCapital. You can learn more at cleancapital.com. I’m your host, Jon Powers. Each week we explore the intersection of energy, innovation and finance with leaders across the industry. Thank you so much for joining us.

Thanks for joining us today on CleanCapital’s Experts Only Podcast. Today we’re speaking with Andrea Luecke, the President and Executive Director of The Solar Foundation. Andrea was actually the sole employee of The Solar Foundation when it restarted in 2010, and she’s expanded that organization from a shoestring budget to a multimillion dollar program.

We’re going to talk about their impact in the market and their work helping to draw attention to the growing job force in the solar industry and helping advocates tell that story to policymakers.

But Andrea also worked at the City of Milwaukee, in the Department of Energy’s Solar America City program, helped run their Milwaukee Shines program policies to grow solar there, and had previously been to the Peace Corps.

She has an incredible background and really is helping to drive a thought leader, that The Solar Foundation is, and bringing important data to our industry so we can think through our hires and diversity. And we’ll talk all about that today.

Andrea, thank you so much for joining us at Experts Only podcast.

Andrea Luecke: Well thanks Jon. Really a pleasure to be here.

Jon Powers: So you grew up in small town Wisconsin, ended up working for the city. Now you’re in Washington, D.C., working for The Solar Foundation. Tell me a little bit about that ride. How did you go from small town Wisconsin into the Department of Energy at the city Milwaukee?

Andrea Luecke: Yeah. So from country bumpkin to big city girl, is that what you’re asking?

Jon Powers: Yeah.

Andrea Luecke: Yeah. I’m a lifelong environmentalist. I grew up outside, in the country, in southwest Wisconsin. That upbringing, being out in nature all the time, I was a tomboy. I used to climb trees and collect tadpoles. Being outside so much really gave me a deep appreciation for nature. I’m definitely someone who deeply cares about having clean water, clean air, clean food, and having a small footprint.

But I’m also a world traveler and a lifelong humanist, and I really care about helping people to live better lives. And so renewable energy, particularly solar, really, really piqued my interest and got me excited because of its immense potential.

And I think, you look at all the population increases that are happening, and the increases in standard of living, and the increased demands for energy. While all that is taking place, it was when I first learned … I don’t know how long it was ago, maybe 12, 13 years ago … that a single hour … in one hour, the amount of power from the sun that strikes the earth is more than the entire world consumes in a year. When I learned that little fun fact, it literally blew my mind. And you know, I was listening to presentations when I was in, when I was in Morocco, I was a Peace Corps volunteer soccer.

Jon Powers: State that one more time, the amount of sun, the amount of energy hitting that striking there at any given time.

Andrea Luecke: Yeah, in a single hour. The amount of power from the sun that strikes the earth. It’s more than what we consume in an entire year. And the sun just is boundless, it’s limitless. I learned that about 12 or 13 years ago when I was in Morocco is a Peace Corps volunteer of small business development, a volunteer. I was listening to presentations by this German group that they call themselves the desert tech. And basically they were trying to turn the entire Saharan desert into a solar farm and export energy to Europe. And you know, their plans had so much potential and it really captured my imagination and sparked my interest. And it was because of that that I decided to go back to grad school.

It was also that same time that I saw the documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. And that shook me to the core as it did many, many people. And so I went back to school, I went to Milwaukee so that I could learn everything that I could about business and…

Jon Powers: Morocco to Milwaukee.

Andrea Luecke: Yeah. Well, I mean there were, there were a lot of stops in between.

Jon Powers: Yeah.

Andrea Luecke: This is sort of how I got into solar and…

Jon Powers: Yeah.

Andrea Luecke: I was particularly interested in business, but how the nonprofit sector works, the social sector. And I really want to focus my work on solving environmental crises such as climate change. And so that really became my purpose and my direction. And so as I was deciding where to go to grad school, I got really lucky and I got this fellowship to work with the city of Milwaukee running there startup solar program.

It’s called Milwaukee Shines. And that’s why I chose to get my master’s at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, because of this city fellowship. And so that [crosstalk 00:05:21] Yeah, full time grad school, full time working at the city, managing several multimillion dollar department of energy grants. Milwaukee was a solar America city back in the day. And this is very exciting. These are very exciting times. This was 2008 right when the financial markets crashed. This was 2008 right when the presidential election took place and Obama was elected and then all of that, ARRA money came flowing through.

Jon Powers: Right.

Andrea Luecke: So obviously it was a good time for me to be back in school gearing up. But then also that’s where I got my crash course on solar and the market. I was working at the city helping them to streamline permitting to create solar friendly zoning ordinances.

We created one of the first PACE programs in the country. We put together an industry consortia, we trained inspectors. We do all this really cool work. I mean it was a lot of work though. And like I said, I was in grad school full time and working full time, but it was really rewarding because when I first started there, the city only had about 30 KW of solar installed. And fast forward to today there’s about four megawatts installed and counting. And so it’s, I think really great to see the progress and how it’s now happening at scale in cities across the country, not just in places like Milwaukee.

Jon Powers: So that sort of… As that began to grow. Right. What sort of led you into your interests with, I think you were, if I’m correct here, you were the first employee, of The Solar Foundation, correct?

Andrea Luecke: Yes, yes.

Jon Powers: So how did you go from, obviously working on these issues at a policy level, driving grants to… Was that still the foundation work in Washington? Did you make the move from Milwaukee to Washington?

Andrea Luecke: I did, yeah. So when my grad program was up, and my contract with the city was up, because it was tied to my grad school experience. It was a fellowship. I just put a few feelers out, [crosstalk 00:07:35] as one often does. And I said, “Hey, I’m looking for a job”. And so I met some people, I flew to DC, I interviewed with Tom Kimbis and Roan Rash, and talk [crosstalk 00:07:49] on a number of other people. And I was hired. And I think in many ways it was because, well obviously I have the education qualifications, the solar experience and the attitude. But also in many, many ways I think it was because of my international development experience and my ability to sort of connect the dots, and help… And understand and help people understand how solar as a technology can be integrated into all aspects of our lives.

Jon Powers: So 10 years ago when you were having these conversations with Tom and Roan, and they had this vision for The Solar Foundation, can you talk a little bit about what you all are thinking when you got it off the ground? And for folks that aren’t familiar, talk a little about, what the solar foundation does now and sort of what you guys are, what your mission is.

Andrea Luecke: Sure. Yeah. So I mean that was back in 2010 and I was the first employee and I had zero budget, zero staff. And so we were thinking survival. But there is a history, [crosstalk 00:09:05] there is a history and there is a mission and a purpose. The Solar Foundation wasn’t born out of nothing. It actually has been around for a long time. We were created in 1977 by SEIA, and our name actually used to be the solar energy research and education foundation. And for many decades we were chugging along, but the market was really tiny back then. And due to a lack of market activity in the eighties and nineties and even in the early two thousands. We basically… Our little nonprofit faded into the background. But then of course the investment tax credit was created by George Bush in 2005 and then it was renewed in 2008 and that’s when a SEIA leadership decided in 2009 timeframe that it was time to bring the foundation back.

But to make some changes, to shorten the name to The Solar Foundation just rolls off the tongue a little bit better, and then [crosstalk 00:10:11] make it a separate independent entity. But to remain strategically aligned and remain partners moving into the future. And so all this very important legal and formational work in 2009 that was all done by Tom Kimbis, our dear friend. Then after all that formational work was done in 2010 that’s when Tom and Roan, and the board brought me on as the new head of the organization to not only launch it but to bring it to life and mentioned it was just me. I had a couple interns, I had no budget, I had zero track record. Nobody knew anything about The Solar [crosstalk 00:10:53] Yeah, it’s total startup. And then, eventually over time we did establish a track record.

We did amass, some major contracts, and we were able to ultimately staff up. But, obviously it’s been a team effort. I’ve got an incredible team and, it’s been a harrowing journey. So when I said survival, I really mean it. Running a nonprofit is extraordinarily difficult. And it’s been 24/7 for years and years. And we’ve had to overcome a lot. But now I’m very proud that we have a recognizable and impactful presence in the marketplace.

And I think in great part it’s because we as a team, we don’t take anything for granted. We take one day at a time, we treat every day as a battle. My philosophy is to never ever give up. And I think that’s one of my signature traits and probably why my board hired me in the first place because good or bad, I’m one of those never give up fight to the death warrior type of people, and of course I think that there’s no battle more worth fighting than to stop climate change. So I’m definitely in the right role and I’m one of those people that’s always going to be on the front lines. But admittedly, brute strength will only get us so far. We really have to be smart and we have to be strategic and we have to be coordinated.

Jon Powers: Can you talk a little bit about that last 10 years as the market for solar has really began to hit its stride and we’re hitting record corridors on a regular basis. The job for us, which we’ll talk more about a little bit later is not just growing but it’s matured and becoming efficient. How has your mission change at Solar Foundation?

Andrea Luecke: Well, we have a very broad mission, so we’re a national nonprofit. We’re based in DC, we’re a research and education education think tank. We’re most known for our solar jobs census, but we’re also known for our red tape cutting ninjitsu that we do across local governments everywhere. And so that’s sort of been our mission. But we did recently, not recently, but about two years ago, we expanded our technology focus to include solar compatible technologies such as storage, demand response, smart meters and EVs. And so while we haven’t really gone full on with all of that, we recognize some of these mega trends toward…

Jon Powers: Right.

Andrea Luecke: Technology hybridization and we understand how you can really increase the value of solar when you marry it or pair it with some of these other technologies like electric vehicles. And so our mission has changed. We are mostly focused on the national landscape because the US needs so much help, but we do have global aspirations. Several of our programs I think are readily applicable to other countries around the world. And that really also feeds into my interests and background in the international development space.

Jon Powers: Interesting. So I’m going to talk more domestics stuff now than international, but over the last, since 2010 according to Solar Foundation, there’s an amazing series of job reports and we’ll talk about that here in a second. But from some of the data you guys have shown over the last, since 2010 the workforce has grown by over 150%. We’ve got nearly 150,000 solar jobs out there today. Can you talk about some of the trends you’re seeing in the last few reports and also while doing that, talk about the report itself. How do you collect that data and what do you do with that data?

Andrea Luecke: Yeah, so the solar job census has been just so phenomenal. It’s been such a powerful tool. We are coming up, we’re gearing up to issue our 10th annual solar jobs census. So I’m trying to raise half a million dollars right now to get our 10th annual solar jobs census out the door. We fought really hard in the early days to develop a methodology that was defensible, credible, that could stand the test of time, that could persuade even the most critical of voices. And in partnership with BW Research, we were able to develop one that has now been applied across other energy sectors. So we’re really, really, really proud of the methodology that we co-created and developed back in 2010 but yeah, the census is, it’s jobs are very closely correlated with solar capacity and installed capacity. And so it’s not just a jobs report that we put out, it’s really a market trends report.

We talk about that correlation, we talk about the future, we talk about who has these jobs, we talk about the impacts on GDP that and impacts [crosstalk 00:15:54] on the local tax base and sort of who is hiring, and what sectors within solar are really moving fastest, and what segments of the market are really moving fastest, and who is really hiring the most. So we talk about all those things so that the job is very rich right now. And what we’ve found is that the industry has about 250, 260 solar jobs today. The industry has added almost a hundred thousand new jobs in the past five years.

Jon Powers: Amazing.

Andrea Luecke: Which is totally amazing. And we are expecting more growth. The industry predicts about 7% growth this year, which would bring the total up to about 260, 260,000 jobs. That’s the immediate short term picture.

That’s where we are currently at. But in my view and many others, if climate change remains unchecked and emissions keep in fact increasing, we’re going to see annual losses in some economic sectors reaching hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century. And that’s going to be disastrous to, and very disruptive to critical infrastructure, to property, to labor productivity to communities. It’s going to be disastrous. Very expensive. Of course, what is the response? What is the logical response to this? It is to of course accelerate the use of solar and other clean energy technologies far, far beyond what we’ve thus far achieved.

And so, looking at all these different scenarios, we’re looking at… The middle ground scenario is that renewable energy has to make up between 70 and 85% of the world’s electricity by 2050 and if you think about all the jobs that are associated with that, it’s astounding. Here in the US, solar only makes up about 2% of our overall electricity mix. If we have even just 20% solar by 2030 or 2050 that represents hundreds and hundreds of new jobs, and these are more or less pretty high quality jobs [crosstalk 00:18:02] and so jobs, our jobs work is so powerful and it’s been a very effective and persuasive argument. The green new deal I think really rightfully emphasizes the economic and jobs impact of climate action and of course the cost of inaction. And so we’re…

Jon Powers: I think that’s what’s critical about it. First of all, for folks that haven’t seen it, you should go to thesolarfoundation.org and you can access the report. And right now we face a political debate, especially in Washington where you have an administration pushing for saving coal jobs for instance, on a pretty regular basis. And what this report has done is, it’s empowered advocates to to go in and actually drive down and point to the growth of the solar market in a way, 10 years ago it was about, let’s do this for the environment. And now it’s about a growing economic market that is significant, and it’s localized, and you can actually get down through this report into different states and fill out the fact sheets. And if you haven’t done it, check it out. It’s something that we all in the industry really need to step up our game, and using data like this to continue to make the case for the policies that we need to continue to grow the industry and Andrea, thanks for the leadership at Solar Foundation to put this stuff out there for sure.

Andrea Luecke: Oh yeah, you’re welcome Jon. And thanks for the plug. It’s so true. Jobs that, this job’s messaging is irresistible to almost everyone on both sides of the aisle. And so it has been really effective. And I think one of the key features of our jobs census is that it is hyper granular. We’ve got all those fact sheets. We also have a map and you can drill down to the congressional district level, and so you can have numbers and then a nice conversation piece for talking with folks that represent you on the hill.

Jon Powers: It’s still impactful to have that data when you meet with a member because they, many cases don’t recognize what impact is happening in their district.

Andrea Luecke: Absolutely. Absolutely. But I think there’s always the discussion about wages and are these family sustaining jobs? Are these good jobs? Are these going to lead to prosperity? And I think that the solar industry, while there are a number of different occupations within the solar industry in many of the jobs are entry level and relatively low paying, the majority of these jobs do pay better than the national average. And another point I want to make about these jobs is that, there is a fairly low education barrier to entry. And so they are more or less accessible to people from all walks of life, which I think is really key when we’re talking about needing everyone’s participation, brain power and muscles. The fact that we really can’t afford to have anyone sitting on the sidelines, and the fact that we really want to make sure that our industry is diverse and inclusive, and these jobs are accessible to women, people of color, veterans, and other diverse or marginalized groups.

Jon Powers: Yeah. Let’s talk about that for a second. I mean one of the really interesting things that you guys have begun to do at The Solar Foundation and SEIA and partnerships launched a really interesting diversity campaign. If you look across the industry, your job, the sentence points out that obviously this is a pretty white male industry. You see it when you go to solar power international on a regular basis. The workforce is 73% white and it’s heavily male, but it is beginning to change, right? We at Clean Capital are very proud that we are almost 50/50, in terms of male and female in our workforce. We are not as diverse as we need to be. What advice you have for companies like ours to start to try to drive diversity within our workforces?

Andrea Luecke: Yeah. Well that’s awesome that you guys are gender parity at your firm. I think that’s terrific. Yeah. From a gender perspective, the solar industry is absolutely no way representative of the overall population. As you said, women make up only 26% of the solar workforce compared to 47% of the overall US economy. But this is not a problem that’s inherent with the solar industry, this is not unique to the solar industry. I love this stat, there are more men named John Jon, leading major US corporations than there are women leading major US corporations.

Jon Powers: Really?

Andrea Luecke: Yeah, so I mean this is just…

Jon Powers: Damn those Johns.

Andrea Luecke: Those Johns! It’s not just the solar industry. It’s great that the solar industry recognizes that it has a problem and wants to change, but it’s, everywhere. It’s other industries. IT, healthcare, tech, utilities. But if the solar industry is going to be an economic leader in the 21st century, which I sure hope it is, we therefore have a responsibility to lead, I think on diversity and inclusion.

It will help us to troubleshoot, have better ideas, it will help us to compete and I think importantly will help us widen the candidate pool. Companies are finding it’s difficult to fill positions. McCarthy has 600 positions it’s trying to fill. If we can widen the candidate pool and make sure that we are really casting a wide net, that’s great because the industry is seeking to double, triple, quadruple in size over the coming years. And so there are so many reasons why this is important. Just the other day we released a report and a best practices guide for companies, with some tips and tricks as to what companies can do to be increasing their number of women and people of color and veterans on staff. And of course all of that is also at our website, thesolarfoundation.org.

But yeah, it’s kind of dire. The news is not great. Women make 74 cents on the dollar compared to men and there’s a wage gap and a leadership gap. Men hold 80% of leadership positions and 88% of leaders in the solar industry are white as you suggested. But the industry is making it a huge priority. Abby Hopper from SEIA and CEO’s of other major solar companies are making it a priority. They’re making public statements, public commitments.

Jon Powers: Yeah Clean Capital is doing it.

Andrea Luecke: Yeah. And that’s really the first step. And I think showing leadership at the CEO level is the first step. Leaders should be vocal about diversity, they should set measurable goals, they should make staff accountable for meeting these goals, and then they should really evaluate their hiring and recruitment policies and sort of procedures. They should really look at that process through a a diversity inclusion lens.

They should review position descriptions and scrub out any potentially biased language and utilize a blind resume review process. They should radically extend outreach to diverse populations, go into partnership with their local HBCU, their historically black college or university. They should reach out to women’s groups, to the NAACP etc. And set goals and have a really diverse recruitment team and there’s so many different strategies. So the best practices guide has all of that.

Jon Powers: It can be overwhelming. So having [crosstalk 00:25:39].

Andrea Luecke: And we have a checklist which I think is helpful cause you can just sort of go down the checklist and see where you’re weak and so I think it is really, really critical. As I mentioned, it’s going to help us be more competitive and solve some of these very pressing issues that we have to solve in a very limited time.

And it will help us cast a wider net and get more qualified candidates into the pool. And so SEIA has issued a diversity challenge, which you said you signed onto. And I think [inaudible] a hundred the companies [inaudible] signed on. We do have companies signed on. So I’d love to put a plugin for folks [crosstalk 00:26:17] on a sign on to the diversity [inaudible] SEIA has, we have links on our website. So thesolarfoundation.org/diversity. And then I know that SEIA also has all of that on their website. I don’t know what the, Oh, I’m not sure what the website is.

Jon Powers: [inaudible 00:26:35] are in our social media for sure for folks. But yeah, you can find that at thesolarfoundation.org for sure. Excellent. So listen, I know we’re sort getting tight on time, but this is really interesting and I feel like there’s so many people in the industry that want to act and don’t always know how. And having things like a best practice guide is incredible helpful ’cause many of us have a such a place like Clean Capital. We’re not a big enough company where we have an HR team, right. So something that we have to look at it every time or we’re thinking about making it higher, going back and really thinking through how to incorporate diversity into that hire. Andrea, I appreciate the work that you guys are doing. I want to sort of step back out of solar for a second and put yourself back into smaller town Wisconsin and you are getting ready to graduate from high school or even later on when you’re graduating from college and, if you could give yourself one piece of advice. What would you say?

Andrea Luecke: Well, I didn’t have a very traditional career path, which is I think what makes me somewhat unique. I spent seven years abroad, I traveled the world, I saw everything I was very deep in the international development sector for many years, long before I got into solar. And I don’t have any regrets. I have absolutely no regrets about my path. I think it was pretty awesome and fun. But given that we are in a different era today, and the international panel on climate change gives us now just over 11 years to make immense transformations happen given that we have a timeline. Had I known we were facing such a crisis, I think I might’ve traveled a little less and I think I would’ve tried to get to where I am today, 10 to 15 years sooner.

I just would have been a lot more aggressive in developing my career. I would also have studied, I think the mega trends, I think automation is really, really happening and as is an increased need for grid modernization and cybersecurity. I would’ve gotten in on that 15 years ago, and I would study what’s happening with the workforce. Now what we’re seeing is this trend toward the shared economy and a trend toward having more contractors and freelance workers, and just the landscape is just becoming so much more dynamic and distributed. And I think had I known that I would have, maybe, I don’t know, maybe we would not be in this position.

Jon Powers: Sure. Well listen, I appreciate all the work you’re doing. We appreciate what The Solar Foundation is doing and I appreciate you joining us here at Experts Only podcast.

Andrea Luecke: Well you are so very welcome. Thanks for the opportunity.

Jon Powers: Absolutely and again for our listeners you can go to thesolarfoundation.org and get both the job census as well as a lot of great information about best practices regarding diversity. For future episodes please go to cleancapital.com. As always, we look forward to your insights and folks we should be interviewing, and I’d like to thank our our producers, Carly Baton and Darnell Lubin who was an intern helping in our, his final episode. As always we look forward to continuing the conversation. Thank you.

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