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Erica Mackie

For using solar to empower people.

Erica Mackie
Harnessing the Sun: Grid Alternatives installs about 1,600 solar systems a year across the U.S. and Central America. [Photo: Muriel de Seze, Getty Images]

Grid Alternatives connects community volunteers and would-be solar installers with low-income families to install solar electric systems at their homes, providing unemployed workers with valuable technical experience and struggling families with inexpensive electricity. Today, the company, which was cofounded by Erica Mackie (a former youth advocate and efficiency consultant who describes herself as “a social worker turned engineer turned something in between”), installs about 1,600 systems a year across the U.S. and Central America and has trained more than 20,000 solar installers, giving the green-collar economy a fresh pool of talent.

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Bonus Round

Where or how do you seek out creative inspiration?

I’m an engineer–it’s a funny thing to ask an engineer, about their creativity. I do things like ‘spreadsheet therapy.’ I was just talking to a bunch of our new employees about the start of Grid Alternatives, and how Tim and I really mapped out our vision in a spreadsheet. We had lots of to-do lists and lots of spreadsheets. I’m continually inspired by the families that work with Grid Alternatives and the job trainees who, in their free time, when they’re stretched in their lives to make ends meet, come out and take the initiative to learn and volunteer and get that training. 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 people coming together. It’s kind of the most common thread that holds us together as humans–you come together with community, neighbors, and family to make change happen. There’s that ripple effect of more and more people coming together and we can say, ‘Oh my gosh, we did something.’ That’s continually inspiring.

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?

I’m 7-months pregnant, so I’ve probably been up 40 times before I wake up in the morning. I’m an early bird, I’ll tell you that. I get up early, before my kids are up, so I have some time to myself, and I start working really early so I can start on east-coast time. I’ll also drop everything and have pancakes. There’s something refreshing to me about having a conversation with a 5-year-old that helps put the rest of your day in perspective.

What is one thing about your job that you think would surprise people?

The thing I said about spreadsheet therapy. I think there is something about changemakers that people want a hero, they want one person who invents something amazing that changes the world, and we put that person up on a pedestal. For me, I have a cofounder, and we lead the show together. In many ways, this is an effort of hundreds of thousands of people. The way change happens for us is kind of boring, one step at a time. It’s like, checking the next thing off a list, making a spreadsheet, trying to accomplish one task after another. While clearly we have a vision and we step back frequently to say what’s the vision in 10 years, in 20 years, it’s sometimes about taking out the trash or making the spreadsheet or redoing the spreadsheet and having the spreadsheet crash. It’s about trying to accomplish in a certain amount of time all the things you need to accomplish, and that doesn’t always feel brilliant.

What’s your favorite Twitter or Instagram account and why?

I deleted Facebook from my entire life and a lot of other things because it was making me too hard to be present. I’m not a huge social media person. I would much rather be on the phone with somebody or take the time in person to talk to somebody.

How do you keep track of everything you have to do? Can you send us a snapshot of your to-do list?

I’ve tried a lot of different things for to-do lists–on my computer; in this fancy little leather book. Mostly I resort to a lot of little random notebooks with a lot of chicken scratch. Last October, at the Solar Power International conference, I had my to-do list, took it into the bathroom with me and lost it, and never replaced it. That was over six months ago. I haven’t really created a new to-do list. I frequently email myself.

What are some things you do to refresh your mind when you’re in a rut?

I have a list on my wall of the five most important things I’m supposed to remember. Five things I need to accomplish this year. I also love to garden. There’s something fabulous about putting your hands in dirt. I grew up in rural Michigan–I do a lot of cooking and gardening as therapy to relax.

Who outside of your field inspires you the most and why?

That goes back to my same thing about distributed leadership and how change happens. I’m inspired by local heroes that are able to self-organize in collaborative ways with their communities. There are lots of those kinds of people out there. My neighbor across the street is incredible and knows everybody, and is able to make change in our neighborhood by bringing people together.

There are so many people like that in my community where I grew up in rural Michigan–the neighbor on the corner who had the huge garden and could bring fresh strawberries for someone who was sick, have everybody over to their house, say we’ll put a playground in this empty lot and all chip in for a swingset. I love people who just get stuff done and don’t look around for the camera. I just feel constantly inspired by the human capacity to self-organize.

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.

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