An Interview with Larry Sherwood and Andrea Luecke
on the Merger Between the Interstate Renewable
Energy Council and The Solar Foundation
The Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) and The Solar Foundation recently announced an agreement to merge into a single, expanded nonprofit dedicated to the rapid adoption of clean energy.
To give you the inside scoop on this pivotal transition for two of the nation’s leading clean energy nonprofits, we (virtually) sat down with Andrea Luecke and Larry Sherwood. Andrea is the longstanding President and Executive Director of the Solar Foundation, who has guided the organization for over ten years. Larry is the IREC President and CEO and the incoming Administrator of The Solar Foundation leading up to the completion of the merger in 2021, when the programs and staff of The Solar Foundation will transition to IREC.
In this blog post, we take a deeper dive into the thoughts behind the merger, what it means for IREC and The Solar Foundation, and what the future might look like for the combined organization.
The decision for these two respected organizations to merge didn’t happen overnight. Can you share some insight into how you came to the decision to unite?
Andrea: For The Solar Foundation this is the next chapter in a long story. I re-launched The Solar Foundation in 2010. At that point, the U.S. solar industry was just beginning to take off and there was a clear need for an organization that could champion and accelerate this growth.
Over the last few years, we began to see the strategic advantage of broadening our mission beyond solar to all clean energy technologies. Additionally, from an organizational standpoint, we saw that a merger would allow us to increase efficiencies and reduce administrative burdens among staff, freeing up more time for important program work. Lastly, we saw that it would allow us to pursue our joint priorities with increased resources instead of competing for funding. It’s taken a while to get here, but this merger is truly a win-win.
Larry: The thought process was similar for IREC. We saw that merging with The Solar Foundation would allow IREC to deepen our impact and increase the effectiveness of our programs to build the foundation for even more rapid growth of clean energy.
The Solar Foundation’s programs are very complimentary to IREC’s programs and fit well within our strategic plan. Additionally, our organizations have long been allies with a great deal of respect for each other’s teams and work.
“It’s taken a while to get here, but this merger is truly a win-win.” — Andrea Lueke, The Solar Foundation longstanding President and Executive Director
Andrea: Exactly. The Solar Foundation goes a long way back with IREC, and we have a history of partnership and mutual respect. IREC was one of our earliest friends during the relaunch phase, and I did a lot of work for them on career mapping and workforce development.
What I like most about IREC is its insistence on quality and standards. It is an organization that is methodical and measured in its approach. IREC never cuts corners. I like to think of The Solar Foundation as an organization with a lot of integrity as well. I am proud we have developed a strong national reputation for providing high-quality, objective, and unbiased information on solar energy and its benefits. In that way, we are quite similar to IREC.
It’s also important to note that each of our organizations has a strong track record of successfully managing federally funded programs and other grants.
Finally, we are also both deeply committed to breaking down regulatory and policy barriers to clean energy growth and we’re both deeply invested in workforce development.
Larry: I would also add that a commitment to equity in clean energy is an important commonality. Both IREC and The Solar Foundation have been committed to facilitating more equitable access to the benefits of clean energy for both customers and employees who stand to benefit from careers in—and intersecting with—this dynamic sector.
We firmly believe that all people should have access to the economic, health, and community benefits of clean energy regardless of income, race, housing situation, or other characteristics. And we are working to build inclusive pipelines of well-trained clean energy workers that reflect the rich diversity of our nation. Both of these things will be critical to achieving our vision of a 100% clean energy future that is reliable, resilient, and equitable.
“We firmly believe that all people should have access to the economic, health, and community benefits of clean energy regardless of income, race, housing situation, or other characteristics. And we are working to build inclusive pipelines of well-trained clean energy workers that reflect the rich diversity of our nation.” — Larry Sherwood, IREC President and CEO
You’ve touched upon this a bit already, but can you elaborate on some of the areas where you see particularly strong synergies between the two organizations’ existing projects or programs?
Andrea: Once again, workforce development is a shared priority for both of us. IREC is a leader in online training and credentialing, while The Solar Foundation has worked to promote workforce diversity and foster connections between job seekers, training providers, and employers. IREC has also worked for decades to reduce regulatory barriers to clean energy at the state and local levels; we’ve taken similar steps through our SolSmart program and SolarAPP.
Larry: Yes, agreed. IREC’s and The Solar Foundation’s workforce programs have particularly strong synergies. Merging them will greatly increase the effectiveness of both.
And The Solar Foundation’s work with local communities through the SolSmart program, is also complementary to IREC’s work to improve permitting and inspections for renewable energy systems through the Sustainable Energy Action Committee (SEAC).
Andrea: IREC is also active in Puerto Rico, where The Solar Foundation has been deeply engaged since Hurricane Maria.
Larry: I’m really looking forward to seeing how the two organizations can work together on these shared priorities.
Larry, you’ve recently taken over as the Administrator of The Solar Foundation while the merger is finalized. As you guide the two organizations through the transition into a single merged entity, do you have thoughts on how the programs will be combined together?
Larry: We are planning to integrate the programs in three program areas: State Regulatory Reform, Local Initiatives, and Workforce Development. In most of those areas, there will be some existing IREC programs and some existing Solar Foundation programs, so we will integrate the programs to maximize the effectiveness and the synergies of the different activities.
I’m incredibly excited to see the increased impact that will be possible for each of these combined programs.
Q: As Greentech Media notes, this union is the latest in a series of moves by renewable energy groups to unite around a common goal of producing 100% clean and renewable energy rather than pursuing that work from different technological focuses. What are your thoughts on that? What do you see as some of the advantages of uniting?
Andrea: Looking at the big picture, we’re now in the midst of a national and global movement to reach 100% clean energy as soon as possible. That means we can’t single out one technology or the other; it’s going to require a holistic focus on all renewables, as well as energy efficiency, using the best strategy that works for a particular locality or project. One of the major benefits of the merger is that we’re combining the technological expertise of both organizations.
At The Solar Foundation, that’s mainly focused on solar, along with compatible technologies like battery storage and electric vehicles. At IREC, it includes a wide range of distributed energy resources. Together, we’re creating a larger, more impactful nonprofit that is better positioned to help solve the climate crisis. This is not the time for turf wars or territorialism. We all need to join forces and see how we can work together to make a difference.
“We all need to join forces and see how we can work together to make a difference [in the fight against climate change].” — Andrea Lueke, The Solar Foundation longstanding President and Executive Director
Larry: Agreed. Solar, wind, storage, energy efficiency, demand response, electric vehicles—all of these different technologies need to work better together in order to reach 100% clean energy goals. A comprehensive approach that spans across different technologies, rather than keeping those technologies siloed, is the way we’re going to get to higher penetrations of renewable energy. Uniting as a single organization allows us to approach the needs of our country in a more holistic way to better facilitate that transition to 100% clean energy.
Q: It’s widely acknowledged that the next few years are critical for addressing climate change. Can you speak to the urgency of work to advance renewable energy and energy efficiency at this time and how that relates to this merger?
Andrea: This really gets to the heart of it. Worldwide, we have only a few short years to radically lower greenhouse gas emissions and avoid the worst-case scenarios for climate change. This will require placing a priority on all clean energy sources—certainly solar, but also wind, energy efficiency, electrified transportation, and more. This merger puts our combined organization in a position to greatly expand our scope in line with these urgent global priorities. I’d certainly call myself an advocate for solar, but more than anything I’m an advocate for climate change action in support of a livable future. Fundamentally, that’s the reason we’re all here.
Larry: Exactly. Progress on clean energy has never been more important.
Climate change has to be tackled from multiple angles. One of those angles is policy—making sure that the rules and regulations that govern clean energy is supportive of these industries. Another important angle is workforce development. If we’re going to build enough clean energy to reach our goals, we’ll need to have a skilled workforce that meets the needs of employers.
Clean energy technologies have shown themselves to be real players in the energy space. Now is the time to scale up the use of these technologies—and the policy and workforce development work IREC and The Solar Foundation builds the foundation for that growth.
“Climate change has to be tackled from multiple angles.” — Larry Sherwood, IREC President and CEO
Andrea: We need to look at the very best strategies to make rapid progress toward clean energy use at the federal, state, and local levels. I’m confident that the combined organization, with its reputation for excellence and its expertise across multiple technologies and approaches, will be able to carry this mission forward.
Q: What do you see in the merged organization’s future?
Larry: IREC and The Solar Foundation both have longstanding reputations for our expertise on clean energy. Both groups are deeply engaged with state and local governments to remove barriers to clean energy development, and both lead workforce programs with an emphasis on diversity and equity. Combining organizations means combining those goals as well as ideas, maximizing our effectiveness and impact.
Andrea: The combined organization will be larger and more ambitious than before, but the goal remains the same: We need to do away with extractive industries and facilitate and accelerate the transition to clean energy. At the same time, we remain deeply committed to making the benefits of clean energy available to everyone on an equitable basis. I, personally, am deeply committed to developing a highly qualified, diverse clean energy workforce and I know those are values and commitments that are shared across both organizations.
Currently, both The Solar Foundation and IREC have a lot of existing programs that will continue under the merger. On The Solar Foundation side, this includes the annual Solar Jobs Census, the Solar Industry Diversity Study, the SolSmart program for local governments, initiatives on workforce development and veterans, and so much more. Looking ahead, I am certain there will be many opportunities to seek new funding and develop new programs that further expand our reach.
Larry: The merger makes the combined organization a more prominent player both in the clean energy space and in advancing the future of clean energy. With it comes increased attention, increased effectiveness of our programs, and more funding opportunities. By merging, we also create administrative efficiencies, which allow more of the dollars that we raise to go into direct program services and less into administration.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
Andrea: On a personal note: When the merger discussions with IREC began earlier this year, I agreed I would step down as President and Executive Director of The Solar Foundation at the conclusion of the process. Certainly, it was a personal sacrifice, but one well worth the impact that is now possible. It’s hard to leave an organization where I’ve invested so much of my energy for the past decade, but I’m also very happy about where we’ve landed.
For me, this will be a welcome chance to pursue new opportunities in the clean energy space. In the meantime, I’ll be staying on as a consultant to The Solar Foundation to facilitate a smooth transition before the merger is finalized next year.
” I’m confident that the combined organization is in great hands, and I can’t wait to see what The Solar Foundation and IREC can achieve together.” — Andrea Lueke, The Solar Foundation longstanding President and Executive Director
Looking back over my time at The Solar Foundation, it’s been quite the ride. The organization I built over the last decade has become a foundational part of the clean energy revolution that made solar and other renewables a mainstream part of American life. I’m confident that the combined organization is in great hands, and I can’t wait to see what The Solar Foundation and IREC can achieve together.
Larry: At IREC, we are thrilled and excited to join forces with The Solar Foundation, which brings with them a talented and accomplished staff!