Interview with Abby Hopper & Erin Duncan, (SEIA)

Interview with Abby Hopper & Erin Duncan, Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA)

In this Green Light episode, Catherine spoke with her good friends, Abby Hopper & Erin Duncan, from SEIA – two of the incredible brains behind the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act! We spoke about what it takes to succeed in their roles, what it was like behind the scenes to get the IRA across the finish line & what parts of the IRA they’re most excited about. Notably, Abby & Erin both came from other industries – legal/government & education/government affairs – & are prime examples of the immense benefits our industry serves to gain from those with non-clean energy backgrounds. Not only does our industry reap significant benefits from those that are from outside the industry, hiring leaders & experts from other industries is also the primary way we will increase overall net diversity in clean energy. Congrats again, Erin & Abby, on successfully transitioning into & excelling within clean energy, & thank you for all that you have done on behalf of our industry!


Catherine: Thank you so much for joining me. I’m Catherine McLean, Founder and CEO of Dylan Green. And today I have with me the lovely ladies Abby Hopper and Erin Duncan from SEIA, welcome. 

Abby: Thank you. 

Erin: Thanks for having me. 

Catherine: Over the bridge from me. So I just want to congratulate you all on all the hard work and success with the Inflation Reduction Act off for those who view who don’t already know if you’ve been living under your bed somewhere. Abby is the CEO and President of SEIA, which is the Solar Energy Industry Association. And Erin is the Vice President of Congressional Affairs at SEIA. And I wanted to speak with you both because your work in this industry has been monumental. And despite the fact that you came from other industries. Can you provide a brief overview of your work prior to joining the clean energy industry?

Abby: Sure, I’m happy to go first. So Catherine, thank you so much for having us. It’s such an honor to be here with you. And also with my dear friend and colleague, Erin, who is an amazing leader. SAo I have been serving as the CEO of SEIA since early 2017. And I’m a lawyer by training. So arguing and advocating is my sort of academic background, I was a lawyer in private practice. For 10 years, I was a federal law clerk, I was a mergers and acquisitions attorney and I was a divorce attorney. So not really on the path to energy law, even much less sort of the solar industry, per se, as we can talk about why but I made a pretty, pretty abrupt career change and went into government work. I was the deputy assistant counsel at the Public Service Commission in Maryland for a couple of years. That was my foray into energy. I didn’t know anything about energy. There’s a lot of utility regulation and that sort of thread of the energy world and then I served as Governor O’Malley’s energy advisor. That’s where the politics and the policies started to come together. And right before this job, I was the director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management at the Department of Interior under President Obama. My Portfolio there was almost exclusive, I would say about 80%, oil and gas, right? If you think about, we had jurisdiction over the entire outer transnational, Outer Continental Shelf, so the vast billions of acres and the vast majority of that energy generation still is from oil and gas, there was a burgeoning and evolving renewable energy portfolio of offshore wind, but that was it a very small portion of what I did. So I came here to this job as the head of the solar industry, most recently from the oil and gas world. 

Catherine: Interesting. Erin. 

Erin: Yeah, so I am not a lawyer. I have a master’s degree in English. And I came to SEIA after spending almost 12 years at the National Education Association. As a lobbyist there, I did a lot, I’ll help lead their Republican outreach, and did a lot of trading in different opportunities. They’re staffed a couple of presidential conventions. And then prior to coming to NEA, I spent eight years on Capitol Hill, working for two Republican members of Congress in my home state of Nebraska. But this is my first foray, as you said, into renewable energy. And I hadn’t really touched energy policy, with the exception of some public lands policy, when I was at the National Education Association.

Catherine: So can you see coming from outside of our industry has been beneficial, Erin?

Erin: It certainly has led me to have a different perspective on things. I remember when I was interviewing for this job, talking to folks who are now my colleagues about communicating on the hill. And so much of the work that I do is basic communication, explaining our issues which can get really wonky in terms that are relatable and easily digestible and specific to a district or a state policy and that this person said this would be an asset to me, because I was learning these issues and I would have to in order to explain them, I have to learn them, but explain them in plain language. So I definitely brought that with me. I think also everybody’s learning, and particularly in renewable energy, I feel like a long timer is someone who has been here for like, 7, 8, 10 years. Because our industry isn’t that old. Right? So while it certainly can be daunting coming in from the outside, particularly coming from a field, like education policy where, where stuff has been on the books for 50 years or longer, depending on the state. Everyone’s in the process of learning, because this industry is evolving so quickly. 

Catherine: I think what’s interesting too, though, is that you and I did notice about you that you had worked with Republican senators, because I’ve become a big fan of being able to speak the language of both right and left, do you think that’s also been a benefit for you?

Erin: Yes. And I think it also just comes down to communicating with people and understanding what makes them tick. Every single member of Congress, Republican or Democrat, has to get reelected, every single member of Congress, Republican or Democrat has to raise money, every single member of Congress wants to bring jobs to their district that is the same whether you’re on the far left or the far right. And so, because we’re in solar, those industries just always rise to the top. And we always are able to share that information with you. We’re lobbying. 

Catherine: Yeah. And then Abby, obviously coming from outside the industries, oil and gas, how do you think that that helped you be able to champion this incredible legislation that would have passed? 

Abby: Yeah, I think one way in which it was really helpful is that I was the regulator, right? So I got lobbied by one of the most well funded industries in our nation. So I got to see what it’s like, and what that advocacy campaign looks like with a conflict slide with a public support it builds looks like I didn’t fully appreciate how valuable that would be. But once I came to this site, I realized like, wait a minute, a lot of experience to draw on here. And I agree with Erin, sort of not being a solar policy wonk meant that I too hard to figure out how to communicate these issues in very relatable, easily translatable terms. I think that’s one of our magic sauces, is that we can take highly technical information, super important business priorities, and put them in the language in which policymakers need to hear them in order to act on them. And we’re not particularly wedded to like the history of what has been and you need to understand what was like in 2007, and that is historical context, but in 2022, I think those skills are super important, right? And they track like Erin said, they transfer across party lines, they transfer across geographic lines, they transfer across industries. 

Catherine: Yeah, this is something I feel really strongly about. Like, I’ve met some incredible women, diverse candidates at FERC, for example, who would like love to get on the other side of the fence and to work for a solar developer or wind developer, and they just really struggle, because they’ve just get kind of pigeon holed in this kind of regulator. And I’m thinking to myself, that just seems like it would be so valuable to me to be on the other side, but what do I know? I’m not so expert. 

Abby: I might argue at that point. What you are an expert at is how to translate skills. Right? And you’re exactly right, that being the recipient of lobbying and advocacy makes you much better lobbyists and advocates. 

Erin: Yeah. And I think when we’re looking at, again, we’re talking about federal affairs today, but it’s always coming up with a game plan, right? Who is your audience? What tools do you have? What holes exist in the research that you need to go out and get resources for which Abby was always super competitive, and getting us those resources? The Ira did not fall from the sky. We earned that bill. Right. So I’m just saying like, those skills, at least in my part of the business here at SEIA. Those are true, whether you’re, we’re selling solar now, but whether you’re selling solar, or you’re coming from a totally different industry like that sales transfers for sure. 

Catherine: And speaking of which, my next question, thank you Erin, is around transferability. So what would you each say it takes to succeed in your roles, and are there certain industries or types of jobs outside of clean tech that you think are kind of more conducive to transitioning into our industry, or roles like yours specifically? 

Abby: I have the really amazing privilege of being the CEO, which with that comes the certain kind of skills that I need, I need to be good at managing people and to be good at building a business and to be really good at communicating. But I think one of my most important skills is focusing on the big picture and a strategy, right, and sort of constantly keeping us moving towards the large thing we’re trying to accomplish and not getting dragged into that daily, like do we send this email? Do we not send this email? Is this particular person upset? I’m aware of all of that, but it’s not my best and highest use to be managing all of that. I have really amazing people like Erin, who ‘s excellent at: oh, I got it. I don’t have to be all in that. So it was me and my role, skills are in communication. People understand I’m leading a multimillion dollar, 10s of millions of dollar business, that takes some time, and energy and effort. Those are the skills that I think made me really good at my job and this long term strategy. And so when I’m hiring, I’m looking for people, I actually don’t really care where people come from as a hiring manager. Right, I hired Erin because she was the best lobbyist. And I knew that she was super smart and could learn energy. But what I didn’t want to have to teach her was her trade. Right? Her trade is lobbying, and she has the solar lens on now. So I look for people. And it doesn’t matter what industry, as I said, we’re really good communicators, who kind of write clearly, but also have that ability to navigate people and personalities? Right? We’re very given the work we do. We’re in a very human centric operation. And so both members of Congress, governors, state legislators, regulatory Commission’s are members, who are our customers. I and my team are interfacing with hundreds of people a week. So we just hired someone who had her own business in hospitality because we do a lot of events, right? I don’t care if she knows about solar, she knows how to plan and really great event right, my head of membership and sales comes from the Association of bus like the buses that you go on tours with. Who knew there was an association for that? I didn’t. He’s really good at sales. Right. So now he knows about solar. We just hired an attorney on a regular Tory team from I worked with an interior and was that national wildlife? So it doesn’t have to be sort of in this insular industry, it really is I think, for any employer deciding what are the skill sets that are most important? And seeing the transferability. I’d love to hear what Erin thinks about this, given that she lived it.

Erin: Yeah, I think the most important, well all of the stuff Abby said, but also I think she said this implicitly, but I want to say explicitly, like the ability to like, listen, and have some humility around what you don’t know. That’s really, really important. And I think that I don’t know how that transfers from skill to skill. I think it’s more of a personal characteristic. I think it’s very, very important when you’re learning anything and having some curiosity around. I have a liberal arts background as I started with. So my skill set is knowing a tiny bit about a lot of stuff. And so, the opportunity to go deep, now we’re doing implementation. I mean, learning about certified payroll. It’s interesting, like, it’s interesting to learn about how businesses run, and it’s so phenomenal to talk to people that work at our companies and learn about like, what they care about or challenges they face, permitting something on federal lands and then figuring out solutions that either exist or bills we can endorse and work to pass or coming up with strategies to advocate for changes. For example, problem solving. I think that’s really a tremendous important skill, in lobbying and in life, right. So, I would say those two things, and then also, I have to go back to Abby, I mean, I don’t do just the work myself, I have a whole team that works with me in the Congressional Affairs Department. And they’re just phenomenal people and they’re good people, and they’re good at their jobs. And that makes everything so much better. Just people that like to be with other people and kind of build around that same value of sort of trust and respect, which I have to say that just because she’s my boss, but like working at SEIA, that is just such a phenomenal piece of who we are. 

Catherine: I see it though, because I have the privilege of obviously being in the same location as you, I hang out with you guys a lot. And I see it amongst all of you that you’re just, you’re very good at your jobs, of course, but you’re also just lovely people to be around, like you’re just a pleasure to engage with. And I think that that’s the role, really indicative of the culture that you’re building there. And this is what I try so hard to explain to clients is like, please, please, please, like we can let’s not just interview and experience, let’s look at skills and attributes. Let’s look at cultural fit this, you hit the nail on the head, Erin, I have so many clients that we talk about intellectual curiosity, like someone who I have a woman at the moment who’s so keen to get in our space. And he’s like, putting herself through the solar industry, what’s it called SEI doing like the modeling tests and everything. So she can really make herself and me quite frankly, proud when she’s doing these interviews. I just want to give these people an opportunity that there’s so many jobs that we’re trying to fill.

Abby: Yeah, and I think it does as another person doing the hiring, it takes a bit of a leap of faith. Yeah, it does. But I will say, in my own career, every job I’ve had, I wasn’t necessarily qualified on the paper. Right? If you looked at why don’t you hire the CEO of a solar industry association, who doesn’t know that much about the solar industry? Or why would you put me at the head of oil and gas when I come from Maryland? Like, we don’t have enough in Maryland. I didn’t take family law or evidence before I became a divorce lawyer, you guys, my career trajectory is find something I’ve never done and don’t think about, and then go be the boss of it. That’s what I do. But people kept taking risks on me, right, my boss’s always have taken a risk on me. And I think it’s because I’ve had the pleasure and honor of working for people that have valued intellectual curiosity, culture, and smart, really smart, like, we’re really smart people, and we can figure that part out.

Catherine: I really firmly believe that past behavior is indicative of future behavior. You are a winner. And whenever you’ve tried to do something you succeeded. And I think this is what I am trying to talk to my clients about is it’s not just about a year here a year there a year here a year there, like what can you accomplish in that time? Have they gone places and done things and been successful? If they have, even if that is in a carnival, then they’re going to be successful. It really is about the person. 

Abby: Yeah. Well, I know when, then Erin, I’ll let you talk. But I just want to brag on you for a minute. Like when I check Erin’s references I checked on myself for a person that reports directly to me. The way that her colleagues and former bosses spoke about her. It wasn’t about she knows the most about this one arcane piece of education law. It was the way that she approached the work and sort of how she brought her whole self to her work and how she was a incredible collaborator. And not just a part of a collaboration, but leading the collaboration. And so you think about employers and what they’re looking for though, rely on the people that have worked with them they’ll tell you, because I have lots of checks where I hang up the phone and think, oh, yeah, I’m not gonna hire that person.

Catherine: You dodged a bullet, and they may have the best resume of the bench. Well, what were you gonna say, Erin?

Erin: First of all, thank you for sharing that Abby. And I also just want to say I’ve learned that from Abby also. Even fairly recently we were going through a hiring process and it just gut check. And also really listening when you check those references I think is really, really important what people are saying and not saying. It’s not just about winning though, it’s also like the battles you fought, right. So at NDA, it’s the nation’s largest professional organization, it’s a labor union. It has 3 million members. I felt like I really saw and did and experienced the highs and lows of what it means to work in a really high profile, powerful organization. And I knew what that felt and tasted like. And I also knew what losing felt like. And I also felt like I was forged in some flames there. And I think bringing that experience here with me was really helpful. So it’s knowing how to pick yourself back up and keep fighting. Because there was a bill that I worked on that finally got signed into law, after I started here at SEIA, three and a half years ago, that I worked on at the NDA for 12 years because sometimes it takes that long to pass something. And so just knowing that, sometimes you’re in it for a long game, sometimes it’s a really intense period. But you have to keep picking yourself up and moving forward. That’s really important. Oh, I have those things that I brought from my old job. 

Catherine: Yeah, I totally agree with you, as much as I don’t like to admit it, the losses you do learn more from, but I was never like them as much.

Abby: I’m with Erin. When I was working for the governor, I was lobbying for an offshore wind bill. And I got my rear end handed to me twice before we passed it right, and what I learned from each of them, and they were public, humiliating losses. I had my governor in front of the legislative committee testifying next to me, and then couldn’t deliver a win. That’s not really ideal career development. But I learned a lot about how to build a coalition how to understand political power, like what we needed. And it was the second offshore windmill in the country to pass and look at that industry now. 

Catherine: Yeah, yeah. So what am I talking about next is what you’re most proud of? What are some of the accomplishments that you’re most proud of in terms of your clean energy work thus far?

Erin:  I think what I am most proud of is the IRA. I think that is still sinking in the reality of that passing. But what I’m really the most proud of is the year and a half, two years before, and Abby can share her own. We were, there were so many things that fell just right. Let’s so there’s the right place, right time scenario, stuff that goes into it. And then there’s also just slugging it out drudging through CRS reports, talking to like 100 million people, it felt like just endless zoom calls and doing that all through COVID. Also, I felt like I was lobbying with one hand tied behind my back a lot of the time. Not only that, but alsoI’m a mom with two little kids and my kids didn’t go to school for 18 months. So just keeping my team whole  and happy and just the whole product. So it’s not just the bill, but really, if you ask me the whole experience of that. I’m proud of all of us.

Catherine: I think sometimes as women we don’t give ourselves enough to pass back and like look in the mirror and be like, You know what? I did a really good job.

Erin: Yeah, it was a good feeling. Yes. Okay. All right. The best part I will say is that my daughter learned about global warming in online school. It’s second grade, which we can discuss the curriculum, their choice for seven year old and immediately, like literally started bawling. So it felt really good to be able to tell my kids mommy’’s doing something to make this better for you. 

Catherine: I’ll just say one thing off the back of that before I let you speak Abby. Dillon, my son, was on his tablet, he was playing a video game. And it was a wind turbine, and it was powering a home. And he was learning about the wind turbine. And I was like, I do that! I do that! I do like that electricity and stuff. And he’s like, the hairdryer? I was like their dryer. Yes. And it was like, it’s such an amazing feeling, it sounds so silly. But you feel like what you’re doing matters. Like it’s important, you know? 

Abby: Because it is!

Catherine: Yeah. Tell me everything, Abby. What do you most proud of? 

Abby: Oh, my gosh. I mean, I echo what Erin said that the passage of the IRA is absolutely a professional highlight. And the journey to get there, the multi year journey to get there. And the conditions under which we got there were pretty amazing. Erin did just a great job of outlining the strategy and sticking with it. And you can imagine that given sort of the highs and the lows and the intrigue and the rumors that Erin and I and everyone took so much incoming questioning our judgment question or assessment, questioning our tactics. It was a lot. It was a lot. Like we’re here smiley with lipstick on but it was not always smiley with lipstick on time, right. There were a lot of moments where we thought, are we doing this right? Erin had a vision about where we’re headed. I tell her all the time, I’ll follow her anywhere.

So that’s sort of the marquee part. But I feel really strongly, one of the things I’ve learned that I’m really good at, and I’ll practice saying that I’m really good at is putting together a team. A really a high functioning team, extremely competent, and fun team. Yeah, we were really great. We really like each other, the morale is high. It’s fun to work here. And we work really hard. Yeah, but it’s really fun. And I’ve been here long enough now that I’ve got to really shape and mold the team. And some people have been here much longer than me. And some people have joined since I’ve gotten here, but it’s really meshed really well. So I felt really, really good about that. And the third thing is that I didn’t know anybody when I got in this industry, like legit. Nobody. And I have made it my business to meet particularly young women, right? Young women in this industry. I just had lunch with one right before this chat that we’re having. And to be able to watch them, I sound like an old lady, like watch them grow. And develop in their careers. And like some of them have had babies now, some of them have made career changes, some of them have gotten divorced, some of them gotten married. And it is very much a two way conversation. It’s not just me being like, Oh, you’re doing so great. But they provide feedback to me, and they give me insight on what’s happening on the marketplace. I was just thinking about sitting here. I know both of your children really well, that’s pretty magical to work, have this industry and have, all of us have built this community around us. And we not just know each other, we know each others kids. Yeah, they’re amazing.

And just so that the world does not stop at the professional door. And that’s the kind of world that I want to work in. I know not everyone wants to do that. But for me, so much of what I do is a huge part of who I am. And so I like having that fluidity between my professional colleagues and my my personal life being known. Erin and I and you, we show up as highly competent, professional moms. We’re all those things. And we don’t have to choose one over the other. 

Catherine: Yeah. And that’s one of the things that I love so much about the space. And I think what all the candidates that I placed in the space who aren’t from the space, they’re like, you were right Catherine. Everybody’s so nice, so friendly. And I guess what kind of makes me a little worried sometimes is it’s like as we get bigger and bigger and bigger, and there’s like more and more companies and money and opportunities. I think it needs to happen and I’m excited for it. But I hope we don’t lose that because I really it’s one of the things I love most about the industry, you know? 

Abby: Yeah. Well, hopefully we won’t right? As we build these networks, there will always be this support system of women in particular. Not just women that hold each other up. 

Erin: I was just gonna say I was thinking about already plus and just like the vibe there last week we had 27,000 people, which only represents like a fraction of our industry. And is it weird to say a trade show felt joyful, but I think it actually felt like one. We were all glad to be out of the house and like doing a work trip. Also, it’s really, really exciting to continue to innovate and connect with people. And I agree with Abby, it’s so exciting to see we have a colleague who just got married and her career has taken off, and it’s just like, I’m gonna get teary eyed. But it’s so joyful to watch someone just get on the escalator. And just keep going. And both personally and professionally. 

Catherine: Those were the women’s events and SEIA.  I mean, you couldn’t get in if you’d like to binge on it. It was the hottest tickets in town were the women’s events, it was so unbelievable. And I think what was so amazing about it was like, a lot of the women’s events there were loads of people I didn’t know. And it just shows you, I feel like I know why a lot of women, just there are just so many amazing women in our industry. And it’s just really, really exciting, that we’re the hottest ticket in town.

So the final question I have is about IRA. As you know, the IRA, Inflation Reduction Act was one of the hottest topics at re plus sticking with our re plus this year. So I have to ask, what parts of the IRA are you most excited about specifically, or that you think will be most impactful?

Erin: So, this is really big picture. Because there’s so many great things in the IRA. It’s like a salad bar of awesome. But the thing that I am most excited about is just structurally, if we do it, right. If we’ve crafted the incentives correctly, around bringing more equity, not just into energy, but into our economy. Bringing, I really believe a rising tide lifts everyone. And I think we’re at a time in our history, that it is quite urgent, that we really look at this past and learn from it and do better. And I know, because we worked on these pieces around environmental justice and inclusion in workforce recruiting, and hiring and pay, and on and on and on domestic industries coming back through the manufacturing incentives. There’s so much hope in this bill. For everyone, and so my deepest desire and excitement is around full implementation that works. So that remains to be seen. And also that really changes the economy in ways that help so many families. That’s my most exciting part.

Abby: Erin said it a few minutes ago that the IRA did not fall out of the sky. It was years of work. And part of that work was, and I feel I feel like I’m accurate in saying this, that SEIA in particular, was a leading voice on the issue of equity being at the center of this piece of legislation, right. There were clearly members of Congress who had that vision. But in terms of the trades and the corporate side, we were notable for our clear and focused voice on this right and building coalitions and providing solutions and talking with companies about what was doable and what was not doable and really advocating hard and winning on those things. And so we’ve never, as Erin said, sort of the structure of the bill puts equity at the center and insents economic behavior with social outcomes. And marries the two which is pretty amazing for a piece of tax legislation, which ultimately, is where a vast majority of it, but what I feel is like the most hopeful is exactly what Erin said. This is not just a piece of legislation. This is an opportunity that we need to realize, but an opportunity to really change the way we feel our economy and change the way that energy is produced and manufactured here in the United States. And sometimes I get a little choked up about how we use the word transformational a lot, but this is a really transformational piece of legislation. Right? We will look back I think this in five years, 10 years and certainly 20 years and know that this is when the arc of history bent, and we did it differently than we’ve done it before. And I’ve had just a little role to play, and that has been awe inspiring and such an honor. 

Catherine: Thank you so much for your time, ladies, and I really appreciate you both and all the work that you do and your friendship. And thanks again. 

Abby: Such a pleasure you guys. 

Erin: Thank you.