Interview

Rise Up Midwest effort seeks to grow main street energy investments

Movement created in response to COVID-19 recession

Rise Up Midwest!

 

Led by the Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA), Rise Up Midwest is a coalition of businesses, individuals, organizations, jurisdictions, and workforce development partners working in coordination to create a groundswell of support for commonsense, strategic, and swift policy action and market development in response to the COVID-19 recession.

Joel Haskard with CERTs interviewed Nick Hylla, MREA Executive Director, to learn more.

 

For many of the people I work with and know, our resolve has never been greater and the approach is very much the same: Work hard. Be kind, Laugh a lot. Focus on what is achievable, Strive for big goals. Lead by example. And, never give up.

Nick Hylla, Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA) Executive Director

Joel Haskard: Nick, tell us a bit about yourself and one thing we might not know about you.

Nick Hylla: I started volunteering for the Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA) nearly 20 years ago while in graduate school studying natural resource management. For the most part, I helped cook pizzas for 3 days every year when they hosted The Energy Fair, the nation's largest and longest running public education event focused on renewable energy.  At that time (and still today) I was inspired by the vision and dedication of the people at MREA. The MREA's motto at the time was "Putting the Doable in Renewable" and it was the commitment to practice and demonstration that really caught me. I particularly liked the thinking that for any 'blue collar' person a "back to the land" and "sustainable" and "clean energy" and "local" future was possible with personal sacrifice. Support the local economy and your own self-sufficiency. Invest in appropriate technology and rewarding relationships. Be frugal. Be kind. And with some luck, patience, practice, skill, persistence, and a good community you could afford a small piece of land, a farmstead, a solar electric system, a small business venture, a contribution to a worthy cause... and by working together and sharing successes we could change the conversation and chart a new and better course for "mainstream" America. The proof was all around me at The Energy Fair so I never looked back.

Some things have changed since then and some have stayed the same. I'm now the Executive Director at MREA, solar is being deployed all around us by the gigawatt, America's most valuable car company is electric, and though much progress has been made, the fights of 30 years ago are still alive and growing in complexity, urgency, and intensity. For many of the people I work with and know, our resolve has never been greater and the approach is very much the same: Work hard. Be kind, Laugh a lot. Focus on what is achievable, Strive for big goals. Lead by example. And, never give up.

 

Joel Haskard: What has 2020 been like for MREA staff and programming?

Nick Hylla: Well, suffice it to say, the pandemic was a swift kick in the pants. We were lucky to get a copy of a pandemic response plan that was being circulated through the national Amicus solar cooperative and it opened our eyes early to the severity of what we were facing and some of the necessary business response. It was a bit strange to read something the first time with a general response of "Really? This seems extreme." and then reading it again a few days later and thinking "This is a good plan. We need to do that." It was a good reminder of the value of trusted professional relationships and networks in times of crisis.

It quickly became apparent to us that the energy transition will be critical to widespread employment and economic recovery. It became apparent that the federal government will be increasingly hamstrung to lead a recovery. And, we realized that states that respond quickly and strategically in economic response will lead the recovery. With all of this in mind, we launched the public education campaign, Rise Up Midwest, to build a coalition of groups to grow widespread support for a regional clean energy recovery.

Nick Hylla, Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA) Executive Director
 

Joel Haskard: You have recently launched the Rise Up Midwest campaign, how did this come about?

Nick Hylla: Rise Up Midwest was an initiative waiting for the right moment. At MREA, our focus is on education, training, and deployment in service of making good on policy advancements and creating groundswell support for good policy. Public education and awareness is critical to develop clean energy markets and we try to focus all of our efforts in this way to support market development. Since clean energy in the US is a 50 state experiment, we have seen a real need to share successes (and failures) across state lines and our Midwest footprint helps us do that. We believe that with the investments we've made and the resources we have, the Midwest could be a global leader in the transition to clean energy. And, how it can be done to best benefit local communities. 

It quickly became apparent to us that the energy transition will be critical to widespread employment and economic recovery. It became apparent that the federal government will be increasingly hamstrung to lead a recovery. And, we realized that states that respond quickly and strategically in economic response will lead the recovery. With all of this in mind, we launched the public education campaign, Rise Up Midwest, to build a coalition of groups to grow widespread support for a regional clean energy recovery.

Joel Haskard: Tell us more about the Rise Up Midwest campaign and what’s to come in months ahead. 

Nick Hylla: We launched the campaign by reaching out to partners to commit, with us, to a series of belief statements that frame the need for a clean energy response.  60 organizations have already signed on and the list is growing.  The goal of the coalition is to develop a groundswell of support for programs and policies that expand access to efficiency and renewables for Midwest homes and businesses and that support widespread employment growth in clean energy.  We've been working with partners throughout the Midwest to develop a 'Call to Action' publication that lays the groundwork for how households, businesses, local jurisdictions, regulators, state policy makers, utilities, and philanthropic organizations can support the clean energy transition.  The 'Call to Action' will highlight successful initiatives, policies, and programs that are working in a variety of Midwest states and provide roadmaps for how states can build off of existing successes. 

We also launched the Rise Up! podcast to share opinions and news that highlight the Midwest's brightest voices. We have developed partnerships with the NAACP and community groups in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Detroit, and Indiana to invest in job training for communities in need. And, we are preparing to mobilize our networks in support of actions that grow main street clean energy investment, grid modernization, and employment opportunities in clean energy.

And finally, we've committed to keep repeating the below mantra until we succeed ;)

Let’s put people to work. Let’s make home and business investments that reduce expenses for the long-term. Let’s build a strong and resilient electric grid that weathers future crises. Let’s invest our energy dollars locally. Let’s grow existing Midwest clean energy policies and programs that work. Let’s build an energy economy that best serves people and the places we live and love.

Listen to an episode of the Rise Up! Podcast below or see all episodes.

 

Joel Haskard: MREA has been a leader in solar training through the years. What do you see as being key ingredients for ramping up job growth in the clean energy sector?

Nick Hylla: Businesses need market stability to make investments in employees.  In this context, states and their regulatory bodies are critical to defining market rules and terms.  What is clear now is that with clear rules and set timeframes the clean energy industry will grow explosively.  This leads to widespread investment in workforce training. 

Until we can agree on the rules of the game (and I think we are getting there in nearly all Midwest states despite our apparent political differences) we are training for a clean energy future and encouraging workers new to the industry to get the best job they can (e.g. decommissioning coal plants), gain related experience, and join the battle for hearts and minds so we all commit to a widespread rebuilding or our energy economy.

If we want a society that we are truly proud of then every single person who has the ability to help tilt the scales toward greater economic and social justice must do so now.

Nick Hylla, Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA) Executive Director

Joel Haskard: How do you see equity and environmental justice connecting with MREA's work and to the clean energy sector broadly?

Nick Hylla: Social and economic justice is the calling of our time.  

I think I can speak for most people at the MREA in saying that we share this sentiment:  If we want a society that we are truly proud of then every single person who has the ability to help tilt the scales toward greater economic and social justice must do so now. Whether these efforts are in affordable housing, lending, health care, food access, business investment, education, justice system reform, or energy, all of us must try. As a mission-based organization this has us re-prioritizing our work and focusing training efforts in communities of need.  As an industry, we need to build broader partnerships from outside our industry so that we can spread the adoption of efficiency and solar to people that need it most. There is a lot of work to do.  It is my privilege to have meaningful work. We will be working in every way we can so that others have that same privilege. We hope you will join us.

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