SAN FRANCISCO – Greek-American Andreas Karelas is the Founder and Executive Director of RE-volv, a nonprofit organization that empowers people around the country to help nonprofits in their communities go solar and raise awareness about the benefits of clean energy. He spoke with The National Herald about RE-volv and how study abroad in Greece and volunteering there helped focus his career on sustainability.
TNH: Tell us a bit about yourself, where did you grow up?
Andreas Karelas: I grew up in Staten Island, NY. I was very involved with the Holy Trinity-St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church. I went to Greek school there, participated on the soccer team, in GOYA, was a Hellenic dancer, and an altar boy. I went to college at American University in Washington, DC and studied economics. I stayed there for graduate school and completed a dual Master's degree program in International Affairs and Natural Resources & Sustainable Development. Afterwards I moved to San Francisco and have lived here since 2007.
TNH: Where in Greece is the family from originally?
AK: My family comes from Arcadia. My grandfather, Theodore Karelas, came to New York from Levidi as a teenager. My grandmother, Toula Karelas-Burke, was born in Chicago. Her parents came from Tripoli.
TNH: Have you always been interested in climate change and renewable energy?
AK: I always cared about the environment, but it was actually in Greece that I decided to focus my career on sustainability. I was very fortunate to be able to study abroad in Athens during the spring semester of 2004 through an amazing program called College Year in Athens, which was an incredible experience. In Athens, I saw solar hot water heaters on every roof, and I had never seen them in the United States. This made me want to explore why clean energy was being deployed in Greece but not in the United States and it sparked a lifelong passion. That summer, I stayed in Greece to see the Olympics, which of course, we had been hoping would return to Greece my whole life. That summer, I had my first professional work experience in environmental protection. I volunteered for the summer in Zakynthos with a group called ARCHELON – The Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece that protects the endangered Caretta Caretta Loggerhead sea turtle. It was a life-changing experience and was the beginning of my career in sustainability.
TNH: How did RE-volv come about?
AK: After I studied Natural Resources and Sustainable Development in graduate school, I moved to San Francisco to work with a clean energy nonprofit. I saw that so many people wanted to help fight climate change but didn't know how to get involved. It didn't seem like there was an easy way for people to take action that would result in a real impact. At the same time I saw that community-based nonprofits, like churches, schools, homeless shelters, etc. wanted to go solar to save money and be stewards of the environment, but because they are nonprofits, have an especially tough time getting solar financing. I realized that if we can help nonprofits go solar, that would help raise visibility of solar at the community level and help people see the benefits of solar, so I started RE-volv so that people could be empowered to solve climate change in their community and help bring solar to local nonprofits.
TNH: What has been the most challenging and/or rewarding aspect of being Executive Director at RE-volv?
AK: I started RE-volv in 2011 when I was 27 years old and didn't have a ton of professional experience. Starting a nonprofit from scratch requires so many different skills, so I had to learn a lot every day and I still do. Especially when you're doing something that hasn't been done before, it requires trying to share the vision with lots of people to gain their support and partnership in your efforts. Some people understood the idea and a lot did not. So like every organization, we've faced our fair share of challenges getting the word out about our work and raising money needed to scale. What's most rewarding for me is working with our volunteer Solar Ambassadors around the country, mostly college students, who are so excited to take action for clean energy in their community. They always impress me with how creative they are in helping to bring clean energy to local nonprofits in their area and raising awareness about clean energy in their community. I also love meeting the people who work at these incredible nonprofits and learning about their missions – from poverty alleviation to education to serving food to the hungry. It gives me great joy knowing that they can do more for their community thanks to solar energy lowering their electricity bills.
TNH: What is the most important thing TNH readers should know about RE-volv? How can they get involved?
AK: Well, if you know of a nonprofit in your community, perhaps your church or a school or an organization you volunteer with, see if they would like to go solar. You can train to be a Solar Ambassador on our website and we'll teach you all you need to know to talk to local nonprofits about the benefits of going solar. Of course, if you don't have time to volunteer, please consider joining our newsletter to stay up to date on our work and consider becoming a monthly donor to support us in our efforts. You can also learn more about our work and the clean energy movement from my book Climate Courage: How Tackling Climate Change Can Build Community Transform the Economy and Bridge the Political Divide in America.
TNH: How has the pandemic affected your work?
AK: Surprisingly enough, in 2020, RE-volv financed more solar than ever before. I think many nonprofit organizations affected by the economic downturn have been looking for new ways to cut costs and have come to us looking to explore solar.
TNH: What are you working on next?
AK: In September 2020, I published my first book, Climate Courage. I talk about how climate change solutions will actually improve our economy, create jobs, and how there's much more consensus among American citizens around climate solutions than many people realize. So part of my focus these days is trying to reach new audiences with this optimistic message about practical solutions to try and help change the narrative about climate change.
More information is available online: https://re-volv.org/get-involved/solar-ambassador/.
To sign up for the RE-volv newsletter: https://re-volv.org/#newsletter-anchor.
To become a monthly donor: https://re-volv.org/monthly_donor/.
Andreas Karelas’ book, Climate Courage: How Tackling Climate Change Can Build Community Transform the Economy and Bridge the Political Divide in America, is also available online: https://climatecourage.us/.