Board of Advisors


Rye Barcott (Chairman)

Rye is co-founder and managing partner of Double Time Capital, an investment firm that focuses on cleaner energy assets. A TED Fellow, he worked previously at Duke Energy, where he led a team focused on disruptive innovation for the Chairman and CEO. He is the author of It Happened on the Way to War, a memoir about his experience co-founding the non-governmental organization Carolina For Kibera while serving as a U.S. Marine. He lives in North Carolina with his wife and children.


Richard Harkrader

Richard Harkrader, an architect emeritus, building contractor, solar installer, and real estate developer, is the founder and partner of two other businesses: New Morning Solar Realty and Sister Communities of San Ramon. Richard is Treasurer and Projects Manager for Sister Communities of San Ramon Nicaragua where he and his wife, Lonna, manage community development projects. Mr. Harkrader advocates for renewable energy and energy efficiency, serving three times as Chair of the NC Sustainable Energy Association, where he is currently on the Board. He was recently named Treasurer and serves on the Board of Directors for the North Carolina Clean Energy Business Alliance. He served for 7 years as the environmental representative on the NC Legislative Study Commission on Electric Utility Deregulation and was instrumental in starting NC Green Power, where he was Vice Chair for 2 years. Mr. Harkrader lives in Durham, NC.


Markus Wilhelm

Markus is the founder and CEO of Strata Solar. He has over 25 years of experience in the media industry, primarily with Bertelsmann AG and Time Warner; serving as CEO for publishing and direct marketing firms including Bookspan, Doubleday Direct, in the UK, Canada, Australia/New Zealand, China, and Korea. Markus has been a member and Chairman of many boards – including Chairman of the Direct Marketing Association, Board member of the DMEF, and Board member of Barnes & Noble to name a few. Markus is currently a Board member of Guthy-Renker, he is a Member of the Energy Policy Council North Carolina, Chairman of the Renewables Committee, on the Advisory Board at the UNC School of Public Health, and he is on the Advisory Board of Collider Media.


Alex Wilhelm (Co-Founder)

While working at a residential solar company in California during the summer of 2013, Alex Wilhelm learned the importance of electricity in rural communities. After moving back to Chapel Hill, NC, he decided to take a leap of faith and started United Solar Initiative, a scalable and sustainable non-profit organization. Growing up in a family of entrepreneurs, Alex was well aware of the sacrifices necessary to turn an idea into a reality. Alex hopes with USI, he can catalyze the world’s transition to a more sustainable energy source by working with the developing solar industry. Alex is currently a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he studies finance at the Kenan-Flagler Business School. At UNC, Alex is the president of the Student Environmental Action Coalition and the Philanthropy Chair for Chi Psi Fraternity. Alex is currently living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and can be contacted at


Robert E. Gary Jr.

Mr. Gary joined Willis in 2012. Since his return, he has developed a suite of products for the solar industry. With his business partner Danny Seagraves, he has developed both a tax credit and revenue shortfall product that de-risks the solar transactions, allowing for more efficient financing in this fast growing energy segment. By insuring the top line revenue of a solar facility, one is able to receive a lower cost of capital, and negotiate better financing terms. In 2015, Mr. Gary was named a Power Broker by Risk and Insurance Magazine for this innovative coverage and the customer service he and his team deliver to their client base. Bob is the father of 6-year-old twins, Wyatt and Katie, and a 20-year-old, Savanna. He is married to Jennifer and resides in Charlotte, NC.

Board of Directors


Steven Thomsen (Co-Founder, President)

Steven co-founded USI as a blending of two passions - international development and renewable energy. After studying Renewable Energy at Durham Tech, Steven traveled to Kenya to study the potential impact of solar power on people living without electricity. Prior to USI, Steven assisted with the design and installation of a solar power system on a remote school in Nicaragua. He also spent six months in Kenya working alongside rural community members to promote small-scale commercial beekeeping. Steven brings a wealth of international development experience to USI through his work in Kenya as well as his work with Habitat for Humanity, World Relief, and Uhuru Child. Steven earned a BS in Marketing from the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse. Steven resides in Durham, NC where he manages utility-scale solar projects for Strata Solar by day and serves as the president and treasurer of United Solar Initiative by night. He's passionate about photography, traveling, and all types of outdoor activities. He can be contacted at


Ed Witkin (Co-Founder, Vice President)

Ed Witkin has been designing and installing solar electric systems for both on and off-grid applications since 1987. He’s also been involved with renewable energy education through workshops, teaching engagements, articles in Home Power Magazine and displays at solar energy fairs and festivals. Ed and his family lived in an off-grid solar powered post and beam house in Connecticut that he built in 1991, using a solar electric generator to run all the power tools during the on-site construction. In 2003, Ed moved to North Carolina and started Carrboro Solar Works, LLC, designing and installing solar electric systems. In 2008, he joined with Solar Tech South, LLC (Now Strata Solar) of Chapel Hill, which was a start-up company in need of someone with a background in solar energy. In 2011, Ed took a position as the Sustainability Coordinator at Durham Technical Community College, where he taught for three years. During that time he and one of his students, Steven Thomsen, collaborated with Alex Wilhelm to design and build a solar electric generator for the first United Solar Initiative project at a remote school in Nicaragua. Ed feels lucky to call Chapel Hill home along with his wife, children, and grandchildren.


Jack Schaufler (Director of Development)

Jack Schaufler is currently working at Strata Solar in Chapel Hill, NC after recently graduating as a  Chancellor’s Scholar from Appalachian State University with a degree in Sustainable Technology. Jack grew up with USI co-founder and president Alex Wilhelm in Chapel Hill and is currently serving as the Director of Development for United Solar Initiative. He hopes to continue to pursue his passion for developing the solar energy industry throughout his career. His personal interests include hiking, disc golfing, basketball, and pretty much anything outside. Currently residing in Chapel Hill, Jack can be contacted at


Chibuzor Obi Ugokwe (Director of Marketing)

Chibuzor Obi Ugokwe is a recent graduate of the Daytime MBA Program at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. Prior to heading to North Carolina to get his Masters, Chibuzor founded Mixed Media Solutions, a small web development company out of Brooklyn, New York. Since its founding, Mixed Media Solutions has developed websites with the New York Daily News, Duke University's Business in Africa Club, and the winners of the 2011 MIT Sloan's Africa Innovate competition. His recent projects include onsite consulting work with non-profits in Johannesburg, South Africa, private equity research with an Angel Investor in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and product management responsibilities in Cisco's Cloud Systems Management Technology Group. Chibuzor is looking forward to moving to the Bay Area this fall to work as a Product Manager in Cisco's Mobile Internet Technology Group. Obi can be contacted at


Charlie Egan (Director of Fundraising)

Charlie is currently a member of General Electric's Financial Management Program (FMP) for GE Power & Renewables.  He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in May 2016 with a double major in business administration (BS) and environmental studies (BA). His passion for community service and interests in renewable energy and rural electrification brought him to his involvement as a Board Member with United Solar Initiative.  You can contact Charlie at


Samantha Childress (Director of Community Engagement)

Samantha Childress is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Environmental Management at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, concentrating in Energy. Samantha recently graduated from Appalachian State University with a degree in Appropriate Technology and minor in Sustainable Development. She has participated in three USI installations in Nicaragua and currently leads the Operations and Maintenance team, where she communicates with community leaders to ensure systems are operating properly and positively impacting the communities. Samantha played for Appalachian State’s Women's Soccer team and now works with Duke Women’s Soccer team as their Director of Operations. She is a dedicated Duke Basketball and Pittsburg Steelers fan but enjoys playing and watching many sports. Samantha has interned with a residential energy efficiency company and the NC Sustainable Energy Association, performing market research and analysis for clean energy projects in the southeast U.S.  In the future, Sam looks forward to implementing solutions for localized, distributed energy systems around the world.

Team Members


John A. Eliason (Legal Advisor)

John A. Eliason is a partner and business lawyer at Foley & Lardner LLP. He provides tax, legal, and business advice to financial institutions, equity investors, manufacturers, and project developers in the energy sector. Mr. Eliason regularly represents clients participating in wind, solar, and other renewable energy transactions that rely on tax and other federal and state incentives such as investment tax credits, production tax credits, bonus depreciation, and other government incentive programs. He helps clients maximize benefits available through the use of sale-leasebacks, flip partnerships, and other tax-driven structures. Mr. Eliason also regularly represents energy clients in front of both the Department of Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service.


Victoria A. Matese (Legal Advisor)

Tory Matese is an associate and business lawyer with Foley & Lardner LLP. She practices general corporate and business law, with an emphasis on mergers and acquisitions and corporate governance matters. Ms. Matese is a member of the Transactional & Securities Practice. She is also a member of the Sports Industry Team and the Energy Industry Team. Ms. Matese assists clients in negotiating and drafting corporate organizational documents and business transaction documents, such as stock purchase agreements, asset purchase agreements, merger agreements, license agreements, security agreements and related documents.

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Kurt Rempe (Legal Advisor)

Kurt Rempe is an associate and business lawyer with Foley & Larder LLP where he focuses on energy and tax law. Kurt regularly represents clients in tax equity investments in renewable energy projects and with energy regulatory matters related to the electric industry. Kurt's tax experience extends to structuring tax equity transactions to finance solar, wind, fuel cell and biomass projects. Kurt's energy regulatory experience extends to transmission service and interconnection agreements, power purchase agreements, open access requirements, market-based rates, exempt wholesale generator and qualifying facility certification, sales and acquisitions of electric generation assets, and hydroelectric licensing.