What’s your job title?
I’m president of SmartPower.
What does your organization do?
SmartPower is a national nonprofit marketing campaign that promotes the use of clean, renewable energy as a safe, readily available alternative to coal, oil, and other limited sources of power. In short, we’re the “Got Milk” people for wind, solar, and hydro power — we’re broadening the base of clean-energy consumers to include people in all walks of life.
How does it relate to the environment?
SmartPower represents the next step in environmental activism, because we are creating a strong, robust market for clean, renewable energy. We think the altruistic argument for clean energy was made — and won — long ago. We need to now convince Americans that clean energy is real. Quite frankly, to achieve true energy independence, clean energy is a workable, available, and viable alternative to coal and fossil-fuel-based energy.
Americans need to know that our country already produces enough clean energy from sun, wind, and water to power every hospital and every sports stadium in America — and every factory in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. It’s basic supply and demand. Increased demand for clean energy will increase the supply that power companies will provide. But the demand has yet to meet the supply. Clean energy hasn’t yet found its “tipping point.”
What are you working on at the moment? Any major projects?
We are constantly working to market clean energy to people who don’t consider themselves environmentalists, who don’t think about these issues on a regular basis. To that end, we have just recently completed some groundbreaking market research, and we’ve created a series of television, radio, and newspaper advertisements that talk directly to the average consumer.
And we’re also constantly working to get cities and towns to sign up for our 20 percent by 2010 Challenge. In short, we ask cities and towns across the nation to lead by example by purchasing 20 percent clean energy by 2010. Already the capital cities of Connecticut and Rhode Island have signed up — and close to 30 other cities and towns have joined them!
How do you get to work?
I take the subway to my office. I also drive a hybrid car.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
With a degree in communications and political science from American University in Washington, D.C., my career has basically been in nonprofit management and politics — two fields that require a deep focus on messaging and marketing. From my work on the Paul Tsongas for President Campaign to the nonpartisan Concord Coalition, I learned that the key to selling complicated and difficult-to-understand issues is simply through good messaging and good marketing.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born the 10th of 11 children in Boston and grew up in Needham, a town just outside of Boston. Needham is a wonderful place to grow up — basically our own version of “Mayberry.”
I now live in Washington, D.C., with my wife and our 2-year-old daughter, Karenna (who will become a big sister in late September!).
What’s been the best moment in your professional life to date?
Helping Tsongas win 10 primaries across the country after all the political “big feet” wrote him off. He went from a joke candidacy to the only one left standing to Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. That was an amazing feat!
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
The biggest frustration continues to be the constant lack of understanding of clean energy among everyday Americans — from the guy next door all the way up to the White House. Clean energy does work; it is as strong as coal and oil, and in order to use it, you don’t have to change your lifestyle or commit yourself to some “cause.” And yet, the misconceptions about clean energy are everywhere.
In order to succeed, environmentalists need to adopt a market-oriented message, not a moral one, that makes more Americans aware of their realistic energy options. Until this happens, a tiny minority of Americans will continue to drive energy policy (or the lack of one!) in Washington.
Who is your environmental hero?
Tsongas. He had a smart, no-nonsense approach to the environment — and he made a huge difference for generations to come.
As an organization, I’d say the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston. Under the leadership of Doug Foy, these folks represent the maturation of the environmental movement.
Read any good books lately?
I just finished reading two manuscripts: The first, called Nora Collins, was written by my mother-in-law, Kem Knapp Sawyer; it’s a great story about an Irish immigrant girl. And the other, called Impossible Dreams and written by my brother-in-law Steve Walkowicz, is about a young girl in 1967 who has a passion for the Boston Red Sox and baseball. Both are incredible books and will sell out quickly once they get publishers!
What’s your favorite meal?
That’s easy — my mother’s homemade spaghetti sauce or my father’s “secret recipe” French fries.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
We have a hybrid car. I like not producing so much smog, but it’s the “smug” that drives me nuts.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
Home with my wife and daughter. We don’t really refer to it as an “ecosystem,” but it’s definitely my favorite place!
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
I’d have the U.S. commit to buying 20 percent clean, renewable energy by 2010. Our electric grid would become diversified, and we’d really be on our way to true energy independence.
Who was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?
The Boss, Bruce Springsteen. Always was. Always will be.
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Buy clean energy for your home or business and get your town to commit to 20 percent clean energy by 2010 by going to www.SmartPower.org.
How can I power my home with clean energy? — Gail Stanwyck, San Francisco, Calif.
Log onto the SmartPower website, scroll down to your state, and learn about the different ways you can start using clean energy. In some states, it’s as easy as checking off a box on your utility bill. In others, there are incentives for installing solar photovoltaics on your home. And in still other circumstances, you can buy “clean-energy tags” that allow you to support the clean-energy industry.
How can you evaluate a clean-energy company to determine if they are actually producing new clean energy? — Joan Ray, Camden, Maine
We stand behind Green-e as the “Good Housekeeping seal of approval” for clean energy. Green-e is a certification program run by the Center for Resource Solutions in California, and they regularly certify various clean-energy products.
What is your response to people who make the argument that alternative energy sources such as wind turbines cause visual pollution in addition to increasing mortality rates of birds, bats, etc.? — Adam Bunger, Syracuse, N.Y.
I’d first validate their concerns. The fact is that even a wind farm has an environmental footprint. And we believe that we should make sure that when we build a power plant — any power plant — be it coal, oil, gas, nuclear, or even a wind or solar “power plant” — we do everything in our power to mitigate the damage these power plants can do to the environment.
With that understanding, I’d then lead people through a discussion about which power plant has the least damaging environmental footprint. Is it coal? No. Is it oil? No. Is it nuclear? No. Is it wind or solar? You bet it is!
More birds and bats die every year from oil spills than are ever injured in a wind farm. To me, it’s a no-brainer. And presented with the proper respect and understanding, I think those people who are legitimately concerned about the mortality rates of birds and bats will see that clean, renewable energy is the best solution.
What industry would you say is going to grow the most as a result of everyone waking up and transitioning away from fossil fuel? — Flavia Pollack, San Jose, Calif.
If only I had a crystal ball … I would venture to say that it’s probably safe to bet on all clean, renewable-energy technologies. The reality is that fossil fuels are just becoming too costly. As a nation, we are going to have to increase our “energy portfolio.” In order to do that, we’ll need to take advantage of all various kinds of clean energy available to us.
I would, however, offer a caution about nuclear power. Nuclear power is not a clean, renewable energy. And even though nuclear power does not contribute directly to global climate change, the radioactive waste it leaves behind — combined with the security threats that a nuclear power plant presents — make it a technology that we should be striving to grow away from, not embracing. After all, why risk it with nuclear power when wind, solar, and hydropower are real and working?
What do you see as a solution to bring clean energy technologies to the urban centers of the country and use it as a vehicle to help the poor be participants in the use of clean energy? — Qadwi Bey, Cleveland, Ohio
We are working aggressively to bring clean energy into our country’s urban centers. In fact, our 20 percent by 2010 campaign is designed specifically to get cities and other urban areas to be the true leaders in making our country energy independent. By committing to use 20 percent of their energy from clean, renewable energy, cities and towns are leading by example and helping to build a true clean-energy marketplace. Already, urban areas such as Hartford, Conn., Providence, R.I., and Worcester, Mass. have committed to 20 percent clean energy by 2010.
Through our partnership with the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund, we have also been part of a special program rewarding cities for committing to the 20 percent goal — when 100 residents sign up for the residential switching program, the city gets a free solar array. It’s an incredible program and has really helped make clean energy real.
How did you arrive at “20 percent by 2010” as a goal? — Sally Mattison, Narberth, Pa.
Our interest is in building a strong, robust clean-energy marketplace. To do that, we are seeking to make clean energy a larger piece of our nation’s energy portfolio. In other words, we are not saying that our nation must use 100 percent clean energy tomorrow. Indeed, it would be somewhat irresponsible to say that — kind of like suggesting to someone to put all their money into one stock. We are looking to diversify the energy portfolio. And 20 percent clean energy by 2010 would represent a major step in the right direction.
What’s more, when we approach a city or town to purchase 20 percent clean energy by 2010, we must recognize the parameters within which these institutions work. So asking for “just” 20 percent within the next four years makes for a very reasonable, achievable, and yet significant goal.
I’m in Connecticut and get clean energy through Community Energy. It costs more than dirty energy, and I think this impedes many people from signing up. How do we confront the cost issue? — Steve Sellery, Rocky Hill, Conn.
Your question feeds directly into the theory that is SmartPower and why the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund helped create us in the first place. In short, it’s simple supply and demand. If we can get enough people to actually buy clean energy like you’re doing, then the price will come down. So get your friends and neighbors to sign up for Connecticut’s clean-energy options, and help build the clean-energy market.
What are some of the market-oriented or common-sense messages that we might use in order to convince our friends and neighbors of the necessity of buying into renewable-energy options even though it costs slightly more? — Steve Pincuspy, Chicago, Ill.
Great question! The reality is that our friends and neighbors need to know first and foremost that clean energy actually works! Believe it or not, most people know that clean energy is good for the environment. They know it’s good for public health and national security. They just don’t think it’s strong enough to actually keep the lights on at night or the heat on in the winter. That’s why our message to regular consumers is: “Clean energy. It’s real. It’s here. It’s working. Let’s make more!” (Check out our TV ads here.)
Also, we are seeing today that people are more and more moved by the concerns of energy independence. That’s why we’re now challenging people to declare their energy independence and buy clean energy.
Often when people talk about renewable energy, they talk about solar, wind, hydropower, and bio energy. Here in the Western U.S., there is one more viable renewable-energy source that often goes unmentioned: geothermal. Why doesn’t geothermal get the respect it deserves? — Andrew Fridley, Portland, Ore.
I know what you mean! The root of the problem is the harsh reality that all clean energy doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Wind, solar, and hydropower are still considered “alternative” types of energy that just can’t be relied on to power our world. That’s why we need an organization such as SmartPower to “market” clean energy to regular people the way Coca-Cola markets soda. If we do this right, I think increasingly you’ll start to see geothermal power — and all clean-energy technologies — getting more respect.
What are your thoughts regarding new (and existing) technologies to help reduce energy demand? — Philip Nostrand, Chatham, N.J.
Put another way, the cleanest energy you can use is the energy you don’t use! So you’re right on target: energy-efficiency measures must be part of our national discussion on clean energy.
The trick is to convince the consumer that using clean energy doesn’t require the “sacrifices” that so many identified with clean energy back in the 1970s. For that reason, we have initially “de-coupled” clean energy from any energy-efficiency message.
In certain markets, we are seeing an ability now to introduce an energy-efficiency message. And this fall, we are hoping to undertake an effort to find a “consumer friendly” message on energy efficiency that we can tie in with our clean-energy message.
How do you ensure that hydropower facilities are not damaging river ecosystems at the same time they are producing renewable energy? — Eric Hammerling, Simsbury, Conn.
Good point. We specifically are supporting what is commonly referred to as “small hydro.” That is, hydropower that is less harmful to the environment and less damaging to river ecosystems.
The government here is considering using more nuclear power plants. How can we persuade them to use the water that surrounds us to create power? — Soo Chalk, Cleethorpes, U.K.
We’re seeing this in the U.S., too. The nuclear power industry is getting renewed traction these days. In large part, this traction is being spurred on by well-meaning environmentalists. After all, if your biggest concern is global climate change brought on by greenhouse gases, then nuclear presents itself as a good solution.
I think what we have to do is show our leaders — both in the U.S. and the U.K. — that there is a huge demand for clean, renewable energy, but not nuclear. The market forces can lead this fight, and that’s what we’re trying to do. If people demand clean energy, you can bet the power suppliers will make more clean energy!
How do we move “green” from being trendy to being popular? — Josh Ellis, Chicago, Ill.
I think much of your concern is based on the message. We have found that words such as “green” and “alternative” do not resonate with a majority of Americans. In our consumer research, we have seen that for many people, “green power” represents a political party or even a lawn service! It doesn’t speak to them about clean, renewable energy. Similarly, “alternative energy” conjures up a lifestyle choice that many people either don’t feel comfortable with or simply doesn’t include them.
We seek to create a common language on clean energy that speaks to people who do not see themselves as necessarily committed to a “cause,” but rather are looking for a product that will provide the energy they need in their daily lives.
Why do new home buyers, particularly in sunny regions, not automatically add solar to their new house and roll it into the mortgage? — Aaron Westgate, Snowmass, Colo.
This is a great point and something that we are very much looking to push. New home construction could easily include solar photovoltaics, and to many home buyers, this would be an incentive to buy — akin to granite countertops or central air conditioning. The key is a marketing campaign such as SmartPower that markets these homes to the builders, the sellers, and the buyers. If we can do that, then we’ll really start seeing some movement in the distributed generation market.